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D'var Torah by Dr. Kalman Stein, Head of School

Dr. Kalman Stein, Head of School

Dear Hebrew Academy Community:

Near the end of Nitzavim we read four beautiful, poetic Pesukim (which, by the way, Avraham Fried turned into a beautiful song) which translate to: For the Mitzvah I command you today is neither hidden nor distant from you. It is not in the heavens so that you would say: “Who will ascend for us to heaven and bring it to us so that he can tell it to us and we can observe it?” Nor is it beyond the sea so that you will say: “Who will cross the sea for us and bring it to us so that he can tell it to us and we can observe it?” But rather this thing (this commandment) is very close to you so that you can observe it in your mouth and in your heart. (Look at it in a Chumash—it’s much more poetic in the original). 

What exactly is “the Mitzvah I command you today?” Ramban believes that this Mitzvah about which we read each year on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah is the Mitzvah of Teshuva (Repentance). The phrase “that you can observe it in your mouth and in your heart—בפיך ובלבבך לעשותו”--therefore, reflects that the Mitzvah of Teshuva calls upon us both to articulate our sins orally and internally, in our hearts, to truly regret our inappropriate actions and resolve to improve. 

When one thinks seriously about doing Teshuva, about engaging in sincere and introspective repentance, the task can seem so daunting that it leads to paralysis. It’s easy enough to bang on one’s chest, say על חטא and make resolutions. But when I think of the magnitude of the changes I ought to be making and remember solemnly promising to do so just twelve months ago (and twelve months before that and  ….) it becomes difficult to believe that I can do much more than go through the technical motions of the Teshuva process. 

Perhaps Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin’s, the Netziv’s, comment on the first words of Nizavim can help:  “Atem Nitzavim HaYom Kul’chem Lifnai Hashem Elokaichem: Rashaichem, Shivtaichem, Ziknaichem, V’Shotraichem, Kol Ish Yisrael—You are all standing, all of you, before your God: Your heads, your tribes, your elders, and your officers, all the men of Israel.” The Covenant was made with and in the presence of all of Israel, explained the Netziv, but the seemingly superfluous enumeration of the various groups of which the nation is composed, and particularly the concluding phrase,  “Kol Ish Yisrael—Every individual Jew,” demonstrates that the Covenant contains specific clauses, specific expectations from each of us as individuals. 

God understands humanity better than we understand ourselves. Unrealistic expectations are a human fault; divine expectations are never unrealistic. Hashem does not expect me to emerge from the Teshuva process totally transformed and suddenly on the level of the saintly. He expects me to grow from year to year. He expects change and improvement from each according to his/her nature and ability. If I choose one or two specific, concrete measures to improve my performance of ritual and interpersonal Mitzvot each year and really work to make those changes it will be a little easier next year to begin the process with the confidence that I can improve just a bit more.

Shabbat Shalom, Ketivah V’Chatima Tovah,

Dr. Kalman Stein
Head of School

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