This Torah reading contains the verse: “You will return to G‑d your L‑rd and heed His voice.” Maimonidesunderstands this verse as a description of what will take place in the future. Our translation follows that interpretation, i.e., after the Jews will be dispersed among the nations, they will turn to G‑d in repentance and then He will redeem them, bringing them back to the Land of Israel. Nachmanides, by contrast, interprets this verse as a command to repent, translating it as: “You shall return to G‑d.”

The difference in interpreting this verse can be understood within the scope of a larger question: Is teshuvah, repentance, a mitzvah or not? There are commentaries who consider teshuvah as one of the 613 mitzvos and others who do not include it in that reckoning, maintaining that there is no explicit mitzvah to repent.

The spiritual basis for these two positions can be explained as follows: The mitzvos are described using the analogy of the human body. In that context, the 248 positive commandments are comparable to the 248 limbs of the body and the 365 negative commandments are comparable to its 365 sinews. Because G‑d’s will is manifest in the Torah and its mitzvos, by observing them we connect our thoughts, words and actions with Him. Whenever we perform a mitzvah, we reinforce our connection with Him, energizing the particular spiritual limb and strengthening the health of the body as a whole, as it were. Every transgression, by contrast, weakens that connection and causes a blemish to the corresponding spiritual organ involved.

Nevertheless, every Jew shares a bond with G‑d that is not at all dependent on his deeds, for his soul is an actual part of G‑d. For this reason, even a person who has failed to establish a connection with G‑d through mitzvos or even one who has sinned and thus obstructed that connection, may still feel a desire — and still retains the capacity — to return to Him.

This is the motivation for teshuvah, repentance. A Jew’s inner spiritual core does not allow him to remain separate from G‑d. Spontaneously, it forces itself into the forefront of the person’s consciousness and motivates him to repent.

On this basis, we can understand the opinion that teshuvah is not a mitzvah. For that inner spiritual impetus cannot be commanded. Instead, almost instinctively, it surfaces of its own volition.

Because of the innate spiritual power of teshuvah, however, the possibility exists that it will cause a person to seek to rise above his ordinary day-to-day experience in pursuit of an entirely spiritual lifestyle. To prevent his experience from becoming other-worldly, his teshuvah must be grounded in the observance of mitzvos and the study of the Torah, i.e., within the context of conduct that conforms to normative standards of behavior.

This, then, is the source for the opinion that teshuvah should be considered a mitzvah. Anchoring teshuvah in a mitzvah channels its inner, spiritual power into a person’s ongoing Torah experience, enabling it to become a fruitful means of expression, enhancing and enriching the person’s life experience as well as the lives of others with whom he comes into contact.

Looking to the Horizon

Maimonides cites the above verse as a prooftext for the concept that “‘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.”

Why is teshuvah intrinsically connected with redemption? Because teshuvah involves coming in contact with the G‑dly core that lies at the heart of our individual existence. Similarly, the Redemption involves enabling the G‑dly core that lies at the heart of existence as a whole to surface. At that time, not only will we know that a G‑dly spark exists within every created entity, we will be able to perceive that G‑dliness and have it guide the focus of our lives.