30 Sep 2016

Nitsabim-Rosh HaShanah 5777: Bottoms Up

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“Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” — J.K. Rowling

As the time for entry into the Promised Land draws near, Moshe turns from speaking of nation building and instead casts his prophetic gaze deep into the future. He leaps over the years that the Israelites will live upon the land and focuses on the days when they will have been cast off of it. He speaks to them of their descendants’ final return after a long and taxing exile.

Now it shall be: when there come upon you all of these things, the blessing and the curse that I have set before you, and you take them to your heart among all the nations where God your Lord has thrust you away, and you will return to God your Lord…you and your children, with all your heart and all your being. (30:1-2)

God…will return to collect you from all the peoples wherein God your Lord has scattered you. If you be thrust away to the ends of the heavens, from there God your Lord will collect you, from there He will take you, and…bring you to the land that your fathers possessed…(30:3-5)

And you will return…. (30:8)

It is return that is the theme of his message, and it is assured.

However, his assurance of their return or teshuba is linked to a process that will unfold across generations. This final homecoming will not occur by mere logistics but through the painstaking maturation of the nation’s heart, which must first become sensitised and fully responsive to reality.

God your Lord will make vulnerable your heart…for the sake of your own life! (30:6)

[This means] God will open your eyes so that you may avoid mistakes that confuses the mind [and keep it] from the truth. When you strive to cling to Him…you will surely come to love Him. He will bring you to it for the sake of your life, always. (R. Ovadia Seforno, ibid.)

Moshe thus links this return to an awareness of existential reality — of life and death. In essence it is a true acceptance of what is good and viable — and a full relinquishing of harmful thoughts and behaviours.

See, I have set before you today life and good and death and ill…I call as witness before you today the heavens and the earth: life and death I place before you…now choose life! (30:15, 19)

Simply understanding or intellectually accepting truth is never sufficient to rectify the damage that falsehood creates. We must move from a reality that we know, to a reality that we live. For such a full teshuba to occur the heart must align with the mind and also become vulnerable and embrace reality. It must be transformed. More often than not this occurs not only by learning, but by events; by reality pressing upon us in some way that brings us to attention, making it more difficult for us to maintain our non-viable behaviours while carrying on with life.

The return to one’s truest and highest self and to God, is slow and complex;   it involves relinquishing habits and giving up comforts and securities, most of all by forfeiting self-deception.

The road to return is paved with disillusionment and it therefore includes struggle, sadness and pain. But it is also paved with epiphany and with that comes grace, love and joy. It is the path of Life itself, and its ultimate gift to us is that it awakens us from one level of consciousness to the next. When we awaken on any level, even if it is from our beds after a night’s sleep, if we are not yet ready to stir,  we are faced with choices.  We can seize the new opportunities that the day brings, or we can resent the wakeup call and protest it by going back to sleep.

Why though must this transition be so difficult? Why is Moshe telling the people early on that it is likely that the nation will hit considerable distresses and lows before reaching the heights? It seems that we learn invaluable lessons from the depths that we bring with us as a steady foundation for reaching the top. We truly see how far off course we were and that our life choices were unsustainable. We see the dysfunction clearly and know its effects. We gain humility by understanding that we are not in control of all we thought we were, and develop compassion for others who are struggling and in despair. We move from superficial fixes for our lives, to substantial rectifications. Most importantly, we become grateful for God’s care in bringing us to a stronger, fuller and more meaningful existence.

Reading Nitsabim before Rosh HaShanah prepares us not only to hear the awakening call of the shofar but to know its meaning and build it into our preparations for the day.

Happy is the nation who knows terua (the sound of the shofar) (Psalms, 89:16)

We know that the shofar is not only calling us to attention but that it is calling us to love our own lives and to diligently do all we can to build them upon the firm foundation of truth[1], to solidify our return.

We have struggled as a nation, but we have persevered. When faced with challenges we chose to awaken and open our eyes, not to give in to the death of eternal slumber. Each of us inherits this strength from our forebears and within our souls lies an immense power to rise like lions and face the day.

Tizku LeShanim Rabot!

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Joseph Dweck

[1] See Mishne Torah, Teshuba, 3:4 – Although sounding the shofar on Rosh HaShanah is a biblical decree, it hints as if to say: ‘Wake up! Wake up! Sleeping ones from your slumber. Awaken from your stupor and search your deeds, come back in Teshuba!, remember your Creator; these [are the ones who] forget the truth within the futilities of time….’


Parasha Perspectives

VIII  Nitzavim

Rosh HaShanah Day 1

Rosh HaShanah Day 2


VIII  Nitzavim
28a              Yisrael: Covenant and future  (29:9-28)
28b              Teshuva and return  (30:1-10)
28c               The Nature of the Command  (30:11-14)
28d              The Choice – Choose Life  (30:15-20)

Rosh HaShanah Day 1
Sepher 1 – Gen. 21:1-21:34 (Perashat Vayera)
19b              Avraham and Sara visit Gerar   (20:1-18)
19c               Yitzchak and Yishmael out   (21:1-21)
Birth of Yitzchak (21:1-8)
Second eviction of Hagar and Yishmael (21:9-21)
20                Covenant of Avraham and Avimelech (21:22-34)

Sepher 2 – Num., 29:1 – 29:6 (Perashat Pinehas)
83a              Yom Teruah (Rosh Hashanah) and its additional
offerings  (29:1-6)

I Samuel 1:1 – 2:10
The birth of Samuel the prophet and the prayer of his mother, Hannah.

Rosh HaShanah Day 2
Sepher 1 – Gen., 22:1 – 22:24 (Perashat Vayera)
21                Akeida: Binding of Yitzchak (22:1-19)
22                Avraham and brother have children (22:20-24)

Sepher 2 – Num., 29:1 – 29:6 (Perashat Pinehas)
83a              Yom Teruah (Rosh Hashanah) and its additional
offerings  (29:1-6)

Jer., 31:1 – 31:19
Ingathering of Exiles; Redemption of Jacob; God consoles Rachel over the mourning of her children; The awakening and return (Teshuba) of Ephraim.

                    Taken from, ‘Torah for Everyone’ by Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, Dean of LSJS