So cries out the prophet Hosea in this week's reading from the books of the Prophets. So crucial is Hosea's call to the people of Israel that the ancient rabbis chose this chapter from Hosea to be read on this Shabbat, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, known as Shabbat Shuva, literally, the Sabbath of Return, or the Sabbath of Repentance.
Hosea continues, urging the people of 8th century BCE Northern Israel, to come before God with their words rather than sacrificial offerings. Hosea implores the people to ask God for pity, as they promise to never regard the creations of their hands (idols anyone?) as their gods.
And then, just like that, all is forgiven. God promises to forgive the people, to take them back in love, and God's anger turns away from them. Yippee!
Really? Is it really that simple? Come before God with words, confess what we've done wrong, promise never to do it again, stand by that promise, and all will go well for us. Hosea tells us that "Israel will blossom like the lily, Israel will strike root like a Lebanon tree," (think really high), that "those who sit in Israel's shade shall be revived, they shall bring to life new grain, and they shall blossom like the vine."
Over time, other people in Jewish tradition spoke about repentance and returning to God. Rabbi Hama bar Hanina said that, "Great is penitence for it brings healing to the world," and Rabbi Yohanan said, "Great is penitence for it tears up the decree issued against a man." Or perhaps the best statement of all comes from Rabbi Jonathan, who says, "Great is penitence, for it brings redemption."
Well, that's all well and good, isn't it? But this isn't the 8th century BCE anymore. And it isn't rabbinic times anymore. Just a bit of time has elapsed between the writing of these texts and the 21st century. In that time, with this simple formula for returning and repenting, we've seen the split of the Northern and Southern kingdoms of Israel, the destruction of the 1st and 2nd temples, the Babylonian Exile, the creation of the diaspora, countless blood libel accusations, the Inquisition, pogroms, the Holocaust, and a myriad of other calamities and threats that have challenged our existence. It doesn't seem like "our shade has been revived," "we have brought new life to grain," or "we have blossomed like the vine." It doesn't seem like we have brought healing to the world or have witnessed any kind of lasting redemption.
And yet, probably nearly every synagogue the world over, recognizing our calendar, is crying out in the reading of the Haftarah this Shabbat, Shuva Yisrael. It's time to return O Israel, time to get going, time to turn back to God.
Why do we continue to bother? The world presents us with so many unspeakable tragedies. Is there really any benefit to be derived from sitting in the synagogue, crying out hour after hour ashamnu, bagadnu, al chet shechatanu, for sins that get lobbed upon us by editors of a 40 year old prayer book, and for sins that we may not necessarily be able to claim as our own? We are already the ones who understand and appreciate the message of our prayer books, the values of our tradition. But Shuva Yisrael, it's time to return O Israel.
When bad things happen to good people whom we love, the farthest thing from our mind, when we are tormented by grief and loneliness, is the concept that our loved one brought this upon him or herself. Can you imagine, addressing a stricken person and saying insensitively, "Maybe you didn't repent properly?" But Shuva Yisrael, it's time to return O Israel.
Many of us would probably appreciate hearing something like, "Shuva Iran," for making death threats against the United States and Israel. Or perhaps "Shuva Dylann Roof" and others who have engaged in vicious hate crimes in the past year. Or how about "Shuva Bashar al-Assad," "Shuva Syrian government," for leading to one of the worst humanitarian refugee crises in the history of the world, or even "Shuva ISIS" for brutally killing people of different faiths and destroying so many irreplaceable relics and artifacts from the ancient world.
But no. It's Shuva Yisrael, all over again. Shuva Yisrael, it's time to return O Israel. Time to bang our chests, sway from side-to-side, and count down the hours until we can eat again, and then to forget about these High Holy Days, until they come around in thirteen months time, and we come back again only to hear the words Shuva Yisrael, all over again. It won't be "shuva" anyone else, except for "shuva Yisrael."
One response is simply not to read the text. If we don't like the message, we can just close the book, and forget that it's there. Too confronting? Hasn't come true in nearly three thousand years? Fuhgeddaboutit. But that approach is about as successful as crawling into a deep dark hole and asking someone to tap us on the shoulder to come out when it's all over. The words are Shuva Yisrael, turn back O Israel, and not, turn away O Israel.
Another response would be to change the text that we read or change the title of this Shabbat. Shabbat Matzpun - the Shabbat of Conscience - has a nice ring to it. My Hebrew-English dictionary tells me that matzpun, conscience, is that feeling that says to us what is forbidden and what is permissible, in our lives. Matzpun - now there's a word we like at this time of year when we're reflecting on the choices that we've made, the regrets that we have, the forgiveness we seek and want to offer, and how we can act with greater "conscience" in the year ahead. Brilliant! Only the text says Shuva Yisrael, return O Israel, and to return to our conscience, means that we are only returning to our inner selves.
The text says, Shuva Yisrael, ad Adonai Elohecha, return O Israel, to the Lord your God. Turn back to a Force, a Presence, a Vision, a Hope, immensely greater than our own individuality, our own conscience. As much as we want to change the text, as much as we want to shy away, as much as we want to cry out, "Say it to them. They don't get it. They're the ones that need to hear it!" the text is addressed to us.
It starts with us. It starts with our being a "light to the nations." It starts with our being the standard-bearers, the exemplars, the benchmark, the chosen. Somebody has to go first. Somebody has to lead the rest of the pack. If we can return, if we can confess, if we can change for the better, maybe others can learn from and learn by our example.
Think of what it means for a whole people, a whole nation, a whole identity to be commanded "Shuva." It says we as a people matter. It says we as a people are special. It says that God doesn't want us to go astray, that God wants us to come back, to be the best that we can be, and to share that very best with the world around us. Shuva Yisrael isn't just a command; it's an invitation and an opportunity.
It's as if God is saying - Shuva Yisrael -- turn back, you, the ones who wrestle with God, the ones who wrestle with the world, the ones who are willing to be engaged, who are willing to work on yourselves, who are willing to be aware and try to make a difference, you who know the world can be a very dark place and won't stop until you bring more light into life itself. Turn back, to Me, again, please, and let's keep trying, let's not give up until we've done what we set out to do, some 2800 years ago. I can't do this without you. I want nothing more except for you to turn to Me, to be the best you can possibly be, and to share your very best with the world around you. So please, shuva Yisrael ad Adonai Elohecha.
And no matter how dark and difficult the world may be, we turn back, and we keep turning back, because that's what it means to keep faith, that's what it means to hold on to hope, and that's what it means to be a Jew.
Baruch ata A-do-nai, ha-rotzeh bi-t'shuvah. Blessed is God, who wants us to return and engage in repentance.
 Hosea 14:2-5.
 Hosea 14:6-8.
 Sefer Aggadah (English Edition), quoting BT Yoma 86a.
 Sefer Aggadah (English Edition), quoting BT RH 17b.
 Sefer Aggadah (English Edition), quoting En Ya'akov, BT Yoma 86a.
 Edna Lauden, Multi Dictionary, my own translation, p. 396.