Shabbos Shuva

The Shabbos between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbos Shuva - the Shabbos of Return.

The word shuva is the opening word of the prophetic Haftorah reading of this Shabbos, taken from the Biblical book of Hosea, in which the prophet exhorts the Jewish people:

“Return O Israel to G‑d your G‑d, for you have stumbled with your sins. Take words with you and return to G‑d…”


Seven Questions

Many questions have been raised concerning these two verses:

First, why would the prophet rebuke the Jewish people who have sinned with the moniker “Israel,” which indicates a superior spiritual state, rather than with the sobriquet “Jacob” which describes the Jewish people in their fallen and lowly state?

Second, the word for the preposition “to” in the first verse is ahd. Translated literally it actually means “up to,” which suggests, as the Talmud (Yoma 86a) states, that the return to G‑d merely approaches G‑d but it does not go all the way to G‑d. Why?

Third, in the second verse the preposition “to” used is ehl, rather than ahd. Why the change?

Fourth, what does “you have stumbled with your sins” mean?” Stumbling implies an unintentional sin. Yet the word for sin used here, avon, implies an intentional sin.

Fifth, why did the prophet need a second verse, which essentially repeats the call for Israel to return to G‑d?

Sixth, in verse one the prophet uses the singular form for return, shuvah, whereas in verse two it uses the plural word shuvu.  Why the change?

Seventh, what is the meaning of “take words with you?” What words does the prophet refer to here? Presumably, he intends it to mean to confess their sins when they return to G‑d. If this is accurate, why didn’t the prophet demand confession in the first verse, when he exhorted us to return?


Light that Emerges in Time of Darkness

To answer these questions, we must start with a discussion of the words in this week’s parsha, in which G‑d says “I will certainly conceal My face in that day.”

G‑d’s hidden face can be understood on two levels:

The Babylonian Talmud (Chagigah 5b) states:

“The Holy One, Blessed is He [said]: ‘Even though I concealed My face from them, I will [nevertheless] speak with him through a dream.”

Rashi explains that the word “in that day” implies that G‑d will only conceal Himself during the day but not at night, when He will reveal Himself through the dreams of the prophets.

Underlying this interpretation is the notion that even in times of Galus, when the Divine is concealed, there will always be a glimmer of light that shines in the dark.  

The Talmud (Chullin 139b) states that Esther is hinted at in the Torah in the words, “I will certainly conceal [Haster Astir] My face in that day.” In the days of Esther, G‑d was concealed which enabled Haman’s decree to annihilate the entire Jewish nation. However, in the end Haman’s plot was foiled and the Jewish people enjoyed: “light, joy, happiness and glory.” Nevertheless, they were still in exile under the domination of Achashveirosh, the Persian Emperor. This was an example of light shining in the darkness.


Light that Prevents Encroachment of Darkness

The Jerusalem Talmud, however, has a different understanding of the verse “I will certainly conceal My face in that day.” It refers to the days of the First Bais Hamikdash during the reign of wicked King Achaz, who wanted to close all the Houses of Torah Study and drive the Divine out of Israel. However, the prophet Isaiah did not allow that to happen.

Thus we have two scenarios for the light that comes out of the state of concealment:

There is the glimmer of light that shines in times of exile darkness, as in the days of Queen Esther. This is the approach of the Babylonian Talmud which is called “the Talmud of Darkness” because its focus is to discover light in the darkness.

The second scenario, that of the Jerusalem Talmud, the Talmud of Light, deals with how we can avert the encroachment of darkness in times of light.

The application to our lives from the above is that, in either situation, we must realize that we have been empowered by G‑d to overcome the darkness.

When we experience light and positivity, when we are in a “Jerusalem Talmud mode,” we must be alert to the real possibility that negative and dark thoughts may enter our minds and when they do, we must dismiss them summarily.

However, the greater challenge is when we find ourselves in a dark and bleak situation, what we might call a “Babylonian Talmud” mode. We must realize that we are “Israel.” We are empowered by G‑d to experience some light; this is the silver lining in our otherwise dark existence.

These two scenarios can also apply to two classes of Jews: The working class and the Torah scholars. Both have to resist darkness. Whereas the former lives in a world of darkness, the latter must resist the insidious influences that can creep in to their otherwise life of light.


Two Levels of Return

We can now understand the two verses of Hosea that exhorts us to return.

The first addresses the Jew who is in exile, in times of Divine concealment and darkness. The sins that the exile Jew commits are therefore referred to as “stumbling.” They are not malicious or rebellious; they are products of the dark, intoxicating and debilitating influences and conditions of Galus. Hence, even our intentional sins are mitigated by the pernicious effects of Galus and are deemed to be no more than stumbling.

In that case, the prophet addresses us as “Israel,” which suggests that we have the power to master our exile conditions and overcome the sins that accrue during our exile.

This explains why the prophet uses the singular form of “return.” The instruction is directed at every single Jew, even those who are mired in the darkness of Galus; even they have the power to resist and prevail.  However, as long as we remain in Galus, our return cannot be complete. The verse therefore qualifies the return by using the proposition ahd, which suggests that our return is incomplete.

The second verse, however, addresses the period before the onset of Galus, when the world was basking in G‑dly light because we had the Bais Hamikdash. To dispel the insidious dark influences that can encroach on the light, the prophet Hosea adds the second verse, in which he admonishes us to take the words with us. These “words” refer to the study of Torah, which enables us to get rid of potential or residual darkness and allows us to return to G‑d without limitations.


We Are in the Verse Two Era

The second verse can actually can be said to apply to the present era, which the Rebbe stated is the very Time of Redemption. Even so, the Rebbe acknowledged that we are still suffering from residual traces of Galus that threaten to introduce an encroaching darkness in a time of light.

To dispel that lingering darkness, the Rebbe instructed us to study Torah, which is light, particularly the teachings of Torah that deal with Divine light, and more specifically, the subjects of Moshiach and Redemption.