Archive for Shabbat Shuva

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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Shabbat Shuva/Yom Kippur: Questioning Fasting

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shabbat Shuva and Yom Kippur

I hope, for them’s that were observing Rosh Hashanah, that your holiday was beautiful and joyful. We’re in the middle of the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur- these days
are known as the “ten days” or the “ten days of repentance” (The first
day of RH was day 1 of the ten days, which ends on YK itself) in which
we are enjoined to examine our actions and make amends or apologies
where necessary.

The haftarah for the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is a
“combo pack” of verses from the books of Hosea, MIcah and Joel (this
is the Ashkenazi tradition), which taken together proclaim a message
of repentance and forgiveness. There are- at least for those
communities that read the section from Joel- allusions to the
practices of shofar and fasting on the Days of Awe:

“Blow a horn in Zion,
Solemnize a fast,
Proclaim an assembly!
Gather the people,
Bid the congregation purify themselves. . . ” (Yoel/Joel 2:15-16)

The rest of the passage proclaims God’s faithfulness to the people
Israel and their eventual redemption. The theological message of the
haftarah for “Shabbat Shuva” (Sabbath of Returning/Repentance) is
pretty straightforward: if the people examine their ways, God will not
forsake them. This makes sense as a prelude to Yom Kippur: we declare
our fasting as a communal commitment to cheshbon nefesh –
“soul-accounting”- secure in the faith that if we return in integrity,
we will be accepted. Divine forgiveness becomes a model for human
behavior- for if God accepts and forgives, shall we not as individuals
do the same with each other?

So far- so good.

Now, fast forward a few days to Yom Kippur, to the famous haftarah
from Yeshayahu/Isaiah, which throws some cold water on our plans to
fast, pray, and be renewed:

“Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?” (Isaiah 58:5)

In the passages preceding this rebuke, the prophet imagines the people
complaining to God that they’re fasting and doing everything right,
but God isn’t heeding their prayer. This is no surprise, because
(according to the prophet’s evocative images) they may be fasting and
praying and doing the rituals of repentance but they are also carrying
on as usual with strife, selfishness and greed. Yeshayahu thus chides
the people for thinking that fasting alone constitutes t’shuvah; they
may be fasting, but they are not growing in compassion and justice,
and thus missing the point.

To me, the contrast between these two haftarot is both striking and
profound: on Shabbat Shuva, this weekend, we’re called to proclaim the
fast day, but on Yom Kippur, the haftarah tells us that the fast day
itself might be part of our problem or even a sign of our hypocrisy,
especially if we grow arrogant about our piety while in denial about
our lovingkindness. The resolution, I think, is to see the two
haftarot hinting at a process: first we gather together, because if
doing the hard work of a fearless moral inventory seems overwhelming,
at least we can support each other in community and grasp on to the
liturgies and rituals of Yom Kippur to prod our introspection.

Then, when we’re in the middle of the process, Yeshayahu comes and
says: be careful not to confuse the outward sign of the t’shuvah
process with the real inner work. Don’t confuse the day, which is the
container, with the contents, which is humble acknowledgment of our
imperfections and a commitment to create more compassion in our lives
despite those imperfections.

Thus there is the instruction: “solemnize the fast day!” and the
bracing question: “is such the fast I desire?” One leads to the other,
and the prophet’s question, framed as God’s demand, is really the
question all of us need to ask ourselves.

With warmest wishes for an beautiful Yom Kippur,


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Ha’azinu and Shabbat Shuva 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ha’azniu and Shabbat Shuva

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Ha’azinu/ Shabbat Shuva (Deuteronomy 32:1-52)


Parashat Ha’azinu is Moshe’s last speech to the Israelites- it is a powerful poem recalling the sacred history since the Exodus from Egypt, and warning the Israelites in the strongest terms not to stray from the path that God has commanded. At the end of the parasha, God tells Moshe that he will be able to see the Land of Israel, but will not be able to enter it.

The Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuva– literally the “Sabbath of Returning”- because of the special haftarot (readings from the prophets) which emphasize the theme of tshuvah, or repentance, characteristic of the High Holidays.


“Remember the days of old, understand the years of the generations. . .” (Deuteronomy 32:7)


At the beginning of his long, poetic, theological discourse, Moshe asks the current generation to consider the past, when the previous generations had done things that brought about God’s anger. Presumably Moshe is referring to the people’s complaining in the desert, the building of the Golden Calf, and other acts of apparent rebellion. As we make our choices in life, it’s important to consider and be open to learning the lessons of history.


Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein, a Chassidic rabbi who lived in Poland in the late 19th century, makes a wonderful drash out of a wordplay on the word “years” in our verse above. “Years,” in Hebrew, is shanot; picking up on a comment by the medieval scholar Ibn Ezra, R. Bornstein relates this to the root of the word for changes, which in Hebrew is shinui. So he reads the verse like this: “understand the changes throughout the generations.”

For R. Bornstein, the highest point of the Jewish people was the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and we’ve been in slow spiritual decline every year since. So “considering the changes” in the generations, in his perspective, is a humbling experience- we might think that the latest, most technologically advanced age is the best, but perhaps the spiritual accomplishments of the previous generation were even greater than our own. We should humbly reflect on both the faults and achievements of those who came before us, and ask ourselves if we’ve really worked on improving the faults and living up to the achievements.

That’s not a bad idea to mull over at this introspective time of year, but we might take his midrash in a different direction too. Perhaps “considering the changes of the generations” means that we can reflect on the potential for change in every generation. I understand one essential element of Judaism as the teaching that people are never “stuck” in a spiritually dismal place- there is always the possibility of change, growth, forgiveness, reconciliation, and return to our best selves. All these would be elements of tshuvah, or “repentance,” but more literally understood as “returning” to that which makes us most fully human.

Thus on this “Shabbat of Returning,” we might understand Moshe’s poem as not only urging us to consider the mistakes of the past, and learn accordingly (which is hard enough), but also to consider that the past is not necessarily a prologue to the future. We are not doomed to repeat the errors of the past, either as individuals, communities, or nations- to me, Judaism is more optimistic than that. Consider the past, but don’t feel that you’re stuck in it; this is a central message of the holiday season.

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