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    Teshuvah is for everyone

    No moment in Jewish history was as breathtaking as the revelation at Sinai. At that moment a slave rabble became a people of prophets. No one was unmoved and untouched by the experience.

    What brought them to this historic peak?

    The answer may be found in God’s words, “And I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me” (Ex.19:4).

    A great experience bears a person aloft with a feeling of consuming exhilaration.

    Read the passage in Herzl’s diary which describes the state of elation in which the founder of modem Zionism wrote his “Jewish State”. Anyone who is totally taken over by a great enterprise or task has the same feeling of being carried onwards by eagles’ wings.

    In today’s Jewish world this is seen in the excitement felt by people from the periphery finding their way back to Judaism, borne away from secularism to spirituality.

    The trend is seen everywhere, but, appropriately, especially in Israel, where so many are coming back to their roots and are overtaken by a new fervour in prayer, learning, mysticism and Jewish practice.

    The term for this movement is teshuvah, “return”. But this is not quite the traditional meaning of the word. It is more commonly taken in the sense of repentance, the turning away from sin that is the keynote of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.

    Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has said that in every generation God gives the Jewish people a gift. In our generation it is teshuvah; the tragedy, however, is that only secular Jews seem to be taking advantage of it.

    But in which sense is Rabbi Riskin using the word? If he means that secular Jews once were sinners and now are back on the straight and narrow, is he right to imply that non-secular Jews are also sinners and need to repent? If he is saying that secular Jews are away from their Jewish roots and need to come back, is he right to suggest that the religious have also strayed from the sources of Judaism?

    I believe the answer is yes, and there is a teshuvah for religious Jews to do, or at least they have to ask themselves at any given moment whether teshuvah should not be on their agenda.

    Notice that I have not qualified the word “religious”. Paradoxical though it may seem, there are religious Jews who are not halachically committed, much as I regret the fact.

    But every religious Jew, of whatever level of halachic observance, is duty-bound as a Jew to hear the Divine call, ko amar HaShem – “Thus says the Lord” – that mandates full commitment to justice, love and humanity. In this respect there is a teshuvah even – especially – for the religious Jew.

    We need a new call for a return to justice: how can it be right that members of a people that taught the world justice sometimes cannot endure or forgive one another?

    We need a new call for a return to love: if we obey the Shema and love God with our heart, soul and might, how can it be right that we sometimes do not love our neighbours as ourselves – especially those we disagree with?

    We need a new call for a return to humanity: if human beings are made in the image of God, it means all human beings, and surely no-one is entitled to appoint him- or herself as God’s policeman and decide that some human beings are less worthy of living than others.

    And if you say to me that Jews, even religious Jews, are not the only people who sometimes fall short of high ethical standards, I say: “But were Jews not the pioneers of Divine ethics, and is it not the Jewish task to be a light to the nations?”

    In an ideal world, every one of us would be constantly borne aloft, as if on eagles’ wings, by Jewish visions, values, ethics and attitudes.

    It is not yet an ideal world, but the teshuvah that ought to carry us onwards and upwards to the ideal world is the constant effort to assess, refine and improve our adherence to the ethics of our tradition.

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