Shabbat Shuvah – or as it also called, Shabbat Teshuvah – is the Shabbat that falls out during the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Since Rosh Hashanah can fall out on various days of the week, the Torah reading on this Shabbat is not set: Sometimes it is Parshat Vayelech, and sometimes it is Parshat Haazinu. What is set aside especially for Shabbat Shuvah, however, is the haftarah,1 from which the name Shabbat Shuvah is derived.2

Teshuvah is a central theme on this Shabbat, since it is one of the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah. However, there is an essential problem in the combination of Shabbat and teshuvah.

Teshuvah is commonly understood as inner change that entails a certain amount of retrospection focusing on the negative aspects of one’s past conduct. This is because one who is satisfied with and happy about everything he has done regrets nothing, whereas the will and ability to do teshuvah result to a great extent from the repudiation of the past and the need to distance oneself from it.

To be sure, teshuvah also has an aspect of rejuvenation, of erasing the past and rewriting oneself, a refreshing aspect of hope for a new beginning. But this aspect, too, contains within it the rejection and destruction of what once was.

This negation, which can be dramatic and even painful, is found frequently in the words of the prophets. When the prophet says, “Rend your hearts, not just your clothes,”3 the emphasis is not on the act of rending the clothes but on rending the heart.

This aspect of teshuvah has a time and a place – both in daily prayer, which includes petitions for teshuva and forgiveness, and also on certain days of the year that are dedicated to this spiritual work of teshuvah, with the soul searching and pain that it can entail.

Shabbat stands in contrast to all of this. Shabbat is supposed to be a day of joy, reconciliation, and both spiritual and physical rest. As we recite in the Shabbat prayers, “In love and favor You have given us Your holy Shabbat as an inheritance.” For besides the prohibition of work on Shabbat, there is also a general duty to call Shabbat “a delight.”4 Shabbat rest entails not only the cessation of physical work but also the attainment of inner calm and tranquility. For this reason, none of the Shabbat prayers and hymns focuses on teshuvah or forgiveness. For this reason, too, Viduy is not recited on Shabbat, for confession is a part of teshuvah that involves recollection of sin.

This raises a question about the very name “Shabbat Shuvah.” Can such a combination of words actually exist in the same phrase? Is it possible to do teshuvah on Shabbat in an appropriate manner?

The answer to this question is that Shabbat Shuvah joins Shabbat and teshuvah not on the simple, ordinary level but on a much deeper level. In fact, the very term teshuvah hints at a different understanding of this concept than what we are accustomed to hearing. We do not call it charatah (remorse) or shevirat lev (broken-heartedness) but, rather, teshuvah – return. This return can be accomplished very quickly: One who commits a sin can try to return to the time that preceded this sin. But the return can also be more difficult and complicated, as in the case of someone who, after years of following an improper path, seeks to return to a point before he set out on that path.

For one kind of person, teshuvah means a return to his childhood days, to a time when his world was more in harmony – with himself, with his family, and with G‑d. But there is another kind of person for whom not even his childhood offers him a secure point from which to return to G‑d. In such cases, teshuvah takes on a deeper meaning: return to the “original source,” the source of a person’s being even before his physical life in this world. Teshuvah on this level, which takes a person farther, beyond his life and deeds in this world, involves much less conflict or confrontation with past defects or blemishes, for it is like a total rebirth, a beginning almost from the point of origin.

Conceptually, Shabbat, too, includes an element of return and restoration of things to their source. To be sure, shevitah means cessation of action, leaving everything in a state of rest. But the word shavat is also connected to shivah, meaning “return.” Shabbat is a return to a point prior to our coming into being. On the one hand, Shabbat is the completion of everything that exists, but on the other hand, it is a return to the state before Creation, to a state of non-existence, to the day before the first day.

This conception of Shabbat as a state of existence that preceded the world is found, for example, in the piyut, “Lecha Dodi,” which describes Shabbat as “the source of blessing.” In other words, Shabbat is not an epilogue to the six days of Creation but a kind of prologue.

The sense of return that is found both in teshuvah and Shabbat is the heart of the connection between the two. We are encouraged to think little of the past and much more of what could yet be; we do not obsess over our sins, but instead focus on the exaltation of teshuva.

On this Shabbat, as on Shabbat HaGadol, the synagogue rabbi customarily delivers a derashah to the entire congregation. As a rule, the derashah deals with matters that are meant to rouse the heart to teshuva, but takes into consideration the fact that on Shabbat one should not recall or bring up the difficult matters and painful memories that are generally spoken of when we attain teshuvah. On Shabbat Shuvah, we emphasize the teshuvah of love, not the teshuva of remorse and pain. This kind of teshuvah is a return that is not only based on love, but can only be achieved by returning in the way of love.

The special haftarah of this Shabbat begins with the words “Return, O Israel.”5 These words contain the essential message of this Shabbat: the call to return to G‑d.

To be sure, most of our prophets emphasize teshuvah, for this was their main purpose – to inspire the Jewish people to leave its evil ways and choose the good path. However, most of their prophecies are full of harsh rebuke about sins and the punishments that the individual and the nation will suffer because of those sins if they do not attain teshuvah. It is not for naught that the Talmud describes the words of the prophets as “words of complaint,” referring to the prophets’ complaints about Israel and about their sins.6

By contrast, Hosea’s prophecy read in this haftarah contains very few words of rebuke, petition, or supplication for the abrogation of punishment. The essence of the haftarah is a call for complete teshuvah, for leaving sin and for following a new direction. It also contains words of conciliation, acceptance, and reassurance for those who seek teshuvah.

What is more, although there are prophecies of consolation in the words of other prophets as well – regarding the future redemption and the good times that will come – those prophecies generally do not deal with the causes of the exile and the suffering. In this haftarah, however, there is a unique combination: Although it is not a prophecy of redemption but an explicit call for teshuvah, nevertheless, it consists entirely of words of consolation and conciliation.

These words of comfort, stated with great tenderness, are meant to inspire people in a different way: Look how good it is for people who seek shelter under the wings of the Shechina! Look how much love G‑d bestows on His people and on all who love Him! The haftarah’s general tone resembles the words of encouragement that one offers to a sick person: How good it will be when you recover! How well you will feel, and how many blessings you will enjoy! Indeed, this is how Ibn Ezra interprets the verse, “I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely:”7 “Backsliding in the soul is like illness in the body; thus the words ‘I will heal.’”

Finally, the other prophets’ words of rebuke deal primarily with teshuvah out of fear – fear of sin and fear of punishment – whereas in the haftarah chosen for Shabbat Shuva we are encouraged to seek teshuvah out of love, a teshuvah whose whole essence is drawing near to G‑d. In this way, the haftarah reflects the essence of this Shabbat: a conciliatory call to spiritual awakening and drawing near to G‑d.

Between the majesty of the judgment on Rosh Hashanah and the majesty of the forgiveness on Yom Kippur stands this Shabbat, Shabbat Shuvah, whose whole essence is the relationship of two lovers between whom a misunderstanding has arisen. Now, as they resolve the misunderstanding, they hold each other in a loving embrace.