Sermon Shabbat Shuva

2011 1ST OCTOBER 2011


“Return O Israel unto the Lord thy God; for thou hast stumbled in thine iniquity.” The opening words in this week’s Haftarah spoken by the prophet Hosea commence with the word Shuva, meaning “return”. Hence the naming of this Shabbat as Shabbat Shuva, the Sabbath of Return or, as it is more often called, the Sabbath of Repentance.

We are in a sort of valley this week. Behind us stands the high peak of Rosh Hashanah, where we were made aware of our shortcomings, and we prayed to God for the power to repent for our sins. Before us stands the even higher peak of Yom Kippur, where we will seek forgiveness for our past, and promise to do better in the future. In this valley we are on the hardest ground of all. We are on our own for most of the time, trying to lead our normal lives while, at the same time, struggling to keep up the momentum gained from Rosh Hashanah in order to ascend the heights of Yom Kippur. Apart from this intervening Sabbath, we are like solitary grains of sand on a huge beach of shingles, a few isolated Jews among thousands of gentiles of various other faiths. This is the testing ground of our commitment to Judaism.

It is no coincidence that we are fast approaching the end of the Torah reading year, when we will experience once again the start of the creation, unspoiled and unblemished by man’s sins. In the same way we stand at the threshold of a New Year, hoping also to make a clean start. Unfortunately, we know in our heart of hearts that our good intentions will not hold out for long. God and Moses knew this too. They knew that almost as soon as the Israelites crossed into the Promised Land, they would begin to forget God’s laws and become as the heathens they were displacing. In this week’s Sidrah, Hazinu, Moses sings a song dictated by God, warning of the events to come. The song is ordained to bear witness to the fact that God had issued due warning of His reproach if His laws went unheeded. With His usual foresight, however, God had previously ordained the festivals of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, to give us the annual opportunity to make atonement for our inevitable sins.

It is hard at this solemn time of the year to be light-hearted about our faith. We are beset with the huge list of sins, enumerated in great detail on Yom Kippur, for which we have to seek forgiveness. The music in the Synagogue is almost invariably in the sad, minor key, and the forthcoming injunction to fast does not exactly enlighten the spirits. And yet, for the Rabbis, Yom Kippur was a day of joy, on which sin is pardoned and reconciliation achieved. In Temple times it was a day of gladness, when the daughters of Israel would go out in borrowed finery, and present themselves before the young men of their choice that they might propose marriage to them!  It was only after the destruction of the Temple and the persecutions of the Middle Ages that the note of tragedy entered into the Yom Kippur liturgy.

So that is where we are today. The accumulation of years of persecution and tragedy has left us with a legacy that could, if left unchecked, give rise to despair. And yet we have risen, and will continue to rise above these events, because there is something in Judaism that sustains our spirits in even the worst of times. The sadness associated with Shabbat Shuva and Yom Kippur will shortly give way to the joy of Sukkot and the rejoicing on Simchat Torah. We end the year with sadness and start the New Year with joy.

Our lives are like a diary that we reread every year, rubbing out the bad entries of the past twelve months, and starting again with a clean record. For the truly observant Jews, who maintain our faith to the letter of the law, the resultant joy of atonement is a true reward for their repentance. For the great majority of Jews, however, this joy is tempered by past regrets, the feeling that we could have done better should we have so wished. Well, here we are in this valley between the high peaks of repentance and atonement. The choice is ours to make. If we want to have joy at the end we will really have to work at it. As the prophet said, “Return O Israel unto the Lord thy God.”

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