Returning to our Roots

This week’s portion is one of the shortest portions in the Torah, but it is full of richness and although it is just one chapter, it is an extract of the human experience, summarized in a prophecy in the form of a song. This Shabbat which falls between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of Return or Repentance. The Haftarah portion from the prophets Micah and Hoshea also displays themes of repentance, penance and man’s reconciliation with God.

The idea of Shuvah, Return, depicts the distance in the opposite direction from our roots and then back to the point of origin. This reflects the human voyage.  When we are born, we come from the Creator’s dwelling place, to which we will one day return, but while we are still in this body, distancing ourselves from our origins is very easy, especially due to the many worries of daily life, and thus we lose the realization of the distance.

At the beginning of Haazinu (Listen), Moshe calls the earth and the heavens as witnesses, two elements that have the characteristic of being “durable” over time; witnesses of the words that he will pronounce next. Then Moshe exclaims that the Torah is eternal and just as dew brings life to vegetation, so the Torah produces life in us and affirms a truth incomprehensible to human logic, in that what is good and just comes from God, and that the corruption stems from human beings (His children) who are ungrateful and lack wisdom. We can summarize these words with “God is good no matter our situation”.

He continues calling on the children of the Eternal to analyze their history from the Tower of Babel (where the peoples were divided) and how God protected Israel, the apple of His eye, in the desert and during our stay in Egypt, emphasizing that the Eternal guided and protected us during this period. Then he speaks about the future of the Israelites, indicating the problem that abundance can generate. He prophesies that when Israel becomes fat, she rebels against her Creator, leading to her almost destruction. He calls for the entire world to be wise and understand that if the Divine Presence is not with Israel, and she falls into disgrace as a result of her actions, he makes it clear to all nations that the gods in which Israel put their trust could never save them, nor help them, nor heal them nor give them life. This will lead them to conclude that there is only ONE God who saves Israel.

The song continues with the Eternal redirecting His anger toward the enemies of Israel, and the nations that witness these events will sing His praises. He ends by describing that this song was taught by Joshua and Moshe to the people, and Moshe again implores them: “Pay close attention to this: it is not an empty teaching; it is our life, and with it, we will live long on the land.” Then the Eternal makes Moshe climb Mount Nebo to enjoy the view of the Earth before passing away.

This song calls us to remember how important it is to return to God, especially at Yom Kippur. It is not that Yom Kippur is the only day in which we can do teshuvah; teshuvah is constant throughout the year, but on Yom Kippur, the entire house of Israel is focused upon her Return, which generates an optimal energy and atmosphere to raise our prayers to the Heavens and be reconciled with Him.

Moshe mentions certain mistakes for which we must repent; here are a few:

First: We do not attribute greatness to the Eternal (32:3) and often use the Divine Name to express emotion or action, simply not realizing how sacred His name is. Expressions like “Oh, God! or Oh My God!,” are spoken in daily life, without thinking about what we are saying.

Second: (32:4) We question whether God is just and faithful, whether He is right in “His actions or not” based upon our perceptions, prejudices and ideas. For example, if God allows a job to be taken from me, is God still good? Is He still fair? If others accuse me of doing something I didn’t do, is He still a good God? We often play the victim to the Eternal. I remember a story in which there was a very poor farmer who was given a cow. The cow provided him with milk, entertainment and above all company. However, one night, some rustlers stole onto his property and killed his cow. The next day, when the farmer realized what had happened, he complained to Heaven: “Why did you allow the only thing I had to be taken from me”? And for a moment, his heart was filled with bitterness,  and he complained of his seeming bad luck. When he got hungry, he was driven to seek an activity other than the “comfortable status” he was accustomed to, forcing himself to find work. This new activity allowed him to develop, to meet people and to eventually have his own business and rise out of poverty. In the end, the farmer concluded that he would still be poor if he had his cow and if the “apparent unfortunate event” had not happened.  How often is this story repeated in our lives when we question the Eternal, about how He could allow our comfort to be threatened and for how long. Perhaps it is time for us to pause and open our eyes to see the wide range of opportunities that the Eternal provides for us so that we can enjoy a better life.

