Change isn’t easy. It has become cliche, but it’s evident whenever circumstances take a directional turn. Think about your last move or even your last spring cleaning. Did you pack up with dispassionate efficiency or did you reminisce as you looked at each piece of paper, book, or memento? Did you purge the old to make room for the new? What seemed like a straightforward process has now taken three times as much energy, and what’s worse, it feels as if you’ve taken steps back and not moved forward at all.
This week we read parshiyot Nitzavim and Vayelech, the two parshiyot that often surround the High Holy days. Parshat Nitzavim reminds us that we always have a choice in life and that the proper path is to repent, to follow the rules, and to generally be good people. Parshat Vayelech teaches us about Moshe’s process to transfer leadership to Joshua, and the final words he will share as the leader of the Israelite nation. Wedged within these words is the commandment of teshuvah, repentance.
The text informs us in chapter 30 that repentance is a mitzvah in its own right. God teaches that if we repent and open our hearts to understanding the wrong we have done and make actual effort to change, then God will bring us comfort, love, and wellbeing. The Torah presents repentance both as an obligation and as something innately human. But, it also understands that this act can be difficult. Chapter 30, verse 11 states, “Surely, this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.” The rabbis of the Talmud understood this verse as referring to the entire Torah. God is reminding us that while the laws might seem intricate and complicated, they are exactly within our reach.
The great Medieval commentator Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (RamBaN) narrows the focus of this verse to refer only to the laws of repentance. He teaches that it is difficult to break a bad habit, to fully repent, and to change one’s way of life. And yet, every day there are people who prove that it can be done. In fact, according to RamBaN, repentance is a lot like the give and take of packing. A midrash also offers us the metaphor of a mirror. The figure we see in the mirror seems to be twice as far from us as it really is. But with every step we take toward the mirror, the reflection takes a step toward us. So it is with repentance. Our goal seems so far off, but God says to us, “Take one step toward Me, and I will do the same and meet you halfway.”
In this season of repentance, we are reminded that life is a give and take. In order for this to work in any relationship, you must make the first move, the first step towards giving. Whether in regard to decluttering a space, mending existing relationships, or even getting through life day by day, meeting each other halfway can make all the difference in the world.