The Torah in Parashat Nitzavim tells of Benei Yisrael’s repentance after being exiled from their land, and God’s promise to return them from exile in response to their repentance and prayers. God promises that He will bless the nation with great prosperity “because you shall heed the voice of the Lord your God, observing His commands and statutes that are written in this book of the Torah, for you shall return unto the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul” (30:10).
The Torah here seems to emphasize the fact that the people will “heed the voice of the Lord your God” as a result of their “returning unto the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul.” Rather than simply state that God will bless the people in reward for their obedience, the Torah stresses that they will be rewarded for obeying God’s commands “for you shall return unto the Lord your God” – a point which seems to be obvious. After all, this entire section speaks of the people betraying God, suffering punishment, and then repenting. Quite obviously, then, the people now “heed the voice of the Lord” because they have “returned unto the Lord your God.” Why, then, is this point emphasized?
This difficulty was implicitly noted by Ibn Ezra, who explains, “it [the Torah] will not be observed unless the heart is whole; therefore, [the Torah emphasizes,] ‘with all your heart’.” In other words, the Torah here emphasizes that we can be said to “heed the voice of the Lord your God” only if we “return unto the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul” – meaning, if we serve Him with sincerity. According to Ibn Ezra, the type of obedience for which the nation will earn reward is that which stems from a commitment of “all your heart and all your soul” – a commitment that is wholehearted and genuine.
Ibn Ezra’s explanation is further elucidated by Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, in his Meshekh Chokhma commentary, where he notes that the verse speaks of observing all the laws “that are written in this book of the Torah.” The laws in the Torah text cannot be properly observed without the interpretation of our oral halakhic tradition; if we approach the text without these interpretations, we are bound to fail to properly fulfill our obligations. For this reason, Rav Meir Simcha writes, the Torah emphasizes that the people will obey God’s laws because they will repent “with all your heart and all your soul.” If we are not sincere in our quest to fulfill the will of God, then we will end up interpreting the Torah’s laws subjectively, in a manner that suits our personal preferences, intuition and biases. Therefore, in discussing repentance, the Torah emphasizes that we must approach repentance with a genuine desire to obey God’s commands without projecting our own predisposed attitudes onto the text. Teshuva requires opening our minds in an honest effort to determine what God expects of us, and then to meet those expectations. Without this honesty, if our “repentance” is not done with all our heart and soul, with complete sincerity, then we will end up serving not God, but rather our own interests. And thus the Torah emphasizes that teshuva must be performed “with all your heart and all your soul,” out of a genuine desire to understand and fulfill the word of God, without misinterpreting His word to accommodate our personal agendas and preconceptions.