We are preparing for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, focused on the process of teshuva — “turning to God” — and our search for the way “home” — wherever “home” may be.
In this week’s portion, the Torah describes a series of blessings and curses linked to the Jewish people’s faithfulness regarding their covenant with God. The curses conclude with the admonition that “the Lord will scatter you among all the peoples, from one end of the earth to the other….” (Deuteronomy 28:64) Exile is the ultimate metaphor for the ruptured relationship between God and Israel.
In Jewish tradition, the theological coordinate to exile (galut) is redemption (ge’ula). For the Jews of the biblical period, redemption had a mundane dimension: reestablishment of Jewish political sovereignty in Israel. But it took on another in which the mundane and the messianic visions merged: exile redeemed through restoration.
As Judaism developed, exile took on a more personal interpretation. While it remained the situation of Jews living outside the Land of Israel, in rabbinic and medieval Judaism, it also became a metaphor for the estrangement of God from the world, of the soul from God, and of the self divided.
Thus, in many Jewish mystical traditions, mitzvot are performed “for the sake of uniting the Holy One and the Shechina,” disparate dimensions of the deity understood to be yearning for reconciliation.
In the 19th century, some thinkers in the emerging Reform movement suggested that the destruction of the ancient Temples and the dispersion of the Jewish people — described in Deuteronomy as the ultimate curse — was in fact God’s intended “mission of the Jewish people” — spreading “ethical monotheism” to the world. In this scenario, the hoped-for restoration to the Land of Israel is transformed into an endorsement of the Diaspora, the only place where the Jewish people can fulfill this “mission.”
Modern Zionism, which rejected the Reform reading, represented a return to the biblical view of redemption as restoration of political sovereignty. Of course, modern Zionism rejected the traditional theological view that anticipated restoration only as a consequence of God’s miraculous intervention, seeking instead to employ secular political tools in pursuit of a Jewish state.
Common to all these perspectives is the question of “home.” Whatever “exile” is, it is understood as being “away from home”; whatever “redemption” may be, it is understood as “returning home.”
When we gather for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, these ancient issues reanimate us. We are sensitized to the alienation we experience when we think of where we want to be and where we have placed ourselves.
Teshuva is much more than “repentance.” In The Book of Words, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner translates “teshuva” as “coming home.” He writes: “The world endures because of the ever-present yearning and gesture of returning home to our Source. This going back to our Source is a great longing that flows through and animates all creation. Through apology, repair, and attempting to heal damage done, we effectively rewrite the past.”
If, as Deuteronomy suggests, exile is the ultimate curse, then teshuva, or “coming home,” represents the ultimate blessing. It is a blessing that begins with the first steps we take on our way back to our Source.