One of the most beautiful and popular verses in Torah is found in this week’s parshah, Ki Tavo. In the midst of showering the People of Israel with blessings, G-d declares, “You will blessed when you come, and blessed when you go.”
Rashi illuminates the meaning of the blessing to each individual: “May your departure from the world be as free of sin as was your entry into the world.” Imagine that. The degree to which a person is free from sin at his entry into the world is 1,000 percent. Sounds a bit fantastic, no?
As the director of Aleph NE, I have seen up close the struggles of incarcerated men and women and the great challenges that face them “when they come and when go,” at the time of their arrest and, surpassingly, to a more difficult degree, upon their eventual release.
What the system calls “re-entry” into mainstream society after having served time behind bars is for some even more difficult than the actual prison itself. And that hardship is something I have reflected upon endless times, pondering the resemblance that it has to so many of the personal struggles faced by all people — free or not — in day-to-day life.
“Re-entry” is a wonderful English translation of the Hebrew word “Teshuva.” While some mistranslate Teshuva as penitence, it actually means “return.” The fact that we refer to penitence as return implies that cleaning up our act and shedding past sins is not an entry into to a clean and innocent life, rather it is a re-entry — a return — back to a clean and innocent life. It implies that every person has a clean and innocent core that remains unflawed by sinful experiences and patiently awaits the person’s return to his or her natural state of goodness.
When G-d sees fit to send His angels to pluck a person from the clutches of their own destructive behavior, the person has one job: Don’t look back. Look ahead to the bright and meaningful future and move, move, move!
To every person re-entering a peaceful society with valuable experience from their ordeals, Torah challenges: If, after a torturous ordeal, you still have hopes and dreams, it is because you were blessed when you came into the ordeal. But now as you are released from its grip, it’s up to you to ensure that you are also blessed when you leave. Are you are taking lessons from the past with you? Or are you simply taking the past with you? The two are easily confused, so proceed with caution. And when in doubt, don’t turn around, don’t look back, and leave the past in the past where it belongs.
Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel is executive director at the Aleph Institute-North East Region.