Undoubtedly, the most popular words of the prophet Hoshea are his message of rebuke to Klal Yisrael, Shuvah Yisrael ad Hashem Elokecha ki chashalta ba’avonecha” — “Return, O Israel, to G‑d your G‑d for you have stumbled through your iniquity” (Hoshea 14:2). This message has been most appropriately selected as the Haftarah reading for Shabbat during the Aseret Yimei TeshuvahTen Days of Repentance — for its compatibility with the theme of teshuvah, which is the call of those days. Regarding this prophet and his message there is a very interesting Midrash which connects it all with his lineage being that he is a descendant of Reuven, the son of the patriarch Yaakov.

When Yosef met his brothers in the field they contemplated killing him. When Reuven heard of their plans he told them, “Shed no blood. Throw him into this pit in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him.” (Bereishit 37:22) The Torah relates that afterwards, “Reuven returned to the pit and, behold, Yosef was not in the pit.” TheMidrash (Rabbah, Bereishit 84:19) asks, “Where had Reuven been?” Rabbi Eliezer said, he was taken up with his fasting and sack cloth, and when he became free, he went to look in the pit. This is derived from the expression, “Vayashav Reuven” which can be interpreted to mean, “And Reuven repented.”

The reason for his repenting was because he tampered with his father’s bed (ibid 35:22). When Rachel died, Yaakov took up residence in the tent of Bilhah. Reuven, who acted virtuously in defending his mother’s honor, moved his father’s bed to his mother’s tent. When Yaakov reprimanded him for this, he realized that his acting hastily was incorrect, and began the process of repentance. The Midrash continues, “Hashem said, ‘No man has hitherto repented after sinning before Me, and you are the first who has repented. As you live, your descendant will stand forth and be the first to urge repentance.’ To whom does this allude? To Hoshea, who cried out, Shuvah Yisrael ad Hashem Elokecha ki chashalta ba’avonecha’ — ‘Return, O Israel, to G‑d your G‑d for you have stumbled through your iniquity.’ ”

Commentaries point out that this Midrash seems to contradict a Midrash (Ibid. 22:13) which relates that Kayin didteshuvah after killing his brother Hevel. In fact Adam met him and asked him, “How did your case go? ‘I repented and am reconciled,’ he replied. Thereupon, Adam began beating his face, crying, ‘So great is the power of repentance, and I did not know!’ Forthwith he arose and exclaimed, ‘Mizmor shir leyom haShabbat’ — ‘A Psalm, a song for the Shabbat day’ — ‘Tov lehodot laHashem’ — ‘It is a good thing to make a confession [lit. give thanks] to Hashem’ ” (Psalms 92:1). (Some commentaries say that he only said the words ‘Mizmor shir leyom haShabbat’ and the word haShabbat (השבת) can be rearranged to spell the word teshuvah (תשבה). Thus, he was proclaiming a song for the day when one comes to the realization and repents.)

Since according to this Midrash Kayin was the first to introduce the concept of teshuvah, why then does Hashem applaud Reuven?

To explain this difficulty, it will be necessary for us to analyze the sins committed by these three individuals, Adam, Kayin and Reuven.

When Hashem created the world, Adam, the only man on the face of the earth, was given access to everything and sovereignty over all. However, Hashem with His Divine wisdom decided that the fruits of one tree, should be forbidden to him. Nevertheless, Adam, who had everything, could not control his desire, and violated the order of Hashem who was so benevolent to him. Undoubtedly, everyone will agree that there is no excuse or justification for Adam.

Kayin and Hevel, the only two children of Adam and Chavah, got into an argument. One said to the other, “Come let us divide the world.” One took the land, and the other, the moveables. The former said, “The land you stand on is mine.” While the latter retorted, “What you are wearing is mine.” Out of this quarrel Kayin rose up against his brother Hevel and killed him (Midrash Rabbah 22:7).

Now imagine, dear friends, all together there were only four people in the entire world, and two of them were brothers. The vast world with all its contents was not enough to satisfy their greed, and ultimately one of them committed the heinous crime of killing his own brother in cold blood. Even in the most primitive societies such behavior is repugnant. These two iniquities committed by Adam and Kayin are universally accepted as wrong. There is no way in the world to find a justification for them.

The story with Reuven is entirely different. Reuven in a sense, did not commit a crime. On the contrary, he performed a mitzvah. One of the noblest mitzvot of the Torah which is widely acclaimed by all of humanity is “Honor your mother” (Shemot 20:12). However, upon learning that his father did not appreciate his actions, he realized that even when one does something wrong and can justify it as correct or dress it up as a mitzvah, still it is necessary to do teshuvah. Reuven was thus the first person on earth who repented even though he could claim that his transgression was for the sake of Heaven. For this he merited the reciprocation of Hashem, that his grandson Hoshea the son of Be’eiri would proclaim, “Shuvah Yisrael ad Hashem Elokecha” — “Return, O Israel, to G‑d your G‑d.”

Grammatically instead of the word“ad [Hashem Elokecha]” which literally means “till [G‑d your G‑d],” it should have said “el” which means “to [G‑d your G‑d].”

The prophet’s message was “Return O Israel” — even if you can rationalize that your sin was a lofty act, reaching as high as “ad Hashem Elokecha”“till G‑d your G‑d.”

The prophet continues “ki chashalta ba’avonecha” — “for you have stumbled through your iniquity.” Instead of using the word “chashalta” — “you stumbled” — he should have said “chatata” — “you sinned.”

In light of the above that the prophet is not talking about an obvious heinous crime, but an iniquity which is done with good intentions and for the sake of Heaven, he appropriately proclaims “chashalta” — “you stumbled” — with this act — into thinking that you are doing a mitzvah.

The most problematic sin of our times is the one which is dressed up and labeled as a mitzvah. How often is it heard from perpetrators of evil against their fellow man, “It is a mitzvah to do to him such and such...” Let us heed the call of the prophet to do teshuvah, even if we can explain that our actions were “ad Hashem Elokecha” — for the sake of Heaven.