Drash on Parashat Vayeilech 2018
Reverend Sam Zwarenstein
Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra, NSW
Each year, we mark the Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur as a special Shabbat in our calendar, and we call it Shabbat Shuvah.
The name Shabbat Shuvah, Shabbat of Return comes from its special Haftarah reading, which begins with the words “Shuvah Yisrael” (Return O Israel), taken from the prophecy of Hoshea. It is also referred to as Shabbat Shuvah because it falls during the Ten Days of Repentance.
The prayer service on this Shabbat is the same as on an ordinary Shabbat, with the exception of the additions and changes that are made to the Amidah service throughout the Ten Days of Repentance. As it is Shabbat, Avinu Malkeinu is not recited.
We are told that this Shabbat was given to Israel as a time for Torah study and prayer, and, although one should always take care not to pass the time idly or in inappropriate conversation, on Shabbat Shuvah one should be especially careful to concentrate entirely on Torah, prayer, and reflection on repentance, thereby attaining forgiveness for whatever unfitting behaviour may have marred other Shabbatot.
Traditionally, there were only two Shabbatot in the year when sermons were delivered. One was Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat preceding Pesach, and the other was Shabbat Shuvah. The sermons were extremely long, presumably, because these were the only two occasions made available. Thankfully, this is not the case today, and we can get our sermon dosage in weekly, shorter measures (we can dream, can’t we?).
Many rabbis believed, and still believe today, that the sermon delivered on this Shabbat should be delivered in such a way, that it awakens the people to repentance, to Teshuvah. One of the sources given for their lengthy talks is taken from Midrash Mishlei, where it says; “The Holy One said: When the chacham (wise one) sits and teaches, I cancel and forgive the trespasses of Israel.”
In order to fully understand the importance of Shabbat Shuvah, we need to understand that the entire period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Aseret Yamei Teshuvah (the Ten Days of Repentance), is centred around Teshuvah. During the ten days, we are supposed to turn all our thoughts and actions towards Teshuvah. Everything we do should reflect our want and need to be inscribed in the Book of Life. Tradition also teaches us that our fate is judged between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. During this time, a lot of Jews visit the cemetery to ask the departed to testify on their behalf to the Heavenly Tribunal. The words in the Siddur and Machzor support Teshuvah, as we continually ask God for forgiveness.
With regards to this Shabbat, there is very little that happens on Shabbat Shuvah, that doesn’t happen in the rest of the ten days, with the exception of a special haftarah reading and some liturgical changes to parts of the Amidah.
But, because Shabbat has always, and will always be the highlight of the week, the importance of the entire period is placed on the Shabbat. In a way, it’s like a last minute plea before God, while in the comfort of the community. One thing is for sure, during these days especially, we all seek the same outcome - forgiveness and compassion. At the same time, we pray that others around the world also get to enjoy a more peaceful and secure existence, no matter who or where they are.
Maybe it’s a delicate balance between asking for something that benefits the whole world, and asking for something that is specific to the individual, that will help to bring Teshuvah into our hearts, and into our actions.
For each of us, the hope is that the coming year will bring peace for all of God’s creatures and creations, and that starts with us.
As we turn our focus to Yom Kippur, still floating on the high of Rosh HaShanah, let’s remember that Teshuvah is a process, not a moment in time, and that we are blessed to have Shabbat Shuvah as a companion and guide on our journey.
Shabbat Shalom and G’mar Chatimah Tovah (may you be inscribed in the Book of Life).