Deuteronomy 29:9 – 30:20
The first initiative towards repentance must come from man himself, but once a man begins the process, God will assist him in continuing.
This week’s portion includes Moses’ last speech to the nation before the final poem that is Chapter 32 and the blessings in Chapter 33. Chapter 30 is often referred to as the “Return” chapter, including, as it does, references to both a physical and spiritual return to God and the Land of Israel. But a close examination of the verses in this chapter reveals a confusing sequence of events.
The first verse of Chapter 30 sets the stage – the blessings and curses have already come to pass. The Nation of Israel has already settled in the Land and enjoyed its blessings, but has also sinned and been exiled, and the land has been decimated, as predicted in Chapter 28. At this point, there will be a return to God, a repentance that is initiated by the people themselves. In the first verse, God promises that “you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you.” The actual Hebrew phrase for “call them to mind” is literally, “return to your heart.” Using the same word “return” that will figure so prominently in this chapter, the stage is set for an introspection, a reminder of the blessings and the curses and the covenant set forth in chapter 28. The second verse is clearer: “And return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul.” The initial awakening will bring in its wake repentance, a return to God.
The following verses speak of a physical return – God will return the people of Israel from their exile among the nations to the Land of Israel. But verse 6 goes back to a more spiritual return:
And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. (Deuteronomy 30:6)
This verse, in fact, raises a number of questions: If the entire process begins with a spiritual return, as noted in the first two verses of the chapter, what does this return signify? And if the initial return is initiated by the people themselves, why does God have to get involved and help the return along with the circumcision of the heart mentioned in verse 6?
A number of classical commentaries interpreted this set of verses as indicating that the first initiative towards repentance must come from man himself, but once a man begins the process, God will assist him in continuing the process. Nachmanides, a 15th century Spanish Jewish commentator, took this idea further. He noted that these verses had not yet come to pass, that they refer to a Messianic age. He believed that the initial spiritual return would bring about the physical return that the Messiah would herald and, at that point, the human inclination towards good and obedience to God’s commandments would become natural. The circumcision of the heart refers to a supernatural event that will return man to the state of Adam in the Garden of Eden before the first sin. Nachmanides quoted Jeremiah 31:32* [Jeremiah 31:33] and Ezekiel 36:26-27, both of which refer to a change of heart that will bring the nation closer to God and to His commandments.
In recent years, commentators have taken a new look at these scriptures in light of the development of modern Zionism and the subsequent establishment of the State of Israel. The physical return noted in verses 3-5 has indeed taken place. But what of the spiritual return? Did that precede the physical return? And what of the fact that the main motivation behind the Zionist movement was secular, deriving from a need to solve the horrors of anti-Semitism, to provide a safe haven for the Jewish people. Indeed, most of the early Zionist pioneers were atheists!
Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook was probably the most influential of the early Zionist rabbis. He believed that while the declared motivation of the Zionist pioneers was secular, it actually derived from a deep spiritual core, a seeking of the soul itself for a return to God and to His Land. He believed that the strong desire of these pioneers to rebuild an independent nation in the Land of Israel and the reconnection of so many of them with the Bible was actually a spiritual event, despite their protests to the contrary.
Perhaps therefore, these verses can be seen as referring to the process that is currently happening in Israel. The original return is a subtle one. It is a beginning, but not a complete return. It is a return to God, but not necessarily a conscious return, for there is no change of heart. But God picks up on this initiative in order to return us physically to our land. But the final return to God takes place once we are in the Land – only then will there be a circumcision of the heart and a total return to His ways.
Of course, there were always Religious Zionists who felt the stirring to return to the Land as part and parcel of a spiritual return to God, Jews who had always obeyed the commandments and prayed fervently for a return to Zion and Jerusalem. And perhaps it is the presence of these religious Jews in the land, alongside the secular, that is enabling the final spiritual return to take place. And that return is happening, daily, as more and more secular Jews seek out their traditions and their roots, as more Bible study is taking place in Israel than ever before. It is unclear how long the process will take, how long it will be before verse 6 is fulfilled. But we pray daily and fervently for God to bring His promises to total fulfillment, as quickly as possible.
*Jeremiah 31:33 is Jeremiah 31:32 in the Jewish Bible.
Vayelech (And He (Moses) Went)
The Bible says that the stranger within our gates should be invited and we wanted to make sure our modern-day, loving “strangers” were included as well.
Deuteronomy 31:11-12 records a very special commandment:
You shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. Assemble the people, men, women, and little ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear and learn.
At the end of the seven year cycle, at the close of the Sabbatical year, all of Israel is to gather during the Feast of Tabernacles and hear the Torah read aloud. It was customary for the King of Israel to read selected verses from the Torah. What an impressive gathering it must have been!
Many years ago, when I first came to Israel, my family was present at the renewal of this custom. We had small children and we brought them all, so that we could fulfill the complete spirit of this message. Thousands gathered at the Western Wall, the closest we could get to where the Temple once stood, and the President of Israel, then Chaim Herzog, read aloud from the Torah. The Chief Rabbis and other dignitaries were present. It was indeed an awesome experience.
Every seven years since then the ceremony has taken place. The last time was several years ago, during the height of the Intifada. At that time, a few of us who were involved with Christian supporters of Israel, decided to hold a parallel event which would welcome Christians to this very special occasion. The Bible says that the stranger within our gates should be invited and we wanted to make sure our loving “strangers” were included. The event was in English and hundreds were there. Just as the prayers were closing, the Mosque began its call to prayer, blasting out its sounds as if to drown us out. But many had brought shofars and at that very moment, began blowing them with such gusto. It was indeed a memorable event.
Once again, I will close my comments with a prayer for the temple to be rebuilt and become, once again, a focus for prayer for the entire world. “For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” (Isaiah 56:7)
Director, Israel Office