With Rosh Hashanah only a few days away, the Torah annually brings us the poetic words of Parshat Nitzavim on the Shabbat prior to the New Year. Central to this Torah portion is the idea of teshuva, return, which is also at the heart of the High Holiday season. “You will return your hearts to God,” says Moses. “You will return to the Lord your God and you will listen to His voice… you and your children, with all your heart and all your soul. Then the Lord will restore your fortunes and take you back in love.” (Deut. 30:1-3)
What, though, does this return really entail? What does it mean to return to God?
Returning implies that we have been here before. One cannot return to someplace one has never been. So when we say we are returning to God, we really imply that we have been with God before, and that we are restoring a relationship that once existed. This is an important Jewish idea, one which I learned from my teacher Rabbi Avi Weiss: While on Rosh Hashanah we commemorate the creation of the world, it is not a day of newness, it is not a day of firsts. Instead Rosh Hashanah is a day of seconds, a day of repeating, a day of returning.
In the story of Noah, the Torah relates (Gen. 8:13) that Noah left the ark on the first of the month. But it doesn’t specify which month. The commentators on the Talmud interpreted the Torah to mean that Noah left the ark on the first of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah. Why? Because Noah was engaging in the re-creation, the second creation, of the world. And the major difference between Noah’s experience and that of Adam and Eve is that Noah carried with him a memory of what had come before. Unlike Adam and Eve, who were placed on the earth, Noah and his family returned to the earth after a period of separation.
In our society, and especially in the university environment, we give honor and prestige to innovators, people who think of that which has never been thought, who “boldly go where no man has gone before.” And while this is important, it is precisely the opposite of the ethos of Rosh Hashanah and the value of teshuva. Returning means going back over our memories, reviewing our actions and our relationships, and reliving them so that we may repair them. It is not about leaving the past behind, but instead about repairing the past. That is the miraculous power and possibility of teshuva–that the past is not frozen, but is always in dialogue with the present and the future.
So when we say that between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we are returning to God, what we mean is that we are opening ourselves up to another dimension. It is a dimension beyond time and space, in which past and future are an open book. In this divine dimension we can set right that which has gone wrong, and can re-experience the sense of wholeness and unconditional embrace that lies deep in our souls. As Moses says, “For it is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.” (Deut. 30:14) May we all find that place to return to this year.