The Reciprocity of Teshuva
by Dr. Erica Brown
Dr. Erica Brown is the director of the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership and an associate professor of curriculum and pedagogy at The George Washington University. A Midreshet Lindenbaum alumna (’84), she is joined in this dvar Torah by Midreshet Lindenbaum alumnae Leah Brown Goldstein (ML ’88), Tali (Brown) Kozlowski (ML ’09), Alison (Boltax) Brown (ML ’14), and Ayelet Brown (ML ’19).
As a proud graduate of the first post-high school cohort of Midreshet Lindenbaum – then Michlelet Bruria – I am joined in this dvar Torah by other family members who are also alum: my sister-in-law Leah, my daughters Tali and Ayelet, and my daughter-in-law, Alison. Together, we share reflections of the season bound by the continuity of Talmud Torah we learned at Lindenbaum across the generations and in memory of Harvey Brown, beloved father and grandfather, who died this Elul and was himself a great practitioner and teacher of Torah.
In Elul, we find ourselves in the midst of Sefer Devarim with an inducement to change and an invitation to intimacy: “Then the Lord, your God, will restore your fortunes and take you back in love. He will bring you together again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you” (30:3). Any period of estrangement will be followed by a sweeping embrace of affection and solidarity. God will take us back in love. In this verse, it sounds like God is doing all the work of change. But much later in our prophetic literature, it is we who must do the heavy lifting first.
In one of the most beautiful biblical expressions of repentance, Zechariah is told by Hashem to say the following: “Thus said the Lord of Hosts: Turn back to me—says the Lord of Hosts—and I will turn back to you—said the Lord of Hosts” (Zechariah 1:3). It’s a teshuva of reciprocity, an invitation to begin a complex and non-linear process of change. But God does not offer to take the first step. He asks that of us, as Alison observes, “We must be proactive in this relationship.” When we turn ourselves to learning, we can also get others to learn. When we expand our first steps to include those of “family and community, God turns back to us as a collective.”
This reading echoes the comment of R. Dovid Altschuler, the Metzudat Dovid, who explains that if we turn to God first then the Shechina, the Divine Presence, will dwell among us. Leah relates the mutual act of turning in Zechariah to the impact Talmud Torah had on her father, who in his teenage years, turned his enormous capacity for knowledge to the Jewish arena as he became more religiously observant: “He loved studying and memorizing all Jewish texts, and it seems that Hashem rewarded his efforts with the gift of giving over his thoughts and understandings to others. He drew close to Hashem, and Hashem drew close to him.”
Ayelet observes that Hashem’s name is repeated three times in this verse. “As Ibn Ezra notes, we must turn to Hashem multiple times and He will then turn to us.” This serves as a model for other interactions. “Relationships take effort. Forming friendships takes time. One may need to beg or sometimes try harder when relationships are not working out. This is what Hashem is telling us. Try, and if it is not working, make more of an effort and push harder for those relationships you truly care about.”
The 19th century commentator, Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser (the Malbim), points outs that Zechariah marks the end of the prophetic period. There will be no future prophets to recommend that Jews turn away from wrongdoing and turn to their Maker. This is why they will have to take their own first steps: “From this point forward, they will have to try on their own to achieve repentance.” Because the only thing we can control is our own behavior, we have to decide if we are going to turn towards someone in forgiveness and contrition or turn away. As the Malbim points out to us in a prophet-less generation, that is our challenging work.
Zechariah, it seems, is asking a great deal of us: to initiate, swallow our pride, say sorry and make commitments to change. Only then will Hashem gather us up in love, as the promise of Devarim suggests. But when you consider that turning is a slight physical gesture, a modification of where we stand and what we look at, teshuva seems easier. We start the deep inner work of the season by making a small but meaningful adjustment, leaning into our relationship with Hashem, with others and with ourselves. “Deepening relationships,” Tali says, “requires vulnerability from both parties. Often it is hard to feel like the bigger person and be the one to reach out, to initiate a conversation, a phone call, or an apology. This pasuk reminds us of the gift we give ourselves when we take the first step. During this season of reflection on our relationship with God, family, and friends, may we be strong enough to be vulnerable.”