Shabbat Shuvah 5779 – Teshuvah and Repentance – where will they get us

By: James Rosenberg

The Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of Return because of the special haftarah beginning with the words – ShuvahYisrael – “Return O Israel”. It is also referred to as Shabbat Teshuvah because it falls during the Ten Days of Repentance. And, this period, is a time for reflection leading up to atonement at Yom Kippur.

The themes of penitence and human reconciliation with God,

are appropriate for the week between Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur.

Every year, during the Days of Awe, we are urged to repent for our wrongdoings of the past year. This process of taking stock in ourselves and examining our actions, coupled with recognizing and regretting where we have gone astray is called teshuvah in Hebrew, repentance in English.

It is the single most important value within Judaism; actually,

the key to the entire system of mitzvot, HaShem’s commandments.

Small wonder, then, that our holiest days are devoted to its pursuit.

How is teshuvah the key to Judaism?

God and the Jewish people are linked through the brit, the covenant in which God promises to be our God and we promise to be God’s people. That brit is akin to being cast in STONE in the Torah, and made real through mitzvot, the 613 commandments of the Torah that are obligatory on each and every Jew, for all time.

Yet even the most pious Jew cannot perform all of them perfectly; and, many of us are unable to always do those mitzvot that we find personally compelling. What happens, then, when we have wronged another person, fail to perform a mitzvah, or when a Jew violates a prohibition.

Are we then always in a state of sinfulness?

Are we forever barred from God’s love?

For the system of commandments to work, there has to be a provision for how to wipe the slate clean in the case of an error or even an intentional sin. The curative is teshuvah, repentance. God’s love is bigger than any sin we might commit. And after asking forgiveness of the person we have wronged, after attaining their pardon, all it takes to get God’s forgiveness is a simple act of contrition; all it takes is teshuvah.

Teshuvah is the linchpin that keeps Jews connected to God and engaged in mitzvot. Without it, our sins would simply mount irreversibly.

Teshuvah is the oil that keeps the machinery of the Torah humming.

Ironically, there are few biblical examples of the act of teshuvah; few biblical figures that we see repenting for their sin against another, and then being forgiven by God.

Even the command to repent, is itself – a little murky.

Teshuvah may have first been mentioned within the Book of Numbers…  “When a woman or man commits any sin, then they shall confess their sin.” This sentence seems to be the mandate – the offering of a sin offering, is a sacrifice to atone for the sin that was committed. The Sages note that offering the sacrifice, is obviously preceded by the awareness that a sin was committed, and implies remorse about having erred.

There are few cases of teshuvah in the Torah. One of the most significant, however, involved Reuven and Joseph.   Reuven watched as his brothers decide to kill Joseph by leaving him in a pit. When he returns to the pit to save Joseph, Reuven learns that Joseph has already sold into slavery.

Unlike his brothers, Reuven is filled with remorse. He realizes that he has allowed his brother to be wronged, and he returned to the pit to try to correct his sinful act, to restore his brother, Joseph, to freedom. Reuven did teshuvah, and sat with sackcloth and ashes to mourn his tragic lapse.

As a reward for his act of repentance “God said ‘No one has ever repented after sinning before Me; you are the first!

Because Reuven “discovered” teshuvah, he was rewarded by having that mitzvah expounded on through the prophet, Hoshea, one of his descendants. Such is the greatness of teshuvah. It was Hoshea who cried out, “Return O Israel, to Adonai your God.

What does “return” in this context actually mean? On the most basic level it means a return to HaShem. When one commits a sin, one is distanced from God.     Repentance then is the act of returning to God. And, on a deeper level, it is about returning to one’s self and rediscovering the moral bedrock of one’s value system.

The essence of teshuvah is sincere remorse in the heart over the past, asking for forgiveness, and one must resolve not to do such a thing ever again. This confession is the essential part of repentance. By offering himself as a model of teshuvah, Reuven cleansed his family name, and gave a precious gift to his children, the children of Israel, and to us, his distance relations.

The whole process of teshuvah – atonement and forgiveness – relies on the heartfelt apology, the pardon by the offended party, and then asking God for forgiveness at Yom Kippur.

As the end of the year approaches very quickly, it is our duty to get right with those that we have wronged. That is the essence of teshuvah.

We all have been given a precious gift of time. We have been given a Jewish tradition that sees the past, the present, and the future as always linked in relationship to each other. We have been given an annual gift of time: the chance to spend ten days reflecting, praying, atoning and forgiving, renewing ourselves, our lives, and our community for yet another year.

We can wisely use The Ten Days of Repentance to return to our most pure selves, asking for forgiveness and speaking with those whom we have hurt. We can seek the forgiveness of others, attempting to get right with ourselves, and before God.

On Shabbat Shuvah one should be especially mindful to concentrate on Torah and prayer, with a reflection on repentance, thereby attaining forgiveness for unfitting behaviors of the past year.





I asked earlier…


Teshuvah, and repentance – where will they get us?

It’s my thought that the answer may be


Closer to HaShem.



This D’var’s inspirational message would not have been possible without the insights gained from…

Sara Debbie Gutfreund

Rabbi Allie Fischman, Associate Director – Camp Newman


Rabbi Bradley Artson


The Jewish Virtual Library

G’mar Hatimah Tovar; may we all be inscribed and sealed for a good year.