Shabbat Shuvah: A Choice To Return

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayelech/ Shabbat Shuva

Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have fallen in your sin. . . .” (Hosea 14:2)

Good afternoon!

The Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called “Shabbat Shuvah,” so named because of the call to “return” (shuvah) in the opening lines from Hosea above.

This call to “return” is understood in the sense of repentance or renewal after a moral or spiritual stumbling, and is obviously a main theme of the Days of Awe. Abraham Joshua Heschel understood the prophetic call to return as being rooted in the dynamic relationship between humankind and the Holy One; we are not subject to inexorable laws of judgment or a mechanistic set of reactions, but free to choose our spiritual and moral state. In his book called simply The Prophets, Heschel contrasts the prophetic call to “return,” assured of Divine love and grace, with the impersonal and over-determined experience of karma, or being locked into some fate or destiny that cannot be changed, only accepted. (Please note: I think Heschel didn’t really understand the Buddhist idea of karma in its own terms, but that’s a discussion for another time, and a minor disagreement.)

Yet in the year 2012 I think we’re less likely to believe in some mystical notion of fate, karma or destiny than in more rational versions of determinism: psychology (my childhood made me do it !), genetics (my DNA made me do it !), sociology (my peers made me do it !), neurobiology (my brain wiring made me do it !), or even one’s digestive system (my gut flora made me do it !) Now, don’t get me wrong, I think it’s clear that human beings are powerfully affected by these factors- but we also know that we are affected, and can thus choose to take actions that modulate those forces which turn us in unhelpful directions. That is: we can’t always choose with perfect serenity all our actions and reactions,  but we can choose to create spiritual and social structures for ourselves in which we’re more likely to be more in tune with our highest ideals.

“Returning”- to God, to Torah, to others, to our own best selves- is about retaining the dignity of knowing we have choices. The message of of this season is to remind us of those choices. We’re all carrying baggage from childhood/ genes/ peers/ history/ past traumas, and it’s also true that if we fall short, there is an endless grace awaiting our turn inward and upward. That’s the message of “Return, O Israel;” nobody is too far or too late.

Shabbat shalom,


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