Going in Deep: What It Takes to Really Change

Rabbi Shai Held

Parashat Nitzavim

Deuteronomy imagines a day when, after harrowing exile, Israel will repent and be reconciled with God. Commenting on what he takes to be the text’s insistence that teshuvah (repentance) is accessible and close at hand, one Jewish philosopher lauds repentance for its “ease.” Yet for many of us, the very opposite seems to be the case: We experience real repentance as difficult and demanding, and sometimes even grueling. As Rosh Ha-Shanah approaches, it behooves us to ask just why this might be the case.

After suffering torturous punishment, Deuteronomy tell us, Israel will undergo a change of heart:1 It will return to God and wholeheartedly heed God’s command. God, in turn, will restore the people’s fortunes and bring them back to the land. Israel will take possession of the land and be showered with blessing (Deuteronomy 30:1-10). In the span of ten verses describing the reconciliation between Israel and God, parashat Nitzavim uses the root shuv (return/repentance) no fewer than seven times. The theme of divine-human reciprocity is emphasized through a chiastic pattern: Israel acts twice, then God acts twice, and then Israel, followed by God, and finally Israel again.2 These verses suggest, Walter Brueggemann writes, “a glad, unrestrained, uncalculating mutuality of two parties, [God] and Israel, who are glad to be back together after the hiatus of exile. They are eager to make the new relationship work.”3 There is thus enormous (and obvious) power in these verses being connected to the Days of Awe (Yamim Nora’im), when Jews are engaged in the work of soul-searching and return. R. Meir Leibush Weiser (Malbim, 1809-1879) observes that the process of Israel’s repentance also intensifies as it goes: While at first Israel returns only “toward” (ad) God (30:2), ultimately it returns “unto” (el) God (30:10) (Comments to Deuteronomy 30:10).4

Four striking verses follow upon this scene of repentance and restoration:

Surely, this Instruction (ha-mitzvah ha-zot) which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).


Virtually all modern Bible scholars agree that the “Instruction” spoken of here is “the law and teachings of Deuteronomy,”5 “the instruction which the people should follow in its entirety and by which they exemplify their devotion to God.”6 This is also the interpretation of at least one Talmudic Sage (BT, Eruvin 55a) and of Rashi (1040-1105) (Commentary to Deuteronomy 30:12). But an array of traditional commentators insists that these verses are continuous with the ones that immediately precede them. Since those verses dealt with the charge to repent, so, too, do these.7 Nahmanides (Ramban, 1194-1270), for example, avers that God wants Israel to remember that even in the very depths of exile, teshuvah is “not too hard, not far off from you, but is rather ‘very close to you,’ such that you can do it at any time and in any place” (Commentary to Deuteronomy 30:11). In a similar vein, R. Joseph Albo (1380-1444) argues that our verses point to “the importance of [teshuvah] and the ease with which it may be done” (Sefer Ha-Ikkarim, IV: 25).

For many readers, there is no doubt something odd, even jarring, about R. Albo’s insistence that teshuvah is “easy.”8 If the possibility of self-transformation leading to renewed closeness with God is really “very close to us,” why do so many (most? all?) people find it so hard to change? Why is it that, in the words of a classic popular song, “after changes upon changes we are more or less the same”?

The Hasidic Master R. Shalom Noah Berezovsky (1911-2000) maintains that although many of us are convinced that we genuinely want to repent, most of us lack the courage required to go deep inside our inner worlds and repair what it broken. We thus prefer to tinker rather than transform.

R. Berezovsky offers a powerful—and disturbing—parable. “The task of a person,” he writes, “is like that of a person who is building an elaborate house on a foundation of rubble.” If we are unwilling to invest the money and effort required to build a solid foundation, the building will be unstable, and cracks will appear again and again. Time and again we will spend money on fixing the latest crack, but these repeated investments will accomplish nothing because more cracks will inevitably emerge. Under such circumstances, “the house remains perpetually in danger of collapse.” There is only one alternative to this futile flushing away of energy and funds, Berezovsky avers: “to have the courage to destroy the whole structure of the house and to dig deep and strong foundations. On top of those foundations, [a person] can build and establish a strong building.”

The point of the parable should be clear: Changing who we are has a great deal in common with erecting a building. Each year, says Berezovsky, we introduce improvements of various kinds into our “spiritual home” (bayit ruhani), “but nevertheless when [the edifice] isn’t built on solid foundations, new cracks and fissures appear year after year, and [our] spiritual home remains always in danger of collapse.” Unless we find the courage to go in deep inside ourselves, our fixing of cracks will be frantic but fruitless. We are challenged to learn, Berezovksy writes, that “none of these [minor] repairs will solve the problem of [our] lives until [we] dig deep foundations and first root out the root that yields gall and wormwood [i.e., the root of our sinful behavior—S.H.]—then [we] can build a structure that endures forever” (Netivot Shalom, Teshuvah, #9).

The image of tearing down a building may be jarring,9 but it points to a crucial lesson—one which many of us generally resist learning: If we are not willing to deal with the deep issues that all too often lie beneath the surface of our consciousness, those issues can sabotage our lives—cause the building to collapse, in Berezovky’s words—over and over again. Let’s take a concrete example from the interpersonal realm: Aware that we have spoken cruelly about a co-worker, we reprimand ourselves and commit to speaking differently about her in the future. But then, seemingly despite ourselves (at least at first), we find ourselves disparaging her again—or, if our resolve in this one instance holds up, we notice ourselves belittling someone else instead. Or perhaps, if we manage to guard our tongue, we find other means to undermine and devalue those around us. Unless and until we are willing to turn inward and ask what it is that makes us jealous, petty, competitive, and unforgiving—we will not change in deep and enduring ways. Just as we fix one crack another will appear. We can try to repair this pattern of action or that, but in order to repent fully, we need to work on who we are at the deepest levels, not just on what we did.

