-Nitzavim & Vayelech
Parshat Nitzavim and Vayelech are read every year right around Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, as Moshe shares with the Jewish people his heartfelt words about returning Hashem no matter how far we have drifted, and how Hashem is always there to “have mercy on you” and “gather you in”.
It is interesting to note that the word for repentance is Teshuva which means “returning”, as if we going back to a place that we have already once been. No matter what we are working on, whether it is to clean up bad behavior or strive to new spiritual heights, it is always a process of returning.
This is because, in truth, we are really not creating anything new. We are returning to a place deep inside us that constantly drives us to reach our potential and be a better person. And when we get there, we discover that it really isn’t new at all. It feels like we belong, that this is really who we are.
Teshuva begins by identifying the areas of life that are the most challenging for us. The great Rabbi Tzadok HaCohen of Lublin was well-known for his teaching that the areas that a person struggles most, those are the areas that he is destined for greatness if he chooses to put in the effort. This is the time of year when we decide which of our struggles are we ready to not only work on, but to transform them and elevate them to a place of holiness.
If we look deeply at the areas that we constantly struggle, we can come to understand new aspects of our personality; what triggers us to act in this way, what are the necessary steps to avoid confrontation with the issue and how to shake off the dust after we have fallen. The struggle itself becomes our threshold to a higher spiritual awareness, a meeting point between us and the Almighty. And, sometimes, we discover that the weakness itself is the key to discovering our greatness.
One of the most amazing examples of this can be found in the beginning of the Book of Yehoshua. As the Jewish nation is gearing up to enter the Land of Israel, Joshua sends two spies to scout out the land. We don’t necessarily know why but, we assume, it is in order to assess the mood of the land. They decide to lodge at the home of a famous prostitute known as Rachav, an interesting decision but, we assume, that since the house of Rachav was a place where the aristocrats of the land spent their leisure time, this was, presumably, a hot spot to really get a sense of the mood of the land.
As the evening progresses, the King of Jericho finds out that there are Jewish spies in town and sends guards to the house of Rachav to get rid of them. Rachav saves the spies by sending the guards on a wild goose chase and then requests that in return, she and her entire household should be saved when the Jewish nation enters to conquer the land.
The Rachav that we observe in the story doesn’t seem to fit the part of what we would imagine. Our Sages teach us that Rachav’s home was the location for all 31 kings of the land to go when they wanted to indulge, and that Rachav would never turn down a client. That seems to be a woman that most of us would not want our children exposed to! And yet, when Rachav speaks to the spies, we hear the voice, not of an immoral wild woman but of some one who has a deep recognition of God and a deep desire to join the Jewish people.
Furthermore, our Sages tell us that after this encounter with these spies Rachav did a complete Teshuva, became the wife of none other than Yehoshua bin Nun, reached a level of prophecy and became the mother of many prophets. How do we understand this?
The commentaries let us in on a much deeper understanding of that story. Rachav wasn’t just a strategic location for the spies to learn about the land, she was the very reason they came. Yehoshua and the spies knew of Rachav and understood that her immodest ways was an untamed and uncontrolled usage of a tremendous potential, a flame of holiness burning inside of her. They saw the a future Jewish leader inside of her, a woman who deeply cared for others, who had endless space in her heart for people- as her name Rachav, which means a wide space, indicates- but at that time had not yet discovered how to use her gift. And they knew that the Jewish people, who had fallen in the desert into the trap of immorality would need a leader who came from that world and overcame it, to provide them with the inspiration to resist the temptations of the land they were about to enter and conquer.
The story of Rachav teaches us that we can never profile another person or ourselves based on the poor decisions of the past. But rather to look deep inside to what might have caused those decisions and see how that source of energy can be used for purity. So often the very same traits that are causing us to sin, can be the traits that will lead us to greatness.
Elul is a time to get to know ourselves. To ask ourselves why we have made the decisions that we made. What really drives us? What is our Neshama really saying? And use that foundation to rebuild and to achieve greatness.