Shabbat Vayeylech, Shabbat Shuvah

Candles Friday 7th October 6:09pm
Havdalah 8th 7:01pm

The Shabbat in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipur is always called Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat of Repentance. In medieval and early modernity together with Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat before Pesach, these were the only times the rabbi of a community would give a public sermon. Otherwise the rabbi was a scholar you interacted with to study or to help you solve your problems. Before Pesach he spoke about the laws of Pesach and on Shabbat Shuva he talked about the importance of repentance.

Now you might wonder why we need to talk so much about repentance? Selihot during Ellul, Rosh Hashanah, the Ten Days of Repentance and Yom Kipur. Why in addition do we need a special Shabbat? Some might argue we are such sinners that we need this and more. Besides for all the days we talk about repenting, very few sinners actually seem to repent at all.

The Torah actually never talks about repentance, Teshuvah, in the way we use it today. It uses it only in terms of returning to God and indeed of God returning to us. And even on Yom Kipur the Torah only talks about Kapara, atonement. Not Teshuvah. And we know that atonement is different in that it requires one repaying the loss or damage one has done to other humans and asking for their forgiveness. Kapara therefore is transactional. Teshuvah on the other hand, seems emotional, spiritual, getting closer to someone, to God. And Teshuvah can apply to a whole nation, a whole people. It is a different phenomenon to Kapara. It is one that should be with us permanently, every day, week and month.

Teshuvah, as we use the word now, was a rabbinic innovation, an attempt to say to people that just as it is important to relate to humans , so we must try to relate to God or to Torah or to the Jewish people. Of course that is implicit in the Torah. But given the long history of Jews abandoning Torah and the Jewish people, the rabbis of the Talmudic era obviously thought it important to try to emphasize the positive aspect of Teshuvah. Not just to atone for mistakes. But to create a more positive relationship. And that, as we know takes time, whether with people or an ideal; every day, Shabbat, as well as Festivals.