The Door Always Opens

השיבינו אבינו לתורתך … ברוך אתה ה’ הרוצה בתשובה/Hashivenu Avinu le’Toratekha … Barukh Atah Adonai, ha’rotzeh bi’teshuva. “Return us, O our parent, to Your Torah … Blessed are You Adonai, who desires repentance.”

The Amidah’s second petitionary prayer is a request for repentance. Many commentators consider this to follow naturally from the first petition: after seeking da’at, mental capacities, we can see where we have gone wrong in our lives, which naturally stirs a desire to change, grow, improve, repair.

Addressing this petition to God does not make obvious sense. It is we, after all, not God, who are responsible for turning our own lives around. The conception underlying this prayer must be something like: give us the spiritual power to make the journey You demand. This recalls the famous Bible verse [Lamentations 5.20], still recited in synagogues today: Hashivenu Adonai elekha v’nashuvah, “return us toward You and we will return.” To journey toward our better selves, we need help from heaven.

When I davven this blessing, several elements open my heart. One is the address to God as avinu, “our parent,” who will encourage our repentance. This is a common epithet across Jewish tradition, but not in the Amidah, where it appears only three times in the Ashkenazi version (and a fourth in the Sefaradi). The Amidah in general is more oriented to placing a worshiper before God’s the might and dominion of the heavenly throne, instead of the more tender image of a loving parent embracing us in the divine bosom, seating us in the divine lap.

Yet when seeking the power to return, invoking God as avinu lands just right on my ears. Parents teach children how to act and what to care about. When we lose our way, sometimes we need to turn to what we learned from our very first teachers, and let their Torah show us the way back. This blessing uses that gentle, intimate image, calling parent, bring me home. Ancient Midrash develops this theme: If a royal child were kidnapped and exiled for years upon years, that child would not be embarrassed to cry bring me home, for it is to my own heritage that I return. [Sifrei Devarim 345, also cited by R. David Avudraham, 14th c., Spain], one of the classic siddur interpreters.]

When I davven, I like to play with the semantic range of the word teshuvah. This noun can mean something as grand as repentance, but it can also mean simply the answer to a question, or the response to a telephone call. When we say that God is rotzeh bi’teshuva, we can mean that God desires us to turn from vice toward virtue. That works for me. But I also like to imagine that God as one who poses insistent questions and summons our attention. When I davven that God is rotzeh bi’teshuva, I also mean that God “wants an answer,” and “demands a response.”

Finally, when I davven this blessing I summon up Judaism’s extravagant praise of the power of teshuvah. It brings on redemption. It heals the world. It ushers us into God’s presence. It transforms our sins into the path of mitzvot. All this can be found in the final pages of the Talmudic tractate Yoma. Our tradition’s rich development of this theme emerges from the biblical prophets, especially Isaiah, Hoshea and Ezekiel. They teach us that no matter how lost we are, there is always a way out of the maze. No matter how severe our errors or how heavy our guilt, we find in God another chance to begin anew. I could cite any number of verses or teachings to instantiate this idea. So to keep it short, I will cite a High Holiday hymn, probably written by Yannai, one of the earliest synagogue poets, around the 6th century, in the Land of Israel:

הפותח שער לדופקי בתשובה – וכל מאמינים שהוא פתוחה ידו

“God opens the gate to all who knock in repentance/all believe God is open-handed.”

Blessed is God who asks us to knock. The door will always open.