Taking Berezovsky’s parable to heart, we would surely not conclude that teshuvah is easy.

The plain sense of Deuteronomy 30:11-14 is that it is discussing Deuteronomy as a whole, and not merely Israel’s obligation to repent. But let’s assume for a moment that we wish to maintain the view that in these verses the Torah has teshuvah in view. What do the phrases “not too baffling” and “not beyond reach” suggest about repentance? “Not too baffling” means that what is required in order for us to repent is not beyond our comprehension; although our resistance may be strong, the path is, in fact, known to us. “Not beyond reach” means that repentance is doable. If we set our hearts to it,10 we can change who we are and re-engage more deeply with God. But doable and easy are decidedly not the same thing. Authentic repentance is doable, but it is far from easy.

In Deuteronomy’s words, the key to repentance “is not in the heavens,” nor is it “beyond the sea.” Where is it? It is “very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart.” To repent, in other words, is to turn inward. But crucially, turning inward is not the final goal; on the contrary, we turn inward so that we may again—and more deeply—turn outward, to God and to one another.

Addressing a newly restored community living under Persian rule, the prophet Zechariah exhorts the people not to repeat the mistakes of their ancestors. “Return (shuvu) to Me,” he hears God say, “and I will return (ashuvah) to you” (Zechariah 1:3).11 With these few short words, the prophet teaches the same lesson: Teshuvah (repentance/return) is, at bottom, about the restoration of relationship and reciprocity.12 God calls the people back not merely to the Law or to the way of life mandated by Torah, but also—and primarily—to genuine relationship with God.13 As Bible scholar Ben Ollenburger puts it, Zechariah’s words “provide more than a call to repentance; they are an invitation to reunion.”14 For all the centrality of inwardness and soul-searching, repentance is inextricably bound up with relationship.

1 Most scholars understand our chapter to be suggesting that the people will return to God, after which God will turn back to them. See, for example, Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (2004), p. 1028. But cf. Marc Zvi Brettler, “Predestination in Deuteronomy 30.1-10” in Those Elusive Deuteronomists: The Phenomenon of Pan-Deuteronomism, ed. Steven L. McKenzie and Linda S. Schearing (1999), pp. 171-188, who sees the restoration of Israel in Deuteronomy 30 as a result of God’s actions rather than a mutual process set in motion by the people’s repentance. And cf. the different manuscript versions of Nahmanides’ commentary to these verses, which I have briefly discussed in “Will and Grace, Or: Who Will Circumcise Our Hearts?” CJLI Parashat Eikev 5774, available here.

2 Jeffrey H. Tigay, Deuteronomy (1996), pp. 283-284.

3 Walter Brueggemann, Deuteronomy (2001), p. 269.

4 Cf. Nehama Leibowitz’ interpretation of Malbim’s words: “In verse two the first stage of religious awakening is being described, the turning towards God, when man directs his attention to the right path and is ready to listen. Verse 10 speaks of the consummation of actual repentance, the final stage of turning to God... and not merely focussing himself in the right direction.” Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim-Deuteronomy, trans. Aryeh Newman (1993), p. 312.

5 Tigay, Deuteronomy, p. 286.

6 Dalit Rom-Shiloni, in Beth Alpert Nakhai, in Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss, eds., Torah: A Women’s Commentary (2008), p. 1226.

7 Beyond the two cited in what follows, additional commentators who maintain that these verses deal with repentance include R. Obadiah Seforno (1475-1550); R. Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz (1550-1619), Keli Yakar (second interpretation); R. Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508); and R. Meir Simha of Dvinsk (1843-1926), Meshekh Hokhmah, to Deuteronomy 30:11.

8 I am not certain whether Ramban would embrace Albo’s description of teshuvah as easy. One could argue that there is a difference between saying that teshuvah is “not too hard” and “not far off from you,” as Ramban does (following Deuteronomy), and maintaining that it is easy, as Albo does. Although the contention that “you can do it at any time and in any place” surely sounds like a statement about ease, it may refer to teshuvah being possible rather than easy (on which see below). The matter requires further investigation. If Nahmanides would in fact agree with the interpretation I suggest below, how much the better.

9 What is lost in the parable, I think, is the fact that the process of turning inward to “repair the foundations” often requires extreme care and gentleness. The image of tearing down a house has the potential to obscure that crucial psychological dimension of teshuvah.

10 But cf. Deuteronomy 30:6, which suggests that we need God to circumcise our hearts. And cf. what I have written in “Will and Grace, Or: Who Will Circumcise Our Hearts?” CJLI Parashat Eikev 5774, cited above, n1.

11 Cf. also Malachi 3:7.

12 Some readers may be tempted to imagine that the initiative for re-establishing rests unequivocally with Israel. After all, the people are called to return first; only then, presumably, will God follow suit. But in fact God’s call is already a first gesture; as imagined here, repentance is an irreducibly reciprocal process.

13 Cf. Joyce G. Baldwin, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi: An Introduction and Commentary (1981), p. 90.

14 Ben Ollenburger, “Zechariah: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 7 (1997), p. 748. Ollenburger adds: “The book of Zechariah thus opens with an invitation to its first readers and to contemporary readers to claim their identity as God’s people and to return to the God who defines their lives and is the source of hope for their present and their future.”