Return to Origins
Thoughts on Parashat Ki Tavo 2020
As Moshe began to
mention potential blessings and curses to Am Yisrael, he said:
Hashem your God charges you to do these statutes and these laws… (Devarim 26:16)
And several sentences later, he
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.”
Century poet T.S. Eliot memorably wrote about the irony of a life-long “journey
shall not cease from exploration
the end of all our exploring
be to arrive where we started
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:
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
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.
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.