There’s a beautiful Hasidic teaching that says there are five most important mitzvot in the entire Jewish tradition. The first is actually from this week’s portion:
Tamim tihiyeh. Be wholehearted with God. (Deuteronomy 18:13)
Shiviti Adonai.Always place God before you. (Psalms 16:8)
V’ahavta l’reiecha kamocha. Love your neighbor as yourself. (Leviticus 19:18)
B’chol drachecha da’eihu.Wherever you go, recognize God. (Proverbs 3:6)
Hatzneia lechet im Elohecha.Walk humbly with God. (Micah 6:8)
The first letter of each of those teachings — Tov, Shin, Vav, Vet, Heh — spell the Hebrew word, T’shuva, the Jewish concept of Return or Repentance.
This week we begin the month of Elul , the month in which we practice behaviors urging us to return to our holiest selves.
T’shuvah is a step-by-step process of re-engaging with our highest selves, of turning away from negative and destructive tendencies. T’shuvah means embracing that which is good in our nature. T’shuvah is a turning to the virtues of humility, gratitude, generosity, compassion, and loving-kindness.
The T’shuvah process often begins with a sense of despair, hopelessness, and sadness. In those moments we feel that we’re forever stuck and are unable to change the nature, character, or direction of our lives. The story is told of a young Jewish man named Meir, who had strayed from the Jewish faith. He came before Rabbi Israel of Ryzhyn. Rabbi Israel helped him to return to Judaism. A short time later Meir visited with the Rabbi. Rabbi Israel noticed he seemed dejected. “Meir,” my son, “What is troubling you?” asked Rabbi Israel. “If it is your past sins that are bothering you, remember that your repentance made up for everything.”
Meir replied, “Why should I not be troubled? I keep returning to my old ways over and over. How can I believe that G-d still loves me?”
Rabbi Israel touched his arm gently and said, “Just as it is our compulsion to sin again and again, so it is G-d’s way and divine compulsion to forgive and pardon again and again.”
T’shuvah is never easy. It calls for us to be strong of mind, heart, and soul, it calls for us to be willing to suffer failure. We fall, but have the courage to rise and recommit to our struggle — step-by-step, patiently, one day at a time, one hour at a time, and one moment at a time. Judaism rejects stagnation, pessimism, and cynicism. Our tradition urges us to overcome those impediments that prevent our personal transformation and the creation of a more hopeful future.
When successful, T’shuvah enables us to return to our truest selves and overcome the past for the sake of a better future. T’shuvah heals our state of fragmentation and returns us to the person G-d wants us to be.
Our parsha for this week contains commandments about our conduct in war. In Deuteronomy 20:19 we read, “When in your war against a city you have to besiege it for a long time to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, for are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?”
The 13th-century biblical commentator Ibn Ezra interpreted this verse not as a question, but as a statement: “For the human being is a tree of the field.” Which begs the question, “How is a human being like a tree of the field?” What does Ibn Ezra mean?
A gardener removes the excess wood from a tree in order to give the tree space, form and light. This strengthens the flow of nourishment to the central branches and gives the tree balance and beauty.
The process of teshuvah works the same way. T’shuvah is about removing the layers that distract, that entangle and that confuse us. T’shuvah is about getting rid of those aspects that block out the light of our true Self. T’shuvah is about creating harmony, wholeness and peace within the whole of our being.