Nitzavim Vayelech | Why are words of encouragement so helpful to us?
We all need motivation in order to achieve our goals. Sometimes it might be elusive, but when we are motivated, we are able to accomplish so much more. And finding motivation begins with a belief in what we are trying to achieve – that our goals have an important purpose and that we really want to achieve them. And even then, once that is established, there are still many obstacles that can block our desire to get the job done.
One of these obstacles is the feeling of being overwhelmed – that a task just seems too difficult to accomplish. We can become so overwhelmed with the magnitude of the challenge that we step back and say this is just too difficult. This week’s parsha, Nitzavim-Vayeilech, is the final Shabbos before Rosh Hashanah. It comes with such powerful words of encouragement that are so crucial as we approach Rosh Hashanah, because these overwhelming feelings have the potential to engulf us.
We all want to become better, we all want to improve. We want to repent, do more mitzvot and make sure that in the year ahead, we reach even higher levels and dig deep to become even greater in terms of what Hashem wants from us. But then those overwhelming feelings return – are we really able to become better or reach higher levels? Is the goal within our grasp?
Let’s look at the words of encouragement in this week’s parsha, Nitzavim – the first of the double parsha. In chapter 30 verse 11, it says: “Because this mitzvah which I command you today... is not something which is wondrous … It’s not far from you. It is not in the heavens that you should say, ‘who will go to the heavens and fetch it for us?’ And it is not across the oceans that you will say, ‘who will cross the oceans and bring it to us?’ Because this matter is very close to you – in your mouth and in your heart to do.” In other words, the ability to perform this mitzvah is much more achievable than we may think.
Some of the commentators, among them Rashi, imply that this refers to mitzvot in general. The Ramban, however, says that it is specifically referring to the mitzvah of teshuvah – repentance – which is referred to in the verses before. In the same chapter, in verse 2, it says: “You shall return to the L-rd your G-d and listen to His voice with everything that I command you today – you and your children – with all your heart and with all your soul.” According to the Ramban, this is the source for the mitzvah of teshuvah, of repentance. And then it follows on and says – but don’t think this mitzvah of repentance is beyond you, it’s something that you can achieve.
What the Ramban is teaching us here is profound. If you think about the mitzvah of teshuvah, its very essence is connected to the concept of return. In English, we translate the mitzvah of teshuvah as “repentance”, but it’s actually so much more than this. The word teshuvah comes from the Hebrew word “lashuv” – “to return”. The source for this mitzvah, according to the Ramban, is in this week’s parsha, where it says: “You shall return to the L-rd your G-d.”
What does the term “return” mean here? It means that we are returning to our true essence. We are going back to who we really are, and that connects to the verse: “Because this matter is very close to you.” The Torah and its mitzvot are not beyond us. Serving Hashem and becoming a better Jew are achievable goals. Doing teshuvah – which is really what Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are all about – is within our grasp.
And this is such a hopeful idea. It gives us the motivation to continue on this path; it affirms for us that this is natural to who we are – this is our essence. And this is embedded in the word “teshuvah”, which is so inadequately translated in English as “repentance”. That’s what Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are all about, when we talk about the Ten Days of Repentance – the “Aseret Yemei Teshuvah”. The Ten Days of Repentance begin with Rosh Hashanah and end with Yom Kippur. And this week’s parsha is the perfect preparation for it.
Let’s take a step back and try to understand why teshuvah is so well within our reach. The Torah is telling us – and Hashem is promising us – that this matter is very close to us. It is in our mouths and in our hearts – it comes naturally to us, even if, at times, it feels far from natural. We know that our sages speak about the yetzer tov and the yetzer hara – the inclination for good and the inclination for bad – corresponding to the part of us that brings us closer to Hashem and the part of us that takes us further away from Hashem. How do we understand that? Is it natural or is it unnatural?
This parsha implies that this is natural. The very term “return” implies that it is natural, because in order to return to something, we must have had the potential to stray from it. There is a very powerful phrase in the Book of Mishlei (Proverbs), where, in chapter 10 verse 8, it says: “The wise of heart will take mitzvot.” A major theme in Mishlei is that of wisdom versus instinct. What does that mean? G-d has created us in such a way that He took a soul and He sent it down into this world and He put it into a body with physical desires. So human beings have both physical and emotional aspects that pull us in a certain direction. The physical forces within us push us to seek physical gratification and physical pleasure. The emotional forces within us seek emotional gratification and pleasure. But then there is wisdom, chochma, which is our innate ability to ascertain what is right and what is wrong – what our true purpose and mission is, what we were sent to this world to do. There’s a tussle between the two. When our sages talk about the yetzer hara, they mean an inclination towards negativity. It doesn’t mean there is something intrinsically evil in us – rather, it is the part of us that draws us to instinct. The yetzer tov, the good inclination, is the part of us that draws us to wisdom.
The Torah is the model of Hashem’s wisdom, guiding us through life. We are constantly in a struggle between body and soul, between wisdom and instinct. What is so important to remember – and what our parsha is reminding us – is that deep down, underneath that instinct, is our neshoma, our soul, and that’s who we really are. That is our essence – and until we satisfy our soul and the spiritual dimension of the purpose of our own creation, we will never feel true satisfaction and happiness in this world. If we give in to instinct, we will have moments of gratification, but they will never lead to deep satisfaction. Satisfaction only comes from living a life of wisdom, because it is in keeping with the essence of who we are.
That’s what the parsha means by the phrase “it is close to you”. It’s in our neshoma. It doesn’t get any closer than that! We are not our bodies, we are our souls. And that’s what repentance is all about. It’s a return to the very essence of who we are. It is a return to our very nature. “The wise of heart” in Mishlei is really saying that we should live life in such a way that we should inculcate the force of wisdom into everything that we do, says the Malbim, in the way that we live and the way that we think and the way that we feel – until it becomes natural to us. When we can put this wisdom into our hearts, when we can make it part of our natural desires – for what we want in this world – then we get that much closer to achieving our goals. And that comes from a lifetime of work, constantly striving for wisdom and bringing that sense of wisdom into who we are. That’s what the verse means when it says a wise person will seek out mitzvot.
So our parsha is reminding us of the beauty of the mitzvot and that they frame our every dimension. Hashem has created a system of wisdom that gives expression to our physical needs, to our emotional needs, to our intellectual needs, to the totality of who we are. All of this is given expression in the Torah – but it is in this framework of wisdom and with purpose. It’s not that the Torah seeks to smother and to crush our physical desires and our emotional and intellectual needs. Rather, it brings that all together in a system of wisdom that can help us to achieve good deeds and help us to fulfil our ultimate Divine mission. Then everything will be in sync – in harmony with G-d’s will and with the true essence of who we are. And this goal is not beyond us, it is within us – which is the most inspiring motivation of all. The parsha says our goals are not beyond our grasp – they are so incredibly close to us – nothing can be closer. May these words of encouragement in this week’s parsha embolden us as we prepare for Rosh Hashanah.
Good Shabbos to all and ketiva v’chasima tova – may we be sealed for a good and sweet new year.