Third: (32:5) Making mistakes (sinning) is often done on a whim, to generate pity and perhaps to get what we want. I remember on certain occasions when  I replied “No” to my children’s request”, they responded with, “Then I won’t eat”, “I won’t go to school”, or “I won’t do this or that.” The question, in the end, was, who was being harmed, them or me?  It’s the same with the Eternal; there are people who,  when the Eternal close a door, say: “I will stop studying Torah” “I won’t pray,” “I won’t attend a Shabbat service”, “I’ll get a tattoo”, “or whatever is prohibited”. They think that they are harming the Eternal, when the opposite is true they are only harming themselves. God doesn’t change. Whether we are better or worse according to our criteria, He won’t be “more or less God”, while we, on the other hand,  hurt ourselves or not. Let’s stop acting like victims, like capricious children. God knows what is best for us and we must be joyful with our position and daily provision.

I would like to add something: it’s the idea that each of us is a child of the Eternal (Devarim 14:1) and we do not lose this status unless we fall into worship of other “deities.” Moshe stated our defect in verse 5: “We are a perverse and crooked generation”.

To better explain the status of children, I would like to refer to what the Gemara says in Kiddushin 36a, which says: “ The verse, ‘You are children of the Lord your God,’ indicates that when you act as children and adhere to the Holy One, Blessed be He, you are called children, but when you do not behave like children, you are not called children’…..

“And Rabbi Meir says:  As it is written in Jeremiah 4:22, “you are still called children”, they are foolish children” and in Deuteronomy 32:20: “Children in whom there is no faithfulness”; and in Isaiah 1:4, “Seed of evildoers, children of corrupters”; and in Hosea 2:1: “And it will come to pass that instead of what was said to them: You are not my people; it will be said to them: Sons of the living God”.”

“And if you say: When they are not faithful, He calls them children, as has been said, but when they worship idols they are no longer called children; therefore, come and listen:

And another verse says: “A seed of evildoers, children who work corruptly,” which alludes to idol worship. And if you say that although they are called “corrupt children,” they are no longer called full children of God once they have sinned, come and listen: And the verse says: “And it will come to pass that instead of you are not my people, it will be said of you: Children of the living God. This verse indicates that when the Jews repent, they are again called full children of God.”

Do you remember the parable of the prodigal son? The son who had walked away was once more called son after he did teshuvah when he returned to his father’s house, to his roots. Guilt, feeling unworthy, filthy, or having the idea that we will fail again, often causes us to distance ourselves, but when we do teshuva, our Father who loves us like a son will be waiting for us, even if those on the outside call us infidels, illegitimate children, or whatever pejoratives that indicates that we have lost the status of a son.

I would like to end with this question from verse 32:6 “Is this how you repay the LORD, O foolish and unwise people?” Hosea calls upon us to pay our vows, not with animals, but with the fruit of our lips. If we come to understand that the fruit of what we say is evidence that our actions are in sync with our words, then we will stop being foolish; but we will be as it says in Hosea 14:10,  “Whoever is wise, let him understand these things; whoever is prudent, let him know them; for the ways of the LORD are straight: the righteous walk in them, but the rebellious shall stumble in them.”

Let us arise and have a turning point, as Micah 7:18 says: it gives the Eternal pleasure to have mercy upon us and in verse 19: he will cast all of our sin into the depths of the sea. Let us pray that our faults would be covered (relating to Kippur), that we do not only repeat the prayers of Kol Nidrei as empty words but that these prayers truly become “the fruit of our lips.” If things have gone well for us, let us not become so fat that we forget our God, but let us be grateful with humility by doing good for others. And if there is something that makes us feel that we are “not His children”, that does not allow us to approach the Eternal, let us remove these ideas or thoughts, because we are His children, and our Father wants to be in a relationship with us.

We each continually need to return to God, our Source of life, because in the end, we are only human, not perfect; we fail and will continue to fail. So let’s ask that this Shabbat be a Shabbat Shuvah, a Shabbat of Return, and that it prepares our hearts to receive Yom Kippur, the Day of Covering with an ample desire of wanting to get closer to our Heavenly Father.

Shabbat Shalom

Mauricio Quintero