How are we meant to begin the process of teshuvah, returning to God?  Is this something we initiate, or does God help us to begin?  Or perhaps it is some combination?  How is this process understood in the Torah and in the Amidah?

In Parashat Nitzavim-VaYelekh, we read the following prediction by Moshe, after the impending sin of Israel:

דברים ל:ב-ג
וְשַׁבְתָּ עַד־ה' אֱלֹקֶיךָ וְשָׁמַעְתָּ בְקֹלוֹ כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר־אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם… וְשָׁב ה' אֱלֹקֶיךָ אֶת־שְׁבוּתְךָ וְרִחֲמֶךָ...
Deuteronomy 30:2-31
And you shall turn back to YHVH your God and listen to [God’s] voice as all that I charge you today…And YHVH your God will return you to your former state and have mercy upon you…

Note the process of return in these verses: First we return to God,2 and then God returns us to our former state.  It is a vision in which Israel initiates the process of return, and God follows by responding to this return.  Commenting on these verses, R. Moshe Alshikh3 describes this process further:

אלשיך על דברים ל:ב
נמצא כי אין האדם עושה רק ההתחלה, והשאר הוא יתברך העושה...וזה יאמר הנה תחלה ושבת כי אתה הוא השב מעצמך והוא ההתחלה, ואחר כך ושב ה' הוא השב בעצם ולא אתה.  ועם כל זה יחשיב ויעלה עליך כאילו אתה עשית
Alshikh to Deuteronomy 30:2
We see that a person only begins the process [of returning], but the rest the Blessed One does…  This is as it says first: “You shall return” (30:2)—for you are the one who must return on your own—that is the beginning.  But afterward it says: “And YHVH will return [you]” (30:3)—God returns at core, and not you.  But nevertheless, it seems to you as if you have done this.

In this reading of the verses, people begin the process of teshuvah, but then God supports them in moving beyond the first step. Not only that, but people do not even realize that God is supporting them; they think they are enacting the whole process by themselves.  In reality, though, real teshuvah cannot happen without God taking an active role.  

In the 5th blessing of the Amidah, we pray to God for help with teshuvah.  But significantly, this prayer asks God—not us—to make the first move in the process of return:

הֲשִׁיבֵֽנוּ אָבִֽינוּ לְתוֹרָתֶֽךָ 
וְקָרְבֵֽנוּ מַלְכֵּֽנוּ לַעֲבוֹדָתֶֽךָ 
וְהַחֲזִירֵֽנוּ בִּתְשׁוּבָה שְׁלֵמָה לְפָנֶֽיךָ: 
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' הָרוֹצֶה בִּתְשׁוּבָה:
Cause us to return, our Father, to Your Torah 
and bring us near, our King, to Your service; 
and bring us back in complete repentance before You.  
Blessed are You, YHVH, who desires repentance.

In each of the three requests found in our version of the blessing, we are asking God—not us—to initiate the movement toward return.  This process in which God takes the lead is also present in the parallel version to this blessing found in the tradition of the Land of Israel.  There, the blessing reads more simply, by quoting a verse:

נוסח ארץ ישראל
הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ ה' אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשׁוּבָה 
חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה', הָרוֹצֶה בִּתְשׁוּבָה
Eretz Yisrael Version (Uri Ehrlich, Tefilat Ha-Amidah, p. 91)
Return us, YHVH, to you, and we shall return.
Renew our days as of old.
Blessed are You, YHVH, who desires repentance.

While the end of the blessing is the same as ours, the beginning of the blessing is a direct quote from Lamentations 5:21.4 In that verse, there are two actors with different roles: God returns us (השיבנו), and only then do we return (נשובה).

So which is it?  Are we meant to make the first move toward teshuvah, as described in our parashah, or is God meant to help us make the first move, as expressed in the 5th blessing of the Amidah?

A midrash explores this tension over who is meant to make the first move:

איכה רבה (בובר) פרשה ה:כא
השיבנו ה' אליך אמרה כנסת ישראל לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא [רבונו של עולם שלך הוא] השיבנו ה' אליך, 
אמר להם הקדוש ברוך הוא [שלכם הוא שנאמר] שובו אלי ואשובה אליכם (מלאכי ג ז), אמרה לפניו רבש"ע, שלנו היא, שלך היא, שובנו אלקי ישענו והפר כעסך עמנו (תהלים פה ה).
Eikhah Rabbah 5:21, ed. Buber, p. 80b5
“Return us to You” – Israel said before the Holy Blessed One: Master of the Universe, this depends on You!  “Return us, YHVH, to You [and (only then) we will return]” (Lamentations 5:21).
The Holy Blessed One said: It depends on you!  As it says: “Return to Me and I will return to you” (Malachi 3:7).
Israel said before God: Master of the Universe: Is it dependent on us?  It is dependent on You!  “Return us, God of our salvation, and revoke Your anger from among us” (Psalm 85:5).

This midrash presents a back and forth between God and Israel.  Neither of them wants to make the first move in restoring the relationship. Israel wants God to return us, “to begin by rousing our hearts to do repentance.”6 But God demands that Israel begin the process themselves.  Israel gets the last word in this argument, though, bringing another verse to support their claim that God should make the first move to initiate Israel’s return.  And yet, the midrash leaves the fundamental question unresolved.  While both God and Israel exhort the other to make a move, neither actually does.  This tragic stalemate might be true to the experience of our attempt to come closer to God: each party wants to move forward, but is unwilling to move first.  

