The Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is known as Shabbat Shuvah, after the opening words of the special haftarah that we read on this day: Shuvah Yisrael—“Return, O Israel.” The reading is taken from two places in Scripture that express the quintessential ideas of teshuvah (repentance, return). It is the custom to call up a respected and virtuous person for the reading of this haftarah.

The first and largest segment of the reading is from the final verses of the book of Hosea. Hosea lived at the time when the state of Israel (comprising the ten northern tribes) began to succumb to the mighty Assyrian empire. He warns and pleads with the remaining tribes of Judah and Benjamin to mend their ways and return to G‑d, lest they experience a downfall similar to that of their brethren in Israel.

In the oft-repeated style of the prophets, Hosea tells the people that G‑d is not interested here in donations and sacrifices. “Take words with yourselves,” he instructs them. Approaching G‑d in such a way will guarantee atonement for even the harshest of sins. What might have been thought to be the function of “bullocks”—i.e., sacrifices—should be replaced with “lips,” direct and sincere communication with G‑d.

(This latter statement is invoked each day in our morning prayers. In our present situation, we are altogether unable to offer sacrifices. We therefore ask of G‑d that “the prayer of our lips be regarded and accepted by You as if we had offered the daily sacrifice… as it is said, ‘We will render [the prayer of] our lips in place of [the sacrifice of] bullocks.’”)

The prophet describes G‑d thereupon “healing” His people. Sin is a “sickness,” a foreign and alien spirit or deed to which a person can become attached. It might have been thought that once they have sinned, the Jewish people have forfeited G‑d’s love; but the prophet reassures them that this is not the case, and that G‑d retains His quintessential love for them. Sin cannot destroy this essential love; it can only block it out. Once the “illness” is “cured” via teshuvah, that original and essential bond will re-emerge in its entire splendor.

The imagery of a luscious garden and trees are used to depict the state of the Jewish people once they have returned to G‑d. G‑d will be to His people like “dew”: in contrast to rain, which is subject to cessation, dew is continuous. The gentle drops of dew allow for the tender and beautiful petals of the rose to blossom. The Jewish people will possess the beauty of a rose, but also the firm rootedness of a “cedar in Lebanon.” G‑d is also likened to a cypress tree: just as this tree can easily be bent over, so too will G‑d “lower” Himself to care for even the smallest detail in the life of the Jew.

One road, two travelers

The last verse of the book of Hosea finishes in the following way:

“The ways of the L‑rd are straight, and the righteous shall walk in them, and the rebellious shall stumble on them.”

A number of meanings to this have been suggested by the commentaries.

One explanation offered by some is that the “walking” of the righteous and the “stumbling” of the wicked are a result of either going or not going in the ways of G‑d. The stumbling of the rebellious “on them” is to be read “because of [not going on] them.”1

Others differ with this and explain the verse in a more literal sense. According to this approach, both the righteous and the rebel walk on the same “straight” path of G‑d, but the righteous walk steadily, whereas the rebellious stumble on this very path.

G‑d’s ways are always just and correct. To live on earth is to travel on this just and straight path that G‑d maps out for us. Walking down G‑d’s path is inevitable, since He is the creator and we are His creations. At times it seems that things go wrong—“the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper.” What the prophet is telling us is that there are two possible attitudes to take when walking this inevitable path of life.

The rebel will stumble. The inability to admit the minute scope of human comprehension can lead a person the draw his own, very fallible, conclusions from the events he witnesses. If on the level of his understanding the righteous are not rewarded and the wicked not punished, then this must mean that there is no order and justice to the world altogether. It must be indeed “the survival of the fittest.” The actions and lifestyle that emanates from such a worldview are nothing short of dangerous.

The righteous will walk down the same path as the rebels, but they will continue walking. Even while being brutally scarred and emotionally tormented by the apparent injustice, they will keep going. After all, the road is secure. The knowledge that these events are being orchestrated by a Force infinitely just and compassionate ultimately gives them the security and hope of continuing even in the face of tremendous challenge.

Radak offers an additional explanation, this in the name of his father, R. Yosef Kimchi:

“Walking in the ways of G‑d” refers to one’s conduct in the ways of Torah and its mitzvot. Successfully “walking” in this path requires a righteous character and a high degree of discipline and acceptance. Maintaining the character of a “rebel,” by contrast, will ultimately always cause the person to stumble. A person must be sincere, and then, as the Talmud states, “He who comes to become pure is assisted to do so.”2

Closing verses

The closing verses of the haftarah, taken from the book of Micah, are well known and are often repeated during the High Holidays. They are read as the end of this haftarah, as well as at the end of the haftarah of the afternoon of Yom Kippur. Furthermore, they include the phrase “You shall cast into the depths of the sea all of their sins,” which is one of the sources behind the custom of Tashlich (visiting a body of water on or around Rosh Hashanah), and thus these verses are recited as a central part of that service.

The first verse praises G‑d for His forgiveness. It speaks of the fact that G‑d will forgive the “remnant of His heritage,” a poignant reference to the Jewish people in the days before the coming of Moshiach. Regardless of whether they are worthy of it or not, the Almighty will overlook everything and finally redeem His people.

The final verse invokes the promise of G‑d to our forefathers. In particular, it was to Jacob that G‑d swore that He would never leave him, and that his children would multiply and “go forth in strength to all directions.” This oath was ultimately in the merit of Abraham, who had shown total devotion to G‑d and, more importantly, had passed on the ways of G‑d to his children after him. After the episode of the “Binding of Isaac,” G‑d had sworn in a similar way to Abraham regarding the destiny of his descendants, the Jewish people. We ask of G‑d that these promises and oaths be fulfilled very soon, in their entirety.