This Shabbat is called Shabbat Tshuva (Sabbath of Repentance) because it is one of the “Ten days of Repentance” from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur.
But really the term “Tshuva” implies much more than just repentance.
Here is a story that I hope helps to explain this, and also its connection to Parshat VaYailech.
Rabbi Mendel Futerfass was a very active Chassid (follower) of the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, in the most oppressive years of Stalin’s regime. Years earlier, Stalin had declared war on all “counter-revolutionary forces” in Russia, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe and his Chassidim, who secretly encouraged and spread Judaism, were considered public enemy number one.
It wasn’t long before Rav Mendel himself was discovered, arrested, and taken away. Eventually he was sentenced to over seven years at hard labor in Siberia, but beforehand he was imprisoned in a huge rat-infested prison together with the dregs of Russian society.
Somehow he managed to keep sane in all situations, but one day something really bothered him. This was the fact that in two days would be the Holiest day of year “Yom Kippur”, and he had no prayer book.
The prayers of Yom Kippur are complicated. He tried his best to remember, but the only prayer he remembered in its entirety (because it is arranged according to the Hebrew Alphabet) was a beautiful poem called “Kol Ma’aminim”, namely “Everyone Believes” in G-d.
Suddenly, in the middle of this prayer, Rav Mendel stopped short and thought to himself,
“Hey! What am I saying here?! How can I say that everyone believes? Why, the ones who took me to prison were Jews, but they were also sworn atheists that had done the worst atrocities possible in the name of Stalin’s war against G-d”.
He waited another minute and decided that he had a good question…but it wasn’t going to ruin his Yom Kippur.
A few days later he had completely forgotten the incident. It was late at night and he was the only one of the fifty prisoners that was awake in the huge room. Everyone around him was asleep, and soon he would also be. But first he wanted to finish saying the “Shma Yisroel” prayer before laying down. Suddenly he felt that someone was staring at him.
He slowly looked up, and saw a massive scar-faced criminal gazing directly at him from a bed on the other side of the room.
As soon as he saw Rav Mendel look at him, he stood and swiftly but silently approached. Rav Mendel was sure that his life had come to an end; this man was a murderer, no doubt about it, and he looked like he meant business. He was already standing close, ready to attack.
“Are you Jewish?” the criminal bent over and asked in a semi-whisper.
Rav Mendel, without thinking, nodded yes.
“Well, I have a secret to tell you, don’t tell anyone or you’ll regret it. You want to hear?”
Rav Mendel, who till now thought he had seen everything, again shook his head yes.
“Well, I’m Jewish also. And not only that…I fasted this Yom Kippur. You want to know how?”
Rav Mendel was looking deeply into the man’s eyes for something human.
“You know how I knew it was going to be Yom Kippur?” He continued, “I heard someone say it outside at break” (the prisoners were allowed to walk in the prison-yard a few minutes a day under heavy guard) “and I remembered my Grandmother fasting.
I don’t know what happened to me, I never do anything Jewish. But I felt I had to, something deep inside me forced me.
The next day I told them that I was sick so they put me in solitary confinement, and I just sat there. But then I thought to myself, Sasha! What type of fool are you. You don’t even know a prayer. What type of Jew doesn’t know how to pray?
I felt really bad, but then suddenly I remembered a prayer my Grandmother used to say with me in the morning when I was a little boy: “Modeh Ani Lefanechaw, Melech Chai V’Kayom.” It means something like “Thank you G-d for being a King”.
So I sat in that room and just repeated it over and over from eight in the morning till seven at night – “Modeh Ani Lefanechaw, Melech Chai V’Kayom….Modeh Ani Lefanechaw, Melech Chai V’Kayom”.
I just wanted to tell someone, don’t tell anyone or you’ll regret it.” And he turned, returned to his bed, and went to sleep.
Rav Mendel still hadn’t digested what happened. He lay down, closed his eyes, and then suddenly sat bolt upright.
“THAT IS THE ANSWER TO MY QUESTION!” He said to himself. “If that murderer believes in G-d, then for sure…Kol Ma’aminim “Everyone Believes”.
That is the meaning of “Tshuva”; return.
Repentance means going forward, wiping out the past, and making a new future. But Tshuva means to return; to go back to your essence, to the reason you were created by G-d.
Just like Sasha in our story, he returned to the G-d of his Grandmother and of hundreds of generations of Jews before her. It was there that he found his essence.
This is also the meaning of the commandment of “HaKhail” found in this week’s section.
Once every seven years, on the holiday of Succot immediately after the Shmitta (Sabbatical) year, all the Jews in Israel would gather in the Holy Temple to hear the King read to them from the Torah.
The purpose of this commandment is to gather and unify the Jews to their source and their purpose. That is why it is specifically the King that reads and none other, because the purpose of the king is also to unite the Jews to their source. This is further hinted at in our section as Moshe hands over the Kingship to his successor Yhoshua.
This year is also a year of Hakail. All that is lacking is the gathering of Each and EVERY Jew to the Holy Temple together with the King Moshiach.
Just as Sasha felt his source, let us hope that this year the entire world “returns” to its Creator, fulfilling what we prayed for on Rosh HaShanna:
“That Every creature will know that You are its Creator, and every living being will say The G-d of Israel is the King and His kingdom is everything”
With Moshiach NOW!