While these texts are debating who should cause Israel to return (either Israel themselves or God), another interpretative understanding of the verses from our parashah opens a different dimension: God’s return to us.  Our verse reads: וְשָׁב ה' אֱלֹקֶיךָ אֶת־שְׁבוּתְךָ, translated above as: “God will return you to your former state.”  However, if this is meant to express God causing Israel to return, it should have written והשיב in the causative form.7 What is the significance of ושב?  

As understood by R. Akiva, it indicates not that God is causing us to return, but rather God Godself is returning.8 In this reading of the verse, God is returning with us.9 Now the moment of teshuvah is no longer limited only to Israel (with either Israel or God as the catalyst for Israel’s return).  Rather, Israel and God both return to each other.  

But still we are left with the original tension from Eikhah Rabbah.  If both God and Israel must return in this vision of ultimate teshuvah, who makes the first move?  The following midrash plays out this question:

מדרש תהלים (בובר) מזמור פה:ג
ישראל אומרים לך שוב אתה בתחלה, שנאמר שובה ה' עד מתי (תהלים צ:יג), ואתה אומר לא כי אלא שובה ישראל בתחלה, לא אתה תשוב לעצמך, ולא אנו נשוב לעצמנו, אלא שנינו כאחד, שנאמר שובנו אלקי ישענו (תהלים פה:ה).
Midrash Tehillim 85:3, ed. Buber, p. 186b
Israel said to You: You return first!  As it says: “Return, YHVH, how long?” (Psalm 90:13).  But You said: “No!  Rather you should return first!”
You won’t return on Your own, and we won’t return on our own, but rather the two of us as one, as it says: “Return us, God of our salvation” (85:5).

In this version of the argument of who makes the first move, both Israel and God must return.  Israel recognizes that neither party will start the process on their own.  So they suggest a compromise: both act as one, bringing the process of healing and return forward.10

In Parashat Nitzavim-VaYelekh, Moshe predicts a moment of return for Israel.  But the details of that return—who initiates the process, and how God is involved—are up for interpretation.  In our blessing about return in the Amidah, we ask God to start the process of our return.  In some understandings, this is the beginning of God’s return as well; only when we both return is the ultimate redemption possible.

Shabbat Shalom.

1 Translation based on Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: The Five Books of Moses (New York: Norton, 2019), p. 721.  This verse can be understood in multiple ways, as we will explore below.

2 Bekhor Shor translates ושבת as “ותעשה תשובה – do teshuvah.”

3 Eretz Yisrael, 1508-1593.

4 This verse is cited as the source for the Bavel version of the blessing in Hasidei Ashkenaz, Siddur Torat Hayyim, p. 348.

5 With additions from the printed version.

6 Etz Yosef on this passage: “אתה תתחיל עמנו לעורר לבבנו לתשובה ואחר כך נשובה.”  See also R. Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1956), pp. 146-147.

7 For the various grammatical arguments here, see Jeffrey Tigay, The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996), p. 399, notes 3-5. 

8 See Sifrei Bemidbar #84, ed. Kahana, p. 211.  See also Sifrei Bemidbar #161, ed. Kahana, p. 554 (in the name of R. Natan); Bavli Megillah 29a; Mekhilta de-R. Yishmael Massekhta de-Pisha 16, ed. Horovitz-Rabin, pp. 51-2.  This midrash reads the word את not as a direct object, but as the conjunction “with.”  See, for instance, Genesis 4:1.  The midrash also reads שבותך not as “your original state,” but as “your captives.”  For this understanding of שבותך, from the root שבה, not שוב, see Jeremiah 48:46; Tigay, p. 399, n. 5 and Robert Alter, p. 721.  Compare Ben Yehuda’s Dictionary, vol. 14, p. 6828, in N. H. Tur-Sinai’s note.  The midrash also seems to imagine a physical return to Eretz Yisrael by both God and Israel, but I am using it to think about what this word might mean in the context of teshuvah.  Indeed, the physical return of God and Israel to the Land is another way of indicating their mutual presence in a renewed and intensified way.  My thanks to R. Shai Held for helping me clarify this point.

9 For the significance of God in exile who needs redemption, see my essay on Parashat BeShallah, “Praying for Your Sake: God Needs Miracles.”

10 This interpretation of joint movement may be based on the odd construction of the word שובינו in Psalm 85:5, which as a qal verb doesn’t really take an object (see Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms, p. 301).  So perhaps it is being read as: “השבה שלנו - our (God and Israel’s) return.”  See Etz Yosef ad loc.  Rashi, perhaps influenced by our midrash, understands שובנו to mean: שוב אתה והשיבנו - You return and return us. See also the line from the piyyut אעשה למען שמי (Mahzor le-Yamim Nora’im vol. 2, ed. Goldschmidt, p. 583) in which Israel asks God to return first: “בשובך ברחמים / עלינו ממרומים / ואליך נשובה - When You return, in mercy, to us from the heights, then we will return to You.”  This entire poem is structured as a dialogue between God and Israel, where each one wants the other to return first.  See further Bernad Septimus, “The Late-Antique Form Shav ‘Al and its Aramaic and Arab Cognates,” in Mehavah le-Menahem, eds. Shmuel Glick et al. (Jerusalem: JTS Press, 2019), p. 85*.