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  • Ken Franklin

Teshuva - Return to Hashem


Shabbat Shuvah - 5780

So a woman returned home from an evening of church services.....

....when she was startled by an intruder robbing her house of its valuables.

She yelled "Stop! Acts 2:38!" (Which we all know is the verse that says, “Repent [Make Teshuvah] and be Baptized [Immersed], in the name of Yeshua HaMashiach, so that your sins may be forgiven.)

The burglar froze in his tracks.

The woman calmly called the police and explained what she had done.

As the officer cuffed the man to take him in, he asked the thief: "Why did you just stand there? All the lady did was yell a scripture at you."

"Scripture?!" replied the burglar. "Man! She said she had an Ax and Two 38's."

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A young man named Michael received a parrot as a gift. The parrot had a bad attitude and an even worse vocabulary. Every word out of the bird’s mouth was rude, obnoxious and laced with profanity.

Michael tried and tried to change the bird’s attitude by consistently saying only polite words, playing soft music and anything else he could think of to “clean up” the bird’s vocabulary and behavior.

Finally, Michael was fed up and he yelled at the parrot in frustration. The parrot yelled back. Michael lost it and shook the parrot and the parrot got angrier and even ruder.

In desperation, Michael threw up his hands, grabbed the bird and put him in the freezer and closed the door. For a few minutes, he could hear the parrot squawking and kicking and screaming. Then suddenly there was total quiet. Not a peep was heard for over a minute. Fearing that he’d hurt the parrot, Michael quickly opened the door to the freezer.

The parrot shakily stepped out onto Michael’s outstretched arm and humbly confessed, “I believe I may have offended you with my rude language and actions. I’m sincerely remorseful for my inappropriate transgressions and I fully intend to do everything I can to correct my rude and unforgivable behavior. I was wrong. Please forgive me.”

Michael was stunned at the change in the bird’s attitude. As he was about to ask the parrot what had made such a dramatic change in his behavior, the bird continued, “May I ask what the turkey did?”

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As I mentioned earlier, this Sabbath which falls between Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur, in the midst of Yamim Noraim (The Days of Awe), is called Shabbat Shuva, or the Sabbath of Return. Some people call it, Shabbat TeShuvah since it is the Sabbath of the Ten Days of Repentance, the time in which we are obligated to do teshuva, to return (to repent). This special Sabbath is a very powerful time for repentance as it combines the power of Shabbat with the power of teshuva.

It’s a time for introspection. A time when we review our thoughts, our words and our deeds over the past year. A time to seek forgiveness from people whom we’ve harmed. A time for confession and atonement, for restoration and return. This season is the time to reset, to reorient ourselves, to rediscover Hashem’s path for our lives.

It is also worth noting that this is the first Shabbat of the new year. Our sages say that if one makes a special effort to keep this first Shabbat of the year properly, it will atone for all of the Shabbats throughout the previous year that one may not have been so careful about.

True or not, the combination of Shabbat with these days of Teshuvah creates a powerful opportunity. In order to help us make maximal use of this opportunity, it has been the tradition of our sages to treat their Shabbat Shuva sermons as their most important of the year. They used it to encourage return to HaShem as well as to inspire their community.

Moreover, in another respect, the teshuva of Shabbat Shuva is loftier even than that of Yom Kippur. The Rambam writes that Yom Kippur is, “the time of teshuva for all... and is the time of forgiveness and pardon for Israel.” Nevertheless, it states in the Zohar that Shabbat is the day from which blessings for the following six weekdays are drawn. Therefore, it follows that Yom Kippur itself is blessed by Shabbat Shuva. Furthermore, Shabbat Shuva has a distinction that even Yom Kippur, the High Holy Day itself, does not possess. That is the concept of delight, as it states in Torah: “You shall call Shabbat a ‘delight’. So our teshuvah today should peaceful and pleasant as God takes delight in both our observance of Shabbat and in our return.

It is further believed that the Shabbat before any holiday contains that holiday’s essence, and in this case that is most certainly true. On Shabbat Shuva, we can already sense the awe of Yom Kippur, the hunger pangs of atonement, the promise of forgiveness, and the joy of break fast.

In our readings today, the portion from Hosea focused on a call for repentance, and an assurance that those who return to HaShem will benefit from Divine healing and restoration. The selection from Joel told us to blow the shofar and unite the people for fasting and supplication. Joel also paints us a picture of God’s response to our return, a reversal of all the devastation Israel has previously suffered. A response that Yeshua also illustrated by the forgiving father in his Parable of the Prodigal Son who pampered his now returned son with all the wealth of his house.

