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Parshas Vayeilech - Shuva (5776)

One Step at a Time

You may not have known this, but this coming Shabbos (September 19th) - which falls between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur - has a special name. It is called Shabbos Shuvah (lit. ‘Shabbos of Return’) and it takes its name from the Haftarah that is traditionally read in the synagogue on this Shabbos and which begins with the verse: “Shuvah Yisrael ad Hashem Elokecha ki chashalta ba’avonecha.- Return, O Israel to the Lor-d, your G-d, for you have stumbled through your iniquity” (Hosea 14:2).

Many commentators ask why the prophet Hosea, whose mission was to exhort the Jewish people to do teshuvah and to change their ways, chose the words “Shuvah Yisrael ad Hashem Elokecha” which literally mean “Return, O Israel until the Lor-d, your G-d”. Why should we only return until G-d and not all the way to Him?

The Holy Rabbi Shmelke of Nikolsburg (1726-1778) answers this question with a parable:

A man left his house on a very hot day, intent on reaching the neighboring city. He started to walk, while the burning sun beat down on his head. After walking some distance, all the while sweating profusely, his knees started feeling weak, and the package he was carrying on his shoulders felt heavier than ever. As he recalled how many more hours of walking he still had in front of him, and how difficult of a trek this was becoming, he began to lose hope and the spirit to go on. So he decided to turn around and head for home, and to wait for another opportunity with better weather. Had he been smarter and more psychologically astute, he would not have focused at all on his final destination and how far away it is. Rather, he should say to himself: I just want to make it until that tree over there. Upon reaching the tree, he should rest a bit and then say: I just want to go until that stone over there. This way, little by little, step by step, he will reach the neighboring city in due time.

So, too – explains Reb Shmelke – is the prophet Hosea telling us how to do a proper teshuvah that will ultimately succeed and get us to back to G-d. “Shuvah Yisrael” – if you want to be successful in your journey of return, “ad” – don’t try to do too much all at once, because it will backfire on you. Rather, just go “until” that place, i.e. take small steps, try to do better in this one area, and after that is done, try to take another step of self-improvement, etc. “Hashem Elokecha” – and then you will eventually succeed in coming all the way back to the L-ord, your G-d.

With this idea in mind we can explain the end of the verse in Hosea quoted above: “…ki chashalta ba’avonecha.- for you have stumbled through your iniquity”.

The Hebrew word ki has many meanings, and can sometimes mean “just like” (see, for example, Isaiah 55:9). So that the verse can be read: “Return to G-d just like you stumbled in your iniquity.”

In other words, Hosea is telling the Jewish people that they don’t have to fix their errant ways all at once. Rather, they should do teshuvah and return to G-d just like they sinned, i.e. they didn’t stumble all at once but it was a slow and gradual spiritual decline. So, too, should their teshuvah and return to G-d be a process, improving themselves one step at a time.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. one said: “You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”

We all know that at thirteen years of age, a boy becomes obligated in all 613 mitzvos of the Torah. So shouldn’t he be called bar mitzvos, son of many mitzvos, rather than bar mitzvah, son of one mitzvah?

The Sfas Emes answers that the word mitzvah is related to the Aramaic tzavsa, which means “connection” and “attachment”. By doing mitzvos, a person attaches himself to kedushah, holiness, and enjoys a life filled with happiness, faith and hope. A boy who reaches the age of thirteen submits to the yoke of mitzvos, thereby connecting with a life of purity and holiness – and is therefore called a bar mitzvah.

In light of what we said earlier, we can offer a different reason for calling the thirteen year old boy a bar mitzvah in the singular, even though he now becomes obligated in all the mitzvos at once. We are telling this young man that if he wants to be successful on life’s journey, he has only to focus on one mitzvah at a time. Just do until this point, and then when you conquer that, you can move on to your next challenge.

As a wise person once said: The key to greatness is not through doing great things but rather through doing good things consistently over a long period of time.

This is the message for the bar mitzvah boy: Just take one mitzvah to excel in, one character trait to improve – and make sure to do whatever you do one step at a time – and you will be well on your way to greatness.

[Sources: Bar Mitzvah & Tefillin Secrets: The Mysteries Revealed by Rabbi Dovid Meisels]

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