Renewal by ‘returning’ to the right path

BY RABBI JOSEF DAVIDSON

The first Shabbat of the New Year has a special name. It is called Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Return.

One of the major themes of the High Holy Day season of Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) is that of teshuvah (repentance). The Hebrew word, teshuvah, comes from the verb Sh-V-H, which means “to return. “

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Repentance, then, is the process whereby one who has traveled off the path makes a course correction and returns to the right path, which in Hebrew is the word, halachah, also the word for ‘Jewish law.’

This special Shabbat receives its name from the first words of the haftarah, “Shuvah Yisra’el ad HaShem Eloheicha ki kashalta ba`avonecha.” — “Return, O Israel, to the Eternal your God, for you have stumbled in your iniquity.” (Hosea 14:2)

The prophet urges the people to return to God and to the right path, “for the Eternal’s ways are straight, and the righteous walk on them…” (Hosea 14:10)

What is very interesting is that the word ‘repentance,’ in English, comes from an entirely different root word.

Repentance comes from the same word as does ‘penitentiary,’ a place where people are punished for the wrongdoing.

This is such a different concept from that of “returning” to the correct path. While one’s deeds certainly do have consequences, some of which may feel or are punishing, nevertheless punishment is not an end in itself.

Even for the prophets who forecasted gloom and doom as a result of Israel’s or Judah’s transgressions, there was always the possiblity of return, not only to God but to the Land. Return is what they promised the people prior to and during their exiles, and that right is extended to all Jews by the State of Israel today, so that all Jews know that there is a place where they are welcome.

This week’s Torah portion, Vayelech (“[Moses] went [and spoke these words to all Israel…]”), is a short one, often appended to the previous one, Netzavim, except when there is a leap year, as 5768 was.

It is the third to the last of the entire Torah, and as such is at the virtual end of Moses’ life and career. It is in this Torah portion that Moses finally hands over the reins to his loyal attendant, Joshua, in a public ceremony.

Anticipating that the way will be difficult for Joshua and his charges, Moses encourages him and them to “be strong and of good courage.” They will have to conquer the Promised Land; it will not be given on a silver plate. However, Moses encourages Joshua, God will be on their side. A holy land can no longer tolerate an unholy people.

To take the land and to remain on the land, the people must adhere to the mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah. That is why they were instructed to erect two stone pillars on which the Torah was inscribed when they crossed over the Jordan River into the Promised Land.

They must stay on the path which God has given them or face the consequences, those being that they, too, will be displaced and exiled, as the Canaanites will be at their hands. In order to remain familiar with the Torah, Moses tells Joshua to read it in its entirety to the people regularly, every seventh year at the festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles or Booths). Nothing is more important than the reciprocal relationship that God and Israel have established between one another. As soon as Israel defaults on its responsibilities, so, too, will God then be justified in defaulting.

The New Year affords one an opportunity to renew one’s commitment to that covenant, that reciprocal relationship with God and with Israel. It is an opportunity to make a course correction, to “be strong and of good courage,” to return to the path that has been prescribed.

It is a path on which a person lives a meaningful, fulfilling and purposeful life.

Rabbi Josef A. Davidson is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association. To contact Rabbi Davidson, email him at [email protected]