Rabbi Beth Janus delves into when to say when.
A married couple recently came to me. They were seeking divorce. The first years were lovely and happy for them, but now they were distressed and tense. They argued over their respective careers and raising the children. They even fought over the future of their marriage. One wanted to keep working, and the other was finished and just wanted to dissolve the marriage.
Another couple came to me to say their marriage also was not perfect. They have been married for much longer. They have arguments about the usual topics: money and child-rearing. But this couple was fully committed to the marriage. While acknowledging the imperfections, they would try to continue improving and evolving.
As we set our eyes to Rosh Hashanah, we read the Torah portion Nitzavim, which is about the vicissitudes of relationships. In these chapters, we read of the specific relationship between the Holy One and the Jewish people. Adonai is making a covenant with us. And to make sure that we know that the bond is alive, the text tells us that the covenant is for everyone who is there in the desert about to enter the Promised Land, and also for those who were not there. This covenant is for us, too.
But just in time for Rosh Hashanah, we read that this partnership will likely not be smooth. Probably some of us will be tempted to follow other traditions. Some of us will go against what we know is right. And this will infuriate Eloheinu, our God. However, right before these High Holidays, we are reminded every year that this need not be a permanent rupture of our sacred tie. We can return. We can make teshuvah (turn back to God) whenever we want. At every moment there is a choice, a moving together or a coming apart, and we have the option to pick one or the other.
Adonai is looking to the future, watching us pick the behaviors that pull us away — and letting us know that when we choose again and come back to that connection, Adonai will be waiting. And the Holy One will embrace us and every other soul that has returned. In a key verse in our portion, it says, “then Adonai your God will restore your fortunes and take you back in love. God will bring you together again from all the peoples where Adonai your God has scattered you” (Deuteronomy 30:3).
“Return” is the theme of Nitzavim and a major theme of the High Holidays. While this portion emphasizes the return of each of us individually and communally to God, it can also symbolize the many returns that are possible during this season. It can be the return to one’s career or personal life, to one’s spiritual life, the return of one partner to another or the return to Adonai.
The return to another person may be even more complex than the other types. Sometimes a return is not the best path. There are occasions, like in the case of the first couple, when parting is the smartest way forward. Knowing when returning to a relationship is in direct conflict to returning to one’s own heart can take time to discern.
There is a dispute in the Talmud about whether we need to turn back to God first (teshuvah) or whether God will turn back to us first (geulah). In other words, how does return happen? What needs to happen?
Nehama Leibowitz (1905-1997) points out in the verses of our Torah portion that there is a back-and-forth that occurs between Adonai and the Jewish people. We turn and heed God, and God rejoices in us. God grants us abundance, and we return “with all our heart and soul.”
This fundamental relationship between the Divine and the Jewish community can be a model for all change. When we are entrenched in conflict with spouses, children or co-workers, we often wish the other would make change and facilitate a coming together. But during this contemplative season, the onus is on each of us to do the turning. These turns can be dramatic, or they can also be slight. And the turning can be at any time. If we have consistently chosen moving away, the message is clear: we can still turn back.
In this season of teshuvah, may we all return to that which sustains us and know that God is always ready and waiting.
Rabbi Beth Janus educates and conducts life cycle ceremonies in the Philadelphia community.