As is true with Shabbat parashat Devarim (“Chazon”) and Shabbat parshat Vaetchanan (“Nachamu”), the first word of this week’s haftarah also lends its name to the Shabbat itself—Shabbat “Shuva.” However, this haftarah is not connected to the parsha per se—as are the other two—for it is always read on the one Shabbat that falls between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—regardless of which parsha is read then. In fact, the Torah reading on Shabbat Shuva might be that of Vayelech or—like this year—it might be the parsha of Ha’azinu.
The haftarah itself is made up of three selections from Trei Asar—the 12 “minor” prophets—all focusing on this very theme. The first prophecy that is cited is the final section of the book of Hoshea and is the primary selection, with the supplementary sections from Yoel and Micha added by most, but not all communities. Although there are many prophecies that call for repentance, indeed, the bulk of all the prophetic pronouncements call for the nation to show remorse and return to Hashem, this prophecy of Hoshea was chosen for the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur because it includes the basic requirements that lead us to teshuva; i.e. verbal confession (“kechu imachem devarim”) and a commitment to change—what the Rambam calls, “kabbala leatid”—(“velo nomahr od ‘eloheinu’ lmaaseh yadeinu”).
Interestingly, the haftarah does not include the very first step in the teshuva process-charata, regret. But—as Rav Yehuda Shaviv points out—it would seem that the prophet sees no reason to emphasize that which is self-evident and, perhaps, is addressing a nation that has already begun their path of return. How timely is this reading, as we hear the words of Hoshea after Rosh Hashanah—when we have shown regret for our sinful ways—but before Yom Kippur, when the penitential process has not yet been completed and we still hope to receive full atonement from Hashem.
Although the haftarah was established to reflect the theme of season itself—that of teshuva—it is quite thought-provoking to uncover how that the cries of repentance—voiced by the various prophets in the haftarah—are reflected in both parshiot that might be read on Shabbat Shuva.
The parsha of Vayelech contains Hashem’s prediction of how Israel would abandon God and His Torah and, as a result, would suffer many punishments for their sins. He further commands Moshe to write “hashira hazot”—this song/poem, i.e., the parsha of Haazinu—to serve as a testimony for Israel, that she had been warned of what would occur were she to ignore God’s Torah, and the hope that in realizing this, she would return to Hashem—teshuva.
The parsha of Haazinu—the song/poem itself—is replete with descriptions of Israel’s gradual distancing from God and His worship, behavior that would bring Hashem’s wrath upon them that resulting in powerful enemies who would bring war and famine in the land, causing misery and despair for the nation. And yet … and yet … the song closes with Hashem’s promise, “veal avadav yitnecham—to relent regarding His servants.” He will return to His people when He sees what the enemy had done and how none would come to save Israel. And, with that return, “vechipper admato ammo—He will appease His land and His nation.” In Vayelech, God returns to Israel when Israel returns to him; in Haazinu, God returns to Israel when their suffering would be unbearable.
With the opening words of “Shuva Yisrael” providing us a clarion cry to return to God, this moving haftarah inspires us to commit ourselves to regret, to repent and to return. But it is also a promise of God that He would return to His people. “A teshuva—a return,” of both
Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Fort Lee, and now lives in Israel.