Meditation for Shabbat Shuvah


Do you ever talk to yourself? I’ve had conversations with myself since I was a little boy. He’s a voice that speaks from deep inside me. He cheers me up when I’m sad, he picks me up when I’m listless, and he goads me to do things I’m resistant to doing. He’s a talking conscience. He articulates my wisest thoughts. Because he knows me so well, he knows just what to say without putting me on the defensive. Even when I’m lonely, I never feel isolated from him.

I thought of my alter ego in the context of the Haftarah portion that designates this Sabbath as Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Return. Of course, the dictate shuvah gives rise to teshuvah, the word for repentance. Shuvah Yisra’eil ad Adonai Eloheicha, “return, Israel, to Adonai your God,” exhorts the prophet Hosea, (Hosea 14:2) and in the next verse, shuvah el adonai, “return toward Adonai.” (Hosea 14:3) The change in preposition is curious; what’s the difference, if any, between shuvah ad Adonai and shuvah eil Adonai, between returning to God and returning toward God?

The Haftarah continues with Hosea’s formula for confession. Nowadays, our Yom Kippur confessional is highly stylized, although we at Beth Shalom expand it annually with our unconventional practice of compiling our own list of transgressions. What are the words that Hosea prescribes? Not much. Not a litany of sins but a short, rather opaque declaration: kol tisa avon veqach tov uneshalmah parim sefateinu, which JPS translates: “forgive all guilt and accept what is good; instead of bulls we will pay the offering of our lips.” (Hosea 14:3) I want to convince you that the translation is inaccurate and that in his terse formulation, Hosea teaches us some important principles of teshuvah.

The first line, kol tisa avon, alludes to the thirteen attributes of divine mercy, a declaration that underlies and pervades the High Holiday season, beginning Adonai Adonai Eil rachum vechanum…, “Adonai Adonai, God of mercy and compassion…,” and ending nosei avon vaphesha vechata’ah, “forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin.” (Exodus 34:7) Although in the Biblical context, the three designations may be nearly synonymous, the later sages distinguish three levels of wrongdoing. Cheit, the least severe, is a term borrowed from archery, and literally means ‘missing the mark.’ It refers to sins committed inadvertently, accidentally, or unknowingly. Pesha, the most severe, is the nominal form of the verb pasha, “to rebel,” and refers to willful, wanton, malicious actions. Avon, the word used by Hosea in our Haftarah, occupies a middle ground. Avonot are intentional, but they’re not malevolent. They represent actions against other people or against God committed when we merely pursue our own desires and cause harm as a byproduct through inattention, insensitivity, or selfishness. I daresay most of our transgressions fall into this category. I’m particularly interested in the expression nosei avon, “forgiving guilt.” “Forgive” is an idiom, because nosei literally means “carry.” When we cry out tisa avon, we are asking God to carry our transgression. What could it mean for God to carry our transgression?

I think that most wrongdoings are cases of normal human instincts gone awry. For example, a person becomes so obsessed with financial security that he wants to do nothing but hoard money. Another is so insecure that she makes unreasonable demands upon others for attention, protection, and love. Another places his sexual desire above everything else. Avon derives from the root aveit, “twisted”. We begin with natural urges that become bent out of shape through misuse and misappropriation. At core, we are not evil. Elohai neshamah shenatata bi tehorah hi, the soul that God implanted within us is pure. We just do selfish things sometimes, because we’re so caught up in ourselves, we’re full of fear or shame, we act out old, ingrained roles, or we lash out in pain.

But God knows us. God knows us better than we know ourselves. Can we allow ourselves to bring to God the pain of our wrongdoing, all of it—not just the deed itself, but the hurt deep inside us that gave rise to the deed in the first place? Hosea continues: qach tov, “accept the good.” I would add: don’t “accept the good” instead of our shortcomings; rather, accept the good that lies underneath our shortcomings. Hosea emphasizes the completeness of our confession with unusual syntax, in which the word kol, “all of it,” precedes and subordinates the rest of the sentence: not just tisa kol avon, “forgive every guilt,” but kol tisa avon ve-qach tov, “all of it—carry our twistedness and accept our good,” not just the evil of our action, but the goodness of who we are inside, with all our pain and suffering. Ecclesiastes claims that “a twisted thing can never be repaired” (Ecclesiastes 1:15) — but that’s only if we try to untwist it ourselves.

In light of our expansive interpretation of confession, bringing to God everything that is in our hearts, we are in a position to read the final line of Hosea’s declaration differently. JPS translates uneshalmah parim sefateinu as: “instead of bulls we will pay the offering of our lips.” However, some scholars suggest reading pri instead of parah, “fruit” instead of “bulls,” with the advantage that if so, the verse now connects literarily to the imagery of flowering and blossoming later in the Haftarah, and especially in its penultimate verse. (Hosea 14:9) Furthermore, the root definition of shaleim is not “to pay” but “to complete.” I would prefer to translate: “we will make whole the fruit of our lips,” that is to say, full confession entails bringing everything to God, our weaknesses and our strengths, our failures and our successes, and, especially, our good instinct that drove our bad behavior.

Sometimes, when we are engulfed in the morass of our shame, we don’t have the compassion for ourselves to fulfill the directive shuvah ad Adonai, return to God. At times like those, all we can do is take the smallest step toward God: shuvah eil Adonai. But it’s enough. On the passage in Song of Songs where God is depicted as knocking on the door of His beloved: “Open for me, my one and only, my darling, my innocent dove,” Midrash Rabbah comments: “The Holy One said to Israel: “my child. If you open to me the gate of teshuvah just a tiny crack, then I will swing the gates open for you so wide that chariots and wagons can drive through them.’’ (Song of Songs Rabbah 5:2)

Hashiveinu Adonai Eleicha venashuvah. “Return us to You God, and we will return.” Who actually takes the first step toward reconciliation? God? Ourselves? By the end of the Haftarah for Shabbat Shuvah, in the concluding verses of the entire Book of Hosea, in fact, the dialogue between God and Israel becomes so tight that scholars argue over the speaker of each particular line. The text resembles a play featuring two characters in rapid-fire exchange—only the characters’ names are missing from the manuscript. Who is saying what? At a certain point, the voice of God and the voice of Israel echo each other and become indistinguishable.

So, what about this fellow with whom I am in the habit of conducting conversations when I’m out for a long hike in the woods? I like to think that my inner voice is a conduit for the divine. I like to think that the voice of God emerges when “we exchange words with ourselves.” (Hosea 14:2) Our confessions before God are really confessions before ourselves. “Indeed, You know the mysteries of the universe, and the best kept secrets of every human being,” says the Yom Kippur liturgy. “You search out the innermost rooms of our soul; You examine all our feelings, all our thoughts. Only let our words reach our own ears, and our secrets enter our own hearts; … so we may regret and resolve, and thus return.”