Return to Origins
Thoughts on Parashat Ki Tavo 2020
As Moshe began to mention potential blessings and curses to Am Yisrael, he said:
This day Hashem your God charges you to do these statutes and these laws… (Devarim 26:16)
And several sentences later, he stated:
This day you have become a people to Hashem Your God. (27:9)
The description of these events occurring on “this day” is puzzling. The missvot and berit with God were established long before these final words of Moshe! Why, then, did he describe them as happening “on this day”? Rashi explained that by referring to “this day” Moshe was instructing the people to continuously return their hearts and minds to the original moments of receiving the commandments and establishing a covenant with God.
In a well-known passage, the Rabbis envisioned every experience of talmud Torah as one of “return.” R. Simlai taught that the embryo is taught the entire Torah as it crouches in its mother’s fetus. As soon as the baby sees light, however, an angel comes and slaps it on the mouth, causing it to forget the entire Torah. “When a Jew studies Torah, he is confronted with something…familiar,” R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l explained, “because he has already studied it and the knowledge was stored up in the recesses of his memory.” Strikingly similar to the Platonic theory of knowledge as recollection, R. Simlai taught that we return to our origin every time we study words of Torah.
This lesson of “continuous return” is perhaps latent in the game of baseball, as well. Beginning with their stance at “home,” baseball players then circle the bases with the goal of getting back to “home.”
The 20th Century poet T.S. Eliot memorably wrote about the irony of a life-long “journey to return”:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
But it was long before, in God’s words to Adam and Hava after sin, that He mapped out our life trajectory as circular in motion, ending just where it began:
By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread until you return to the soil, for from there were you taken, for dust you are and to dust shall you return. (Bereshit 3:19)
Moshe’s words to the people, then, represent a broader perspective regarding our life’s direction. He taught that although we spend most of our time marching forward to the beat of innovation and progress, we will inevitably return to our humble place of origin at some point. Each of us will retreat to our “true” self, coming back to the time we first received the missvot and committed ourselves to God.
R. Adin Steinsaltz z”l pointed to Daniel Pearl’s final words as evidence of our innate drive to return. Pearl, an assimilated Jewish journalist who was kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan in 2002, famously said in his final moment alive: “My name is Daniel Pearl. I am an American Jew. My father is Jewish, my mother’s Jewish. I’m Jewish.”
The current global pandemic has had me thinking more and more about our individual and collective return to beginnings.
The threat of coronavirus has spurred a mass movement out of the fast-paced, human-built cities and into the idyllic space of the primordial countryside. Young adults have returned from college campuses to live in the childhood quarters of their parents’ homes. And many men and women are now spending their daytime hours outside of the workplace inside their homes. Though I’m aware that these changes probably won’t last long after the discovery of a vaccine, I’ve nonetheless seen this time as an important “reality check” for us all. It has caused a widespread return to origins.
The lesson of “return” is particularly relevant to Jews during this period of the year. Teshuvah signifies a circular motion. “When one finds oneself on the circumference of a large circle, it sometimes seems that the starting point is becoming farther and farther removed,” R. Soloveitchik remarked, “but actually it is getting closer and closer.”
Our current lives have forced upon us Moshe’s lesson of a continuous return to origins. Opening our eyes to this reality will provide direction for a successful journey of teshuvah in the weeks and days ahead.