Just thirty minutes outside of Baltimore, there are dozens of smooth country roads that flow like rivers between banks of undulating forest. As my wife and I coasted past rolling hills of green, we had the impression of driving over waves. Red barns and silver silos stood guard upon billowing crests while small ponds and brooks flowed through steep troughs.
Here and there, we found meadows picketed by wooden fences. Some were glazed recently with white paint, other fences were the color of smoke, the paint long peeled, the wood weathered and decayed. Beyond the fences, cattle grazed on tall grass. There was one breed that had short wooly hair growing in patches of charcoal and ivory. Another breed had a coat that was cherry-brown and leathery like a chestnut horse. We passed a long slope of trees that stretched like a cat into the distance, an endless forest of red maple, scarlet oak, hickory, white pine…. This being late September, scattered flecks of gold and red had begun to emerge like stars amid a velvet canopy of green. They were the first touches of the sunset we call ‘autumn.’
Yet as we drove, a polite but peaky robotic voice interrupted this visual feast with careful instructions. The voice belonged to my cellular phone. “Take next right in half a mile...Bear left at fork in-the-road…Continue straight toward destination…” As our eyes were lost in the scenery below, the phone’s navigational program guided us via satellites found high above. Though the convergence of Mother Nature and high technology was rather jarring, had we ignored the guiding voice, we would have been doubly lost in those trees, and we would have never arrived at our destination.
The one flaw of the navigation program was that each time I took a wrong turn or came upon a road that was not on one of its maps, the voice would suddenly announce: “recalculating…recalculating….” We would then wait anxiously for the phone to regain its bearings, to set a new course, to give us new directions. One time, however, the phone failed to find its way. As the minutes slowly passed, and no new course was forthcoming, we began to worry. It felt strangely as if it too were lost—perhaps just as lost as we were....
In this week’s double Torah readings, Nitzavim-Vayelech, we find a prophetic vision of Israel’s repentance and return. Amidst our preparations for the coming High Holidays, the passage is thematically apt. “Then you shall turn to the Lord your God, and hearken to his voice…you and your children, with all your heart and all your soul. Then the Lord your God will return your captivity, and have compassion upon you, and will return you from among the peoples…” (Deut. 30:2,3)
Some understand the phrase “the Lord your God will return your captivity” to mean that God will change your fortune, restore you as in days of old. (Shadal; Cf. Jeremiah29.14; 39.25) Yet the Sages of the Talmud rendered the expression differently: ‘The Lord your God shall return with your captivity.’ As if to say, when Israel went into exile, God went along for the ride and remained banished, so to speak, till Israel’s long-awaited repentance and return. (Megillah 29a; Cf. Torah Temima and Rashi Deut. 30.3)
There is something quite startling about this image of God, exiled among the exiled, adrift and suffering by our side. For it implies that when we turn astray, God turns with us. And when we are lost, so too is God. One wonders if somewhere a small thin voice is crying out desperately, ‘recalculating… recalculating…’
When the navigation voice finally returned, it did so after I had done something that hearkened back to days of old.... I looked at the road, at the signs, at the sun, and then calculated which way was east and west and north and south, till I situated myself. Then I chose a road that seemed to head in the right direction. Immediately the voice returned: “continue straight toward destination.”
We were both found.