Affirmation and Teshuvah
Delivered at Temple Emanu-El on September 22, 2017
The name of this Shabbat, Shabbat Shuvah comes from the first words of this week’s haftarah portion, from the book of Hosea 14:2:
שׁוּבָה יִשְׂרָאֵל עַד יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ כִּי כָשַׁלְתָּ בַּעֲוֹנֶךָ
Return, O Israel, to Adonai your God, For you have fallen because of your sin.
Now you may have heard people also refer to this Shabbat as Shabbat T’shuvah, it is indeed a play on words and relates back to the original name of Shabbat Shuvah, a Shabbat of Return.
This opening line of our Haftarah portion encompasses the call from Hosea for the Israelites to return to their better selves. Hosea cried out, “Return, Israel, return to your God, you have made mistakes, and now you should seek to go back from your sinful ways.”
Hosea continues his call, this time speaking out to God,
כָּל־תִּשָּׂא עָוֹן וְקַח־טוֹב וּנְשַׁלְּמָה פָרִים שְׂפָתֵינוּ
Forgive all guiltAnd accept what is good; Instead of offering bulls we will pay with an offering from our lips.
Instead of giving animal sacrifices to God, the Israelites were going to offer up words, they were going to put all of themselves into their return toward goodness in this world — this was Hosea’s initial request. If the Israelites began by confessing, with words, their wrongdoings, the hope was that this would lead to a change in their action and relationship with God. All of our prophets sought to inspire the Israelites to do better, to be better. The prophets conveyed hope for the future of the Israelites in times of struggle and in times of doubt.
The themes throughout the book of Hosea tie directly to the themes of this High Holy Day season:
The book of Hosea begins with (1) Israel’s abandoning of God and God’s punishment of Israel for that abandonment, which leads to (2) calls for Israel’s return from sin toward goodness, and ends with (3) the hope for an ideal future of reconciliation between God and Israel.
This is what we continue to do today. The process of t’shuvah is to recognize the ways in which we have abandoned God or the godliness within ourselves or others. Perhaps we never felt a sense of punishment directly from God, but instead we felt pain from broken relationships, friendships that were torn apart by poor word choices and stubborn opinions; we felt regret for not giving that dollar to the hungry man on the corner; we felt remorse for not being more patient with our children; we felt sad after spending too much time with our technology and not enough time truly present with our family.
These are difficult pieces of our lives to confront, and it is not that we should beat ourselves up for every big or little thing in our life, because that could cause much more harm than good. Instead, we should heed the calls of our prayers and our family and our friends to find ways to better ourselves each day. Israel heard the calls to return from sin toward goodness, and they too went back to sin and had to work toward goodness again and again. We didn’t have just one prophet, the Israelites constantly needed to be reminded. No one is immune to this process.
But we go on this journey toward self-improvement throughout our lives and all the more so in these days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Those yield lights are flashing and they are signaling to us, “Hey, if you haven’t been working on yourself lately, maybe it is time to slow down, take a deep breath, find some quiet, and evaluate.” Affirm yourself for all the amazing things that you have done this year. For some, getting out of bed on a daily basis is a real, true struggle, so if that has gone better for you this year, make sure you affirm that accomplishment. If you were trying to build a better relationship with a family member, and you made some progress, even with speed bumps, don’t forget to affirm that as well. These are days of deep reflection, but not the kind where you should only put yourself down; rather, make sure you hold up all the great that you have done alongside the things you need to continue to improve.
Like Hosea, we are all seeking to hold onto that hope, the hope for an ideal future of reconciliation. For Hosea, that reconciliation was between God and Israel. For us, that reconciliation can play out in an infinite number of ways. Reconciliation with ourselves, allowing ourselves to make mistakes and to learn from them; reconciliation of our relationships with family, friends, and with the Presence in This World That is Bigger than Ourselves. In the words of our prophet Hosea, “[God] will take [the Israelites] back in love; [God’s] anger has turned away from them. [God] will be to Israel like dew; [Adonai] shall blossom like a lily, [God] shall strike root like a tree…and they who sit in [God’s] shade shall be revived.” May we find comfort in these words, in one another, and in God’s presence as we continue on this spiritual journey.