30 September 2022
‘When heavy burdens oppress us
and our spirit grows faint with us …
Give us strength, O Lord’
The Jewish New Year 5783, Rosh haShanah, began last Sunday night (25 September), when two of us were guests in the Milton Keynes and District Reform Synagogue, and Yom Kippur this year is on 5 October, beginning on Tuesday evening (4 October) with Kol Nidre.
This evening marks the beginning of the Shabbat between Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur, and is known as Shabbat Shuvah (שבת שובה), the ‘Shabbat of Return’, or Shabbat Teshuvah (שבת תשובה), the ‘Sabbath of Repentance.’
This is one of the Ten Days of Repentance. The name derives from the Haftarah or reading from the prophets for this Shabbat, which opens with the words, ‘Return O Israel unto the Lord your God’ (Hosea 14: 1).
The word shuvah and the word teshuvah share a common root. Teshuvah or repentance is a core concept of the High Holidays. The word literally means ‘return.’ Services on Shabbat Shuvah are typically solemn and focused, and the Haftarah portion deals with themes of repentance and forgiveness.
Sephardic Jews read Hosea 14: 2-10 and Micah 7: 18-20, while Ashkenazi Jews read Hosea 14: 2-10 and Joel 2: 15-27. The selection from Hosea focuses on a universal call for repentance and an assurance that those who return to God will benefit from divine healing and restoration. Hosea focuses on divine forgiveness and how great it is in comparison to the forgiveness of humanity. The selection from Joel imagines a blow of the shofar that unites the people in fasting and supplication.
Along with Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat preceding Passover, this is one of the two times a year when it is customary for rabbis to deliver longer than usual addresses on timely topics, emphasising the severity of transgression so that people turn their hearts toward repentance. These sermons on Shabbat Shuvah traditionally focus on the themes of repentance, prayer and charity.
The traditional prayer Avinu Malkeinu (אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ, ‘Our Father, Our King’) is recited throughout the Ten Days of Repentance, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur inclusive.
This prayer has been described as ‘the oldest and most moving of all the litanies of the Jewish Year.’ It refers to God as both ‘Our Father’ (Isaiah 63: 16) and ‘Our King’ (Isaiah 33: 22). Each line of the prayer begins with the words ‘Avinu Malkeinu’ (‘Our Father, Our King’), followed by phrases, prayers or petitions.
The prayer book Service of the Heart offers this responsive reading for the Sabbath of Repentance:
When heavy burdens oppress us, and our spirit grows faint with us, and the gloom of failure settles on us,
Give us strength, O Lord, and the vision to see through the darkness to the light beyond.
When doubts assail us concerning your justice, and when we question the value of our earthly life, because suffering hides you from our vision,
Give us faith, O Lord, and the strength to bear pain without complaint, and the patience to await a deeper insight into your purposes.
When, through self-indulgence, or from a blind following of the multitude, or by suppression of the voice of conscience, our sense of duty grows dim, and we call evil good and good evil,
Give us discernment, O Lord, and a heart more awake to the rights of others, and a spirit more responsive to their needs.
When, because we are immersed in material cares, or in the eager pursuit of worldly aims and pleasures, the thought of you fades out of our consciousness,
Let all things witness to you, O Lord, and let them lead us back into your presence.
The master Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria the Arizal taught that the seven days between Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur – which always include one Sunday, one Monday, and so on – correspond to the seven days of the week, each day representing all the corresponding days of the year: the Sunday embodies all Sundays; the Monday embodies all Mondays, and so on. These days are days to use wisely.
Meanwhile, this weekend, in what is described as a ‘Reverse Tashlich’, members of the Jewish community in Milton Keynes are taking part in a litter pick on Sunday. Several synagogues around the world are doing similar activities this weekend, as a ‘Reverse Tashlich’.
Traditionally with tashlich, people empty their pockets into a stream or lake, to symbolise throwing away their sins. This weekend, instead of throwing things, people are being invited to pick up rubbish, doing some Tikkun Olam - to make the world a better place.