Micah focused on Divine forgiveness in verses we also read at Tashlikh. “He will take us back in love; He will cover up our iniquities. You will hurl our sins into the depths of the sea.”

Water is cleansing.

In the Pesiqta de Rav Kahana, a collection of aggadic midrash possibly as old as the 5th Century, there are numerous references to Shabbat Shuvah and our Haftorah text. One of these passages reads:

G-d, in the abundance of your mercy, answer me with your true salvation: It has been taught on Tannaite authority in the name of R. Eliezer, "Adonai is the mikveh of Israel: Just as immersion purifies the unclean, so the Holy One, blessed be He, purifies Israel." Therefore Hosea admonishes Israel saying to them, Return O Israel [to the Lord your G-d, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity.

This of course reminded me of the passage in Mark where it says, “So it was that Yochanan the Immerser appeared in the desert, proclaiming an immersion involving turning to God from sin in order to be forgiven. [He’s talking about Teshuvah! In fact, it is still the practice in many traditional Jewish communities for people to visit the Mikveh during these 10 Days of Repentance.] Mark continues, “People went out to him from all over Y’hudah, as did all the inhabitants of Yerushalayim. Confessing their sins, they were immersed by him in the Yarden River. 6 Yochanan wore clothes of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist; he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed: “After me is coming someone who is more powerful than I — I’m not worthy even to bend down and untie his sandals. 8 I have immersed you in water, but he will immerse you in the Ruach HaKodesh.”

“Yeshua the Messiah is Adonai, to the glory of God the Father.”

"Adonai is the mikveh of Israel: Just as immersion purifies the unclean, so the Holy One, blessed be He, purifies Israel." Therefore Hosea admonishes Israel saying to them, “Return O Israel [Make Teshuvah to the Lord your G-d, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity.”

So how do we return? How do we make complete Teshuvah? Maimonides has an answer.

He says:

“What constitutes teshuva? That a sinner should abandon his sins and remove them from his thoughts, resolving in his heart, never to commit them again...Similarly, he must regret the past... He must reach the level where, He [point up] who knows the hidden, will testify concerning him that he will never return to this sin again...”

Teshuvah certainly begins with self-evaluation. We must identify all that we’ve done wrong. It must then proceed into verbal confession. Verbalizing one's repentance creates the feeling of conversing with a second party, which, in turn, sensitizes a person to the reality of God's presence, God's awareness of one’s every deed, and the need to render an account of one’s actions before God. The greater a person's awareness that their sin was in God's presence and with God’s full knowledge, the greater the one’s sense of shame and regret. Verbal expression intensifies the process and leaves a more lasting effect.

In addition to regret over the past, teshuva also requires a commitment not to repeat the sin again. That commitment must be so decisive, resolute, and firm that God Himself can testify on your behalf that at the moment of confession, we cannot contemplate ever committing that sin again. Just as a vow to do (or not to do) something in the future requires verbal expression, so, too, does the commitment not to repeat past sins.

And there is another dimension to verbal confession - supplication for atonement, humbly begging Adonai to forgive and make things right. There must be a clear recognition by the sinner of the seriousness of the damage caused by the sin, both in terms of the damage to one's soul and one's relationship to God, and in terms of the effect of our sin on the world around us. We must entreat God to forgive, to heal and to repair the damage. Just as prayer and supplication must be verbalized to establish a feeling of communication, so, too must one's petition for atonement.

There is yet another aspect of confession that relates to the nature of sin itself. It has been voiced by some of our sages that sin is incidental to the divine soul within us. Sin cannot blemish the soul itself, that gift from God to each of us. Rather it is like dirt, layers of impurity that build up and separate us from the divine essence.

Teshuva, then, is the return of the person to their essence and the breakdown of the barriers that separate them from God. God does not leave us when we sin; rather we lose contact with God, Who still resides within the essence of our soul. As the Sages say on the verse from Song of Songs, "I am asleep, but my heart is awake", "my heart" refers to God. Though we sleep and lose consciousness of God, God still occupies our heart ready to take us back in love.

By articulating our sin in the "Viddui" the communal confession of sins, we make it something external to ourselves. Then we are able to detach those layers of sin that have accreted onto our soul. Viddui itself becomes an act of purification. In Leviticus it says, "Before God should you purify yourself" The confession is itself an act of purification.

When we feel abandoned by God, we only need remember that it is we who have strayed. We find Him, where He has always been, awaiting our Teshuva and the chance to pamper us with all the wealth of his house. "Return to Me,” it says in Isaiah 44, “for I have redeemed you." And indeed Yeshua has redeemed us. He has paid the price for our return fare. We need only climb aboard.

Shabbat Shalom.

shanah tovah tikatevu ve techatemu

May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.


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