This Shabbat is one of a handful of special Shabbatot tied to the festival calendar. In this case it is Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat of return. This is the Shabbat that falls between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Traditionally Shabbat Shuva was one of two times during the year when the rabbi would deliver a sermon (the other being Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat that occurs right before Passover). On Shabbat Shuva, the sermon would focus on the themes we sing about during the High Holidays: teshuvah (repentence), tefillah (prayer), and tzedakah (acts of justice).
On Shabbat Shuva, in addition to the Torah reading, which this year is Vayeilech, we have the additional haftarah readings from Hosea, Micah and Joel. Hosea’s words begin with, “Shuva Yisrael, Return, Oh Israel, to the Eternal your God, for you have stumbled in your iniquity” (Hosea 14:2).
The tradition of reading from Hosea, Micah and Joel combine both the Sephardic (Hosea and Micah) and Ashkenazic (Hosea and Joel) traditions. “The selection from Hosea focuses on a universal call for repentance and an assurance that those who return to God will benefit from divine healing and restoration. The selection from Joel imagines a blow of the shofar that will unite the people in fasting and supplication. Hosea focuses on divine forgiveness and how great it is in comparison to the forgiveness of man.”1
Thus in reading from these three prophets, we are re-emphasizing the central themes of our High Holy Day worship experience: teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah. Another way to think about these three are they represent the head, the heart and the hands. One is a spiritual, mental accounting of where we have gone astray during the past year, and how we can work to realign ourselves through acts of turning, returning, and seeking forgiveness. The second is a genuine expression of the heart through the power of prayer to find the strength to engage in acts of teshuvah. And the third, tzedakah is more than charity, it is deeds that bring greater justice into the world. None of these are easy, in and of themselves, but true change is never easy. It takes more than one day and possibly more than one season of the Yamim Noraiim.
Thankfully we are presented with the gift of this season to keep working on becoming the people who we always wish we can be. It does not end with the shofar on Rosh Hashanah or with the final Tekiah Gedolah on Yom Kippur. It continues with every Shabbat, and every other day where we open ourselves to the possibility of encountering the sacred and the holy in ourselves and in the world. So, on this Shabbat Shuva, may we all find the strength to continue to engage in the sacred acts of teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah, so that we can all be called to turn and return to the pathways of holiness.
Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff