Shabbat Shuva
Dr Annette M. Boeckler


Shabbat Shuva Oct 4, 2008

Dr. Annette M. Boeckler

Kol Nefesh Masorti Edgware / librarian and lecturer at Leo Baeck College



9 Shabbatot in the Jewish year bear special names, derived not from the weekly parasha, but either from just a special part of it (Shira), a special maftir (Shekalim, Zakhor, Parah, HaChodesh) or a special Haftara. Shuva "Return" is the first word of today's prophetical reading. This sets Shabbat Shuva in line with Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat preceding Pessach, Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbat preceding 9Av and Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat introducing the 7 weeks of consolation before Rosh HaShana. All these Shabbatot hint at something beyond them. They prepare us for an important event in the near future that needs preparation. Shabbat Shuva is the Shabbat preceding Yom Kippur. We are prepared to look forward to next Wednesday evening and Thursday, although the name of this Shabbat means "Return". To move forward we have to return.


Return to what? to good old times? to old traditions? To what would you like to return? And why should you return when you actually want to progress, or do you not want to progress?


The prophet Hosea says: "Return, O Israel, to the Eternal One your God, for you have fallen because of your sin. Take words with you and return to the Eternal One. Say to Him: Forgive all guilt and accept what is good; Instead of bulls we pay the offering of our lips" (Hos 14:2-3).


This is not only the rabbinic prooftext to legitimize prayer but also the shortest summary of Yom Kippur. The Torah in Lev 16 and Mishnah Yoma contain long and detailed descriptions how the High Priest has to handle the bullocks of the sin offering and the two goats to make atonement for Israel and we quote this ritual in the Mussaf Service on Yom Kippur. Our Haftara today brings all this to the point. What Yom Kippur means can be said in a few seconds: Our sin offerings on Yom Kippur are our words. They pave the way of our returning to God. It's very easily summarized, but to understand the meaning and the consequences, we really need a full day, even more, and indeed we get more. At the end of every liturgical Torah reading we are reminded: "Take us back, O Eternal One, to Yourself, and let us come back; Renew our days as of old." (Echa 5:22).


Many questions are open, but we will have a whole day next week to think about them: What or who is God for me? Do I have to renew my relationship with him? Why not? How can my words of prayer become meaningful, at least next Wednesday evening and Thursday? Why does the Torah service end with words about Returning to God, what is the role of torah in my returning? Are words enough?


I wish you good preparations for Yom Kippur and Shabbat Shalom.