This Torah reading is always read before Rosh HaShanah. As the High Holidays approach, the question raised at the end of the following story is something for all of us to ponder.

“I was in the midst of teaching a class,” relates Rabbi Shabtai Slavaticki, the Lubavitch representative in Belgium, “when a young man in his mid-twenties arrived at the doorway unannounced. ‘I’ve heard this is a place where one can come and study about Judaism,’ the man said. ‘I was also told that one can board here for a while. I’ll be back when I’m ready to begin. Is that O.K.?’”

Rabbi Slavaticki nodded in assent. Some time later, the young man returned, introducing himself as Eitan. He originally came from Israel, but had discovered spirituality through contact with a guru in India. Eitan had followed the guru’s teachings in the hope of being accepted to his inner circle of disciples.

At one point, the guru asked about his origins. When he told him that he was from Israel, the guru asked Eitan if he had totally severed his ties to Judaism. Eitan told him that he still felt somewhat connected.

The guru told him that he could not enter his inner circle until he broke all connection with another faith. He instructed Eitan to investigate his own religion. If he were to be disillusioned, that would cleanse him and enable him to devote himself to his new beliefs.

After studying with Rabbi Slavaticki for a while, Eitan had a charge of heart. The teachings of Judaism and particularly its mystic dimension attracted him. He devoted himself to the classes seriously, but he was still not ready for a commitment to fulfill mitzvos. Even after substantial study, he felt unsure. Once more he confided in Rabbi Slavaticki.

“I’ve decided to take ‘time out.’ Although I sense that I’m going in the right direction, I need to be sure my enthusiasm is genuinely coming from within and not merely inspired by the environment here. I am going to Holland for a while to see if the desire to connect with Judaism is generated from the real me without external influence.”

With that, Eitan departed. Rabbi Slavaticki knew he should be patient, but the weeks turned into a month and more, and still no word from Eitan. The High Holidays came and Rabbi Slavaticki found himself immersed in prayer on Rosh HaShanah. As he uttered the verse, “May all creations know that You are their Creator...,” his thoughts were with Eitan. He added a silent prayer that Eitan, too, would recognize the ultimate truth.

Just then, he felt a hand on his shoulder. Stirred from his intense prayers, he looked up. It was Eitan. In total amazement, Rabbi Slavaticki embraced him and offered him a seat nearby.

After the services, Eitan began to explain:

“I began my morning as I do every day, with meditation. In the stillness of the moment, it suddenly dawned on me with total clarity that indeed there is a G‑d and His Torah is true. From some long forgotten memory, I remembered that this was the High Holiday season. I went to check the calendar and realized it was Rosh HaShanah. I knew that I had to be here in the synagogue. But I also knew that one should not travel on this holy day. Aware that this moment of recognition of the truth could slip by, I concluded that it was a matter of danger to the preservation of my soul, so I took a train and here I am. Do you think G‑d will forgive me?”

Parshas Nitzavim

This week’s Torah reading contains the verse: “And it [i.e., the observance of the Torah and its mitzvos] is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to observe it.” On the surface, it is hard to say that the observance of the Torah is “close,” i.e., easy. On the contrary, the opposite often appears true. We are beset with challenges in our observance from within and without. External difficulties, be they the pressures of earning a livelihood or the tendency to conform to the norms of the surrounding environment, and internal difficulties in overcoming our natural drives and desires, make observance a trial. Certainly, the trial can be overcome, but it is a trial, nonetheless.

When does that apply? When we look at the world through mortal eyes and Torah observance is seen as a duty that we should fulfill. From such a perspective, even if we are happy in our observance and desire to carry out our obligations, our initial approach is “I want to do what I want to do.” From this vantage point, the Torah and its mitzvos do not relate to our essential identity. They are an added responsibility, dues that we have to pay. Therefore, they will be considered difficult. The degree of difficulty depends on our spiritual and material standing, but as long as we do not see them as expressions of who we are, they will run against our basic tendencies and we will have to work to be firm and steady in our Divine service.

There is, however, another path: to look at the world from G‑d’s perspective and from the perspective of the innate G‑dliness within our souls. G‑d sees the world as His dwelling place, His home. Now if you can, you make sure that all things in your home work well and see to it that they serve the purpose for which you brought them there. Needless to say, this applies with regard to G‑d’s home, our world, for He is the Creator and all existence is dependent on His will. If He brought something into being, it is because it fits His purpose and will. This applies not only to the particular entities in the world, but also to every event that occurs within the span of time. For not only did He bring the world into being at the very start of its existence, He maintains and controls that existence at every moment.

So from G‑d’s perspective, everything exists so that either directly or indirectly, it will contribute to the Jews’ observance of the Torah and its mitzvos. Why then will a person experience challenges and difficulties in his Divine services? After all, if its G‑d’s world, the observance of the Torah should be easy, without challenges. These difficulties exist so that we will be prompted to reach inside our souls and tap inner spiritual energies that would otherwise not be revealed. Realizing that the challenges are intended to be overcome is the first step in overcoming them and in showing that in fact observance is easy.

Looking to the Horizon

This Torah reading also contains a verse promising the coming of the Redemption: “And G‑d will return your captivity.” Our Sages note that the grammatical construction of the verse allows for the interpretation: “And G‑d will return with your captivity.” In that vein, they comment: “To every place the Jewish people were exiled, the Divine Presence was exiled with them. And when they return, the Divine Presence will return with them.”

Implied is that no one is never alone. No matter what the situation he or she is in, even in the greatest darkness, G‑d is with him.

And there is a greater lesson: Our redemption from exile is not merely a matter that affects us; it affects G‑d as well. As long as we are in exile, He is in exile. Our desire for redemption should therefore be not only for our own sakes: to expand our horizons, either materially or spiritually. Instead, we should think about how G‑d feels, as it were, how difficult it is for Him that His intent in creation is not being fulfilled. That realization should be a powerfully spur, motivating us to do everything we can to bring the exile to an end in the nearest possible future.