Soft and Hard Returns: A Shabbat and Rosh HaShanah Message from Rabbi Kobrin

My keyboard has changed since I began typing.

I don’t use a Mac, so on the right side of my keyboard, underneath the backspace key, lies the key labeled “enter.”  When I first began typing, I used a typewriter: my mom’s electric Smith-Corona.  When I reached the end of a line of text, I would use my right pinky to hit the oversized button labeled “return.”  This would magically bring the carriage back to the beginning of the next line and even move the paper up for me.  I could start all over again.

We think a great deal about returning as we prepare for Rosh HaShanah next week.  The word teshuvah, a word that we translate as “repentance,” really translates as “return.”  The same word — and the same idea — appears a number of times in our short but timely (aren’t they always?) parasha of Nitzavim.  In the first verses of chapter 30, the root shav appears numerous times.  It refers both to the Children of Israel’s return to God as well as to the physical return to the land Israel after the exile.

Computerheads (and typewriter nerds) know that there is a difference between a “hard return” and a “soft return:” a “hard return” is typed in by the user.  That’s the key I would hit with my pinky on my mom’s typewriter.  It forces the cursor back to the start of the next line.  Sometimes we need to shake ourselves up a little as we reflect on who we have been over the past year.  When our doctor scares us by saying that we need to make a significant lifestyle change if we want to preserve our health, it can be a “hard return.” We are upset, but we often are able to turn things around and make a change for the better.  After the blessings and the curses, says the Torah, ve-hashevota el-levavecha, “you will reflect on them,” and then you will return to God: ve-shavta ad Hashem Elokecha vi-shamata be-kolo.  All that comes before is not forgotten, but we put it behind us.  We begin a new line.  That’s a “hard return.”  We need a radical change in our behavior.

On the other hand, there’s a “soft return” too.  A “soft return” is inserted automatically by the word processor (I brushed up on that here:  It causes a word to “wrap” from one line to the next without starting a new line of text.  After Hashem punishes our enemies, says the Torah, ve-ata tashuv, ve-shamata be-kol Hashem, “you will return and listen to Hashem’s voice.”  Occasionally, it’s easy to do the right thing: we only need to set the alarm clock for ten minutes earlier to pray each day, to find a little extra energy to learn with our children, or to refrain from saying the nasty comment to the person next to us on the train.  Those are “soft returns.”

The Torah uses what seems to be odd grammar when it describes how God will bring us back: ve-shav Hashem Elokecha et shevut’echa, “God will turn your captivity.”  The commentators are quick to point out that this should read ve-heshiv et shevut’echa, “God will return you from captivity.”  The Talmud in Megila explains that God is with us in our captivity.  When we suffer, He suffers; and when we return, Hashem returns as well.

As we gear up for the season of teshuva, of returning to God, whether we need to perform “hard returns,” and perform radical changes in our lives, or “soft returns,” and make some gentle tweaks to how we think, speak, and act, we can draw strength from knowing that God is close and that He remains with us as we make our journey back.

I wish all of you a Shabbat Shalom and a ketivah ve-chatimah tova.

Rabbi Jeffrey Kobrin