The haftarah for Shabbat Shuva is taken from three (some have the minhag of reading from two or even one) different books of Trei Asar, the Minor Prophets, with each selection focusing on the theme of teshuva. The opening cry of the first of the “minor” prophets, Hoshe’a, “Shuva Yisra’el,” lends its name to the Shabbat itself (Shabbat “Shuva”) and sets the tone for the entire selection. In the haftarah, the prophet even seems to suggest the necessary steps for repentance by first saying “Kechu immachem devarim,” start the return process with “devarim,” with words, i.e., by confessing your sins. He then continues, “V’shuvu ad Hashem,” and return to God, draw nearer to Him by changing your ways and avoiding sin. After calling for repentance, the prophet then goes on to describe the reward for returning to God as He will cease His anger and be as revitalizing dew, causing Israel to take root and blossom.
The second selection from the navi Yoel (the second book of Trei Asar) also describes the rewards awaiting Israel upon her return to God and calls for the people to assemble in prayer and public fast—a call that reminds us of the upcoming day of Yom Kippur. But a look into the previous chapter of Yoel will afford us a different perspective on this message of the navi.
It was in the days of this prophet that God had brought an unprecedented plague of locusts that destroyed the crops of Israel and threw the nation into an economic crisis. In the first perek of Sefer Yoel, the navi calls out to the people to fast and to cry out to God in the hope that Hashem would remove the locusts and save the land. In the second perek, Yoel addresses the nation after the plague had already decimated the land (according to the Ibn Ezra, Abarbanel and Malbim) and calls out for a national return to God—in effect, a communal teshuva campaign, not to prevent any approaching calamity but rather a teshuva campaign meant to bring us closer to our Creator. It is this chapter that makes up the bulk of our haftarah, and rightfully so. The teshuva that we seek during this time of year is not one brought upon by a fear of punishment but one caused by a thirst for the divine.
I find this message so current for us today, as we find ourselves in the midst of our own crisis, that of a plague that has decimated the economy of countries and the financial stability of individuals. How absolutely understandable it is for us to pray for the cessation of the COVID-19 virus on these days of return. And we certainly must! But it is also important for us to reflect upon our own relationship with Hashem. We must understand that our teshuva should be an expression of our thirst to draw closer to the Creator, to repair and improve upon our own relationship with God. Sincere teshuva should not be based on our desire for a hoped-for reward. It is during this season that we must consider whether we regard Hashem only as a judge Who might punish or reward us, or as our Heavenly Father Whom we love and Whom we yearn to please.
It is this type of repentance that will serve us well throughout the year, and, with that closer, loved-based relationship, a repentance that would have God answer all of our prayers.
Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.