Shabbat Shuvah: An individual act of community

Shabbat Shuvah: An individual act of community

Temple Emeth, Teaneck, Reform

This week many of us will enter our synagogue to confess and repent our sins. The script for the confession and repentance are in the machzor, the High Holy Day prayer book. The sins we confess are a litany, a repetitive list of prayers or requests. In one such litany, the “Al Cheit,” the line between individual and community is blurred. We confess misdeeds that we as individuals are prone to making, but the phrasing of the confession is in the plural, connecting us with our greater community.

The idea of having a script of confession to recite before God predates the machzor. This week’s Haftarah portion, rather than having a thematic link to the Torah portion, instead emphasizes the theme of repentance. So crucial are these words to our understanding of the season that the name of this Shabbat comes from the first word of the Haftarah: “Shuvah—Return.”

The Haftarah is composed of multiple prophetic voices, the first of which is Hosea 14:2. He begins directly: “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have fallen because of your sin.” Having presented the moral and religious challenge, Hosea provides the people the very words they should say to repair the breech: “Take words with you and return to the Lord. Say to Him: ‘Forgive all guilt and accept what is good; instead of bulls we will pay [the offering of] our lips. Assyria shall not save us, no more will we ride on steeds; nor ever again will we call our handiwork our god, since in You alone orphans find pity!’”

Two things stand out to me about this passage. The first is that in a society that saw animal sacrifice as the preeminent form of worship, we see a shift to the value of words. Jewish life today has no animal sacrifice, so words must be the vehicle to express our truest longings to God. And similar to the confession in the machzor that we recite, the prophet seeks to standardize the words, helping us to say what God wants to hear at the moment we most seek to connect with God.

The other connection — albeit more subtle — to our liturgy is that Hosea easily crosses the line between individual and communal responsibility. The first verse of the Haftarah addresses Israel in the singular, as if the nation were a single person. The second addresses the people in the plural, truly as a community. To drive the point home, the word “return” appears in both lines, first as “Shuva” in the singular and then as “Shuvu” in the plural.

One can read it as a mere poetic flourish. But I see a deeper meaning. One’s sins have ramifications that affect the community, and a nation’s sins impact every individual. It is impossible to fully separate individual and communal culpability and repentance.

The second prophetic voice in this Haftarah, as read in Ashkenazic tradition, is that of Joel. When it comes to a holy day for fasting and gathering, his passage also blurs the line between individual and communal, giving priority to the community.

“Blow a shofar in Zion, solemnize a fast, proclaim an assembly!” This call in Joel 2:15 could be a description of Yom Kippur, for these elements are all part of the way we as a Jewish community observe this holiest of days. The prophet goes on to call upon the old, the young, the newly married, and presumably everyone else to set aside their personal obligations for the obligations of the community.

If Hosea’s words imply that every religious act has an element of both individual and communal, then Joel’s words tell us that on this unique day, we suppress our individual needs in favor of our communal ones. The intended result, a communal one that will extend to every individual, is expressed in the last verse of the Joel section: “And you shall know that I am in the midst of Israel: that I the Lord am your God and there is no other. And my people shall be shamed no more.”

G’mar chatimah tovah — May this year lead to life for us as individuals and as a Jewish community.

read more: