Shovevim: A Time of Teshuvah

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06 Jan 2010

This Shabbat, we begin leining a new Sefer, Sefer Shemot, which begins a new story, a new saga that begins with B’nei Yisroel in exile in Egypt.

What is going on in the Parshiyot of Shemot, Va’Eyrah, Bo and B’Shalach? What is the story behind the story? What is the larger cosmic drama that is being played out?

There are two major characters, Moshe and Pharaoh. And according to the Baal Shem Tov, each of the two main characters represents a different perspective. Moshe represents and is identified with knowledge of Hashem, God. He is the one who brings the Torah to Bnei Yisroel – we call it Torat Moshe.

In striking contrast, when Pharaoh first meets Moshe, the first thing Pharaoh asks is “Mi Hashem?” Who is this God?

Pharaoh, who is a synecdoche, a symbol, for Egypt, represents the lack of knowledge of Hashem. Egypt, Mitzrayim, is all about the absence of God. Bnei Yisroel go down to Egypt and while they are there gradually forget about Hashem.

Egypt is the original exile and the paradigm for all future exiles. Exile always takes place on two levels. There is the physical exile and the spiritual exile. The physical exile is when the we, Jewish people, are cut off from our land. A spiritual exile is when we, the Jewish people, are cut off from our God. While all can witness a physical exile, it is harder to understand and appreciate the bitterness of a spiritual exile, because those in exile quickly lose their sensitivity to the spiritual suffering of exile.

The first half of Sefer Shemot is about the Jewish people, who once knew Hashem in the times of their forefather, the Avot, going down to Mitzrayim, while they are there forgetting Hashem and losing Hashem’s presence in their lives. Moshe, who represents knowledge of Hashem, challenges Pharaoh–who is emblematic of the absence of knowledge of God–and goes on to reveal God’s presence through the Makkos, the plagues. He then leads the Jewish people out of their physical and spiritual exile in Egypt and through the desert.

Among Chasidim and Kabbalists before that, this time of year is called Shovevim, which is an acronym for Shemot, Va‘era, Bo, Beshalach, Yitro, Mishpatim. And when there is a (Jewish) leap year, the period is known as Shovevim tat, which is Shovevim plus Terumah and Tetzaveh. Among Chasidim, this period is one of teshuvah, fasting, and selichot. And the Jewish Kabbalistic-ethical works talk about this period being one of teshuvah and introspection.

Why is this the time of year in which we now find ourselves one of Teshuvah and introspection? Because just as in this period the Jews are leaving Mitzrayim, their physical and spiritual exile led by Moshe Rabbeinu, in order to acquire knowledge of Hashem, so too, as we read these Parshiyot, we are asked to relive the experiences of our forefathers of leaving our modern day Galut Mitzrayim. So what is our modern day Galut Mitzrayim? As I mentioned earlier, Mitzrayim, as characterized by Pharaoh, is a place without knowledge of Hashem, without awareness of God. While the Jews in Egypt may have intellectually known about Hashem from their ancestors, they only called out to Him once their suffering became unbearable. So too, ourselves: in the dead of winter, when the days are short and the nights are long and cold, we experience a world that appears to be without Hashem, without God’s presence tangible in our lives. And the challenge of these Parshiyot, of Shovevim, is to leave our personal exile and bring Hashem into our lives — to be our own Moshe Rabbeinu by bringing awareness of God into our lives, just as Moshe did for Bnei Yisroel in Egypt.

If the winter season with its cold, short days is an apt metaphor for the disappearance of God’s presence from our lives, sunlight, is an equally appropriate metaphor for the obvious presence of God, for His warmth and light, in our lives. It is with the spring, and the holiday of springtime, Pesach, the holiday of Yetzi’at Mitzrayim, the exodus from Egypt, that the symbolic absence of God ends and the presence of Hashem becomes tangible in our lives once again.

Till now we’ve been talking about a Yerushalayim. The place that represents the antithesis of both physical and spiritual Galut, exile. It is the psychological and spiritual center of the land of Israel. The settling of Yerushalayim by Dovid HaMelech represented the final stage of the settling of the land of Israel before the building of the Beit HaMikdash.

It is also the place where God’s presence is most felt. The time when people literally come to be in God’s presence is during the Shalosh Regalim, Pesach, Shevu’ot and Sukkot. It is at these times, when all of Jewish people gather in Yerushalayim that the collective spiritual potential of the Jewish people was most fully manifested. The antithesis of Egypt, the place of lack of knowledge of God, is Yerushalayim where the Jewish people come to connect to Hashem.

So, today, how do we free ourselves from our own personal spiritual exile? Well, let’s look at the Parshiyot of Shovevim. If this period was all about leaving Egypt it would be called Shovev. Because, after Parshat Beshalach, after Yetziat Mitzrayim, the Jews are no longer enslaved to Pharoh. But it is called Shovevim and includes Yitro and Mishpatim. At the end of Mishpatim the Jewish people accept the Torah. And that is where they say Naaseh Ve-Nishmah.

Bnei Yisroel choosing to accept the Torah is the end of their physical and spiritual exile. So too whenever we make a choice, a conscious decision, in our own small part, we are bring awareness of Hashem into our lives. Every time we choose to learn Torah is an act of leaving Galut Mitzraim. And every time we choose to think about a Bracha instead of just rattling off the words, that is, in a small way, reenacting these parshiyot of Shovevim and leaving Galut Mitzrayim for Matan Torah on their way to Yerushayalim, along the path to Yemot Ha-Moshiach, the ultimate time of awareness of God.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.