We read verses that were visions of the future, predicted by the Creator of the Universe, though for us they are events that occurred in history. In these verses, we read that the Jewish nation will sin and veer off the path, will be exiled from its land, and after some time, will wish to return to its G-d and land. The Torah continues to describe that at this point, G-d will gather His nation from all the places to which they were exiled and He will return them to His land. This incredible revelation has already started to come true. The Jewish nation was exiled from its land and returned to it after nearly two-thousand years. The Torah describes what is going to happen from this point forward:
And the Lord, your G-d, will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, [so that you may] love the Lord your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul, for the sake of your life… And you will return and listen to the voice of the Lord, and fulfill all His commandments, which I command you this day.
(Deuteronomy 30, 6-9)
These consoling verses say that after the Jewish people return to their land, G-d will circumcise their hearts. What does that mean? Centuries of sin, exile, and distance created a sort of spiritual cover over the heart that thickened as time passed. The phrase “circumcise your heart” might seem familiar from some relationships in our lives that did not survive over time or through hardships. There were people in our lives to whom we opened our hearts at certain points and our relationship with them flourished, but as time passed, different events led us to distancing between us. Over the years, our hearts closed off and the old feelings were relegated to dark corners, replaced by a thick layer of disconnection and separation.
When the Jewish nation returns to its land, this layer has to be removed gently so that the heart can open, feel, and get closer to G-d. The “mohel” who will perform this circumcision on the heart of the Jewish nation is none other than G-d Himself. This process is what we know as “teshuva,” repentance. We are familiar with the term “teshuva” from this period of time in the Jewish calendar. During the time between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the Jewish nation is called upon to do teshuva, to repent for deeds of this past year. This teshuva is that of the individual. But the teshuva that the Torah is dealing with in this week’s parasha is the complete teshuva in which the entire Jewish nation returns to its G-d.
The mishna discussing the laws of Yom Kippur ends with these words
Akiva said: “Happy are you, Israel. Before whom are you cleansed; and who cleanses you? Your Father in heaven, as it is written (Ezekiel 36:25): ‘And I shall sprinkle upon you cleansing waters, and you shall be clean’ and (Jeremiah 17:13): ‘The Lord is the mikveh of Israel’ — Just as a mikveh cleanses the unclean, so the Holy One Blessed be He cleanses Israel.”
(Yoma 8, 8)
With these words and the verses quoted there are two additional descriptions of the process of teshuva and cleansing. The first description compares the process to sprinkling cleansing water on a person who became impure due to proximity with a body, with G-d acting as the kohen sprinkling the cleansing water. The second description is loftier, with the process of teshuva compared to a person entering a ritual bath to become pure and cleansed. In this allegory, G-d Himself is the mikveh, the ritual bath, purifying the Jewish people.
Rabbi Akiva, among the greatest of Mishna sages, expresses wonder and pride: How amazing to be part of the Jewish nation! Not only does a Jew get help in the process of doing teshuva and softening his heart, but G-d Himself is the one offering the assistance, and He is the mikveh, the ritual bath, cleansing man of all his sins.
These different images are all allegories for the process Am Yisrael is slated to undergo: the process of teshuva, cleansing, and softening the heart as preparation for the return to the ancient covenant, thousands of years old, between G-d and His people.