“It is what it is.”

Five words that creep into all sorts of conversation, rearing their ugly head in such a deceptively innocuous way. Whether it’s about politics, social ailments, or the bug that flew into your chicken salad, it’s everywhere.

One columnist discovered its first known use in a 1949 edition of The Nebraska State Journal, in a column discussing the way that pioneer life molded character: “New land is harsh, and vigorous, and sturdy. It scorns evidence of weakness. There is nothing of sham or hypocrisy in it. It is what it is, without apology.”1

If you’ll ask, most people don’t really love the term. “What do you mean, ‘It is what it is?’ Are you just resigning to fate?”

So what’s the correct approach? Should we be upset at the “It is what it is” people, or do they have a point, after all?

Our Torah portion contains the answer.

The Ha’azinu Exception

This week’s parshah is a beautiful soliloquy from Moses with high rhetoric and song-like meter. The verses are both enigmatic and poignant, as Moses calls upon heaven and earth to bear witness and exhorts the people to follow in G‑d’s ways.

Tipping its cap to Haazinu’s profound and moving nature, we find the following halachah:

Whoever is called to read from the Torah should begin [his reading] with a positive matter and conclude with a positive matter.

However, in Parashat Ha'azinu, the first [person called to the Torah] reads until zechor yemot olam.2 The second begins from zechor yemot olam [and continues] until yarkivehu.3 [These verses do not speak of positive matter]

Why is the Torah reading paused at these points? Because these are [verses of] rebuke, [and the intent is that] that they motivate the people to repent.4

We take great pains to end any aliyah in the Torah on a positive note, even cutting stories at awkward points if necessary. But Haazinu is an exception, because the teshuvah it is designed to evoke is just too important to give up.

Considering the time of year we read this parshah, we can appreciate this exception even more. After all, Haazinu is always read right around Yom Kippur—a high time for teshuvah if there was any.

But for many, the term teshuvah is either depressing or intimidating. “Repentance” is probably even worse, as it conjures up images of fasting, self-rebuke, shame and guilt.

Is there any positive way to think about teshuvah? Is there a way to imagine teshuvah as something empowering and encouraging, rather than a beat-down from G‑d?

The Inevitable End

Take a look at this quote from Maimonides:

All the prophets commanded [the people] to repent. Israel will only be redeemed through teshuvah.

The Torah has already promised that, ultimately, Israel will repent towards the end of her exile and, immediately, she will be redeemed.5

While we sit here agonizing over the prospect of “doing teshuvah” and actually changing our ways, here we learn that the ending has already been written: it’s going to happen. Whether you’re ready or not, the Torah, apparently, has already scripted the grand finale, and in the script it says that we’re all going to do teshuvah.

“That Guy”

Let’s break that down in more practical terms.

Have you ever heard people say, “I’m just not that guy,” “It’s just not who I am,” or some other form of resignation that declares to the world, “Whatever I am now is who I am forever, and it ain’t gonna change”?

You probably have.

You may have even said it yourself at some point.

One person is stuck in a rut in his relationship, resigned to the fact that at least once a week, he’s going to be bickering with his spouse, irritated and upset.

Another person is caught in a massive loop of unhealthy eating habits, pounding cheesecake in the morning and downing sugary drinks in the afternoon.

This dynamic plays out regarding religious commitments, too.

“Go to shul every week? Nah, I’m not that guy.”

“Bring a kosher meal for a work lunch and garner awkward stares when I unwrap the less-than-seemly tuna sandwich? Nope. That’s just not who I am.”

“So I don’t light Shabbat candles on time. You think I should be lighting earlier each week? Come on, it’s not happening. It is what it is.”

What’s the simple answer to all these narratives?

You are that guy! Who ever said you’re not? Which author wrote your book and already sold it on Amazon, never to be changed? No one, of course! This is a story that you’ve created in your head, and guess what? It’s simply not true.

In an alternate script, in the Torah’s script, you, me, and everyone else have already made the decision to do teshuvah. That whole “I can’t do the kosher tuna lunch” thing is a false narrative, and it absolutely is not what it is. The Torah has a different narrative waiting for you, already now, even before you’ve realized that you can be different.

Go ahead and follow that script.6