Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath that falls between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, takes its name from the opening word of its prescribed Haftarah: “Shuvah Yisrael ad Adonai Elohecha” – generally translated as “Turn (or return), O Israel, to the Lord your God” (Hosea 14:2). Thus, this weekend we celebrate “the Sabbath of ‘Turn.’” It is commonly, if mistakenly, referred to as “Shabbat Teshuvah” (the Sabbath of Repentance) – a theologically apt if linguistically imprecise descriptor. The haftarah (depending on local and regional ancestral custom) combines scriptural passages selected variously from Hosea, Joel, and Micah. These prophets use assorted conjugations and permutations of the verb “shuv” – to turn/return – as well as related wordplay, to explore the meaning of that term, and consequently to elucidate the significance of this critical Shabbat.
It is not entirely clear from this prophetic pastiche, however, precisely who (or Who) is the one (or the One) doing the turning. Who is changing course? Who is turning aside from an established pattern and opting for a new direction? Who – on this featured Sabbath, during the Ten Days of Repentance – is doing the repenting? The regretting? The rethinking and the renouncing, the ruing and the reforming?
In short, we ask on this Shabbat Shuvah: “Whose turn is it?
There is ample evidence to suggest that it is God’s turn. In Hosea 14:5, God declares: “I will heal their affliction. Generously I will take them (Israel) back in love; for My anger has turned (SHAV) away from them.” Here, it is clearly God doing the turning: rejecting anger, indignation, and disappointment, and choosing the more constructive course of generous, indulgent, divine love and forgiveness. On this Shabbat Shuvah, we are grateful for the new turn taken by the Almighty.
So, too, Micah 7:19 assures the attentive Shabbat Shuvah worshipper that “God will turn (yaSHUV) again; He will have compassion upon us.” It is God – not we – Who turns. It is God, as it were, Who does teshuvah!
God chooses a new tack and a new tactic — a new direction: “He will cover up our iniquities,” Micah insists in the same verse. “You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.” This passage from the haftarah inspired (and provided the name of) the ritual of tashlich. Symbolically casting our sins – our ill-considered course of past years – into the water, we dramatize the forgiving turn taken by God.
The idea that it is God Who turns, Who changes course and “repents” during the Days of Awe in which we now find ourselves, is reinforced liturgically throughout the year. On each of the four minor fasts (Tzom Gedaliah, Asarah b’Tevet, Ta’anit Esther, and Shivah Asar b’Tammuz), Exodus 32:12 is read from the Torah: “Turn (SHUV) from Your blazing anger, and renounce the plan to punish Your people.” Instructively, this verse customarily is chanted with the melody, the cantillation, used for reading the Torah on the High Holy Days. That is, throughout the year, when we reflect on God turning and renouncing a chosen course, we naturally invoke the music of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, just as Shabbat Shuvah – the Sabbath of “Turn” – focuses our attention on God’s ability and inclination to turn and to renounce a more severe course of action previously (and arguably more justly) under consideration.
God also turns – repents and renounces intended punishment – in the Book of Jonah, read as the final scriptural selection of Yom Kippur: The sinful inhabitants of Nineveh implore divine forgiveness, reasoning: “Who knows but that God may turn (yaSHUV) and relent? He may turn back (SHAV) from His wrath, so that we do not perish” (Jonah 3:9).
To be sure, the Ninevites demonstrate their contrition: they dress in mourning, they fast, and they call upon God, just as we do during these Days of Awe. But they – and we – find comfort and salvation in God’s characteristic turning – in the divine capacity for change – far more, alas, than in our own.
Shabbat Shuvah is an exercise in imitatio dei. To the best of our limited abilities, we emulate God’s example. We imitate the Divine.
Imitating and emulating God is a fundamental Jewish value, familiar from the rabbinic analysis of the defining verse dramatically and repeatedly recited throughout the Days of Awe: “Adonai, Adonai, El rachum v’chanun….” “The Lord, the Lord, a God gracious and compassionate, patient, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, assuring love for a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and granting pardon…” (Exodus 34:6). The Sages (Sifrei, Parshat Ekev) teach: “To walk in all His ways… This means that just as God is gracious and compassionate, you, too, must be gracious and compassionate… As the Holy One is faithful, you, too, must be faithful. As the Holy One is loving, you too, must be loving.”
On Shabbat Shuvah, we expand upon this emulative spiritual platform. Just as God turns and changes course, repents, renounces an unproductive approach, and chooses a new, more productive, constructive, and life-affirming direction, so, too, we must change course, repent, and renounce our unproductive ways. We must choose a new, more productive, constructive, and life-affirming direction.
It is in this spirit that we more clearly understand the function of Shabbat Shuvah, and more accurately render its eponymous biblical verse: “Shuvah Yisrael ad Adonai Elohecha” — “Turn, O Israel, after the example of the Lord your God!”
God has shown us the way. Now it’s our turn.