On Shabbat Shuvah we read the words of Moses telling the people that, in the future, they will stray from God and be punished. But, ultimately they will return to God who will restore Israel’s land and inflict vengeance on Israel’s foes.
It is no accident that this portion is read during the High Holidays – a time of self-examination. People have free will and the power to choose a future path. We start with the premise that we do not live in a perfect world.
Are we part of the problems facing us and the world? … are we just proceeding, indifferent to the problems and solutions before us? … or, are we actively working toward Tikkun Olam (repairing the world)?
This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Shuvah – Sabbath of Return. In the days before the rabbi delivered a sermon every week, he only gave only two sermons a year … (Now that’s hard to picture)… one before Passover (Shabbat HaGadol) in which the special dietary laws of Passover were explained. The other sermon was delivered on Shabbat Shuvah and dealt with repentance and guidance on how to “return” to God. It was within the power of the congregation – the free will of the people – as to whether the sermon was successful of not.
Another way traditional Jews symbolically shed their sins was a tradition called Tashlikh where, after the minhah (afternoon) service of the first day of Rosh Hashanah (second day or it was a Shabbat or a rainy day) the worshippers would walk to a river or flowing stream of water and cast bread crumbs – symbols of their sins – into the water while reciting a prayer similar to the following:
“You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea, and may You (God) cast all the sins of Your people, the house of Israel, into a place where they shall be no more remembered or visited or ever come to mind.”
The bits of bread, like their sins, would float away from the people… hopefully to disappear forever.
In our Reform Temple the traditions of Shabbat Shavah and Tashlikh are combined into a single event on the Shabbat between the holidays. After Shabbat morning services we walk to a nearby stream and toss our bread crumbs into a flowing stream. Then, the residing ducks feast on our offerings.
The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are often called the Ten Days of Turning. This is a time for introspection and reconciliation. It is customary to ask forgiveness of people who may have been slighted during the past year. It is a time for returning without being held back by unresolved guilt and resentments. (The First Jewish Catalog, Jewish Publication Society of America, p. 122-3)
Decisions of free-will enter into both this High Holiday season and the prophecies presented by Moses in this week’s parsha. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel states that people, not God, create the evil and the bad events of the world. Heschel says that God gave us the commandments for justice, truth, goodness, and love. It is the people who create evil by turning from God and these commandments… or by standing idly while the evil is committed. Then, these same people turn to God and ask: “Where are you?”
Heschel maintains that “We have failed to fight for right, for justice, for goodness; as a result we must fight against wrong, against injustice, and against evil.”
He continues be stating that the solution is not in the powers of God… God has given mankind the energies and gifts to banish all evil, poverty, and disease from the world.
God will return to us and bless us with a “world repaired” if we are willing to let God into the world in which we live… if we, and all our neighbors, are willing to work toward a world where there is a true spirit of Tikkum Olam. God created a world that was “very good”. Now it is mankind’s task to repair the damage that has been done since creation. We must work in partnership with the Eternal. This is the message of that I take from both this week’s parsha and the approaching High Holiday season.
The “Do It” image above is used through the courtesy of Stuart Miles at