Hazinu (Shabbat Shuva)

The Shabbat before Yom Kippur is called “Shabbat Shuvah – the Sabbath of Return” because the opening words of the Haftorah begin, “Shuvah Yisra’el Ahd HaShem Elokecha – return O Israel to HaShem your G-d” Hosea 14:2. We are compelled by the prophet to return to the ways of HaShem, to renew our covenant with Him and to conform to His commandments.

In Temple times, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, had a complicated sequence of offerings and rituals to elicit atonement. Today, without our Temple in Jerusalem, our Yom Kippur prayer service replaces the various offering with prayer. But the prophet informs us that HaShem does not seek our sacrifices. He is not interested in the meat, the smoking fats or the sweet smell of incense. Our prayers, or rather our repentance and return, are sufficient. “May You forgive every iniquity and accept goodness, and let our lips substitute for the bulls” (Hosea 14:3).

Then the next verse is peculiar. “Assyria shall not save us; we will not ride the [Egyptian] horse; nor will we ever again refer to the work of our hands as gods, for only in You will the orphan find compassion.” Reference is made to Assyria and Egypt, two major political and military powers in whom Israel had placed their trust and hope.

Why the reference to these two countries? Surely, other great nations (such as Babylon) had vested interests in Israel, the gateway to three continents. Why were these particular countries chosen as the paradigms of our misguided dependence? The answer is that the prophet Hosea is referring to the “in-gathering of the Exiles,” a reference to Messianic times. But again, Israel was exiled four times. Why not allude to Greece and Rome?

We can gather insight from HaRav Ovadiya Yosef, the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel. He comments on the verse from Isaiah 18:27, quoted in both the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur service: “And it will be on that great day, when the great Shofar is sounded, and the lost ones from Ashur – Assyria – will come, and [also] the humbled from the land of Mitzra’im – Egypt – and they will bow down to HaShem on the Holy Mountain, in Jerusalem”.

Rabbi Yosef informs us that there are two types of exile. In one, symbolized by Assyria, we find ourselves in a land of plenty (Assyria’s root word is Ashur, richness). In countries like Ashur, we have freedom, we can do as we please, become involved in any and all professions and passions. We are allowed to practice our religion freely and may live a life of affluence. Yet, rather than using these freedoms to our national benefit, we forsake our Jewish ways and become preoccupied, we become lost. It is not persecution that cause our numbers to dwindle in free lands, it is a systematic abandonment of our heritage and lifestyle.

Then, there is Mitzra’im, Egypt. The root word of Mitzra’im is Tzar – pain, suffering. When we find ourselves in Russia, or Germany, we are forced to live under oppression. There, we become bent over from the pressures and humbled by the wicked policies forced on the Jewish people. The end result is the same, a systematic abandonment of our heritage and lifestyle.

When the prophet Hosea urges Israel to “return unto HaShem” while they still have the power, he warns them that whether they are exiled to a generous and hospitable nation or to a wicked and hostile one, the end result will be a loss of identity unless a strong and active participation in Torah is present. Only Teshuvah, a return to the ways of HaShem, can overcome the reality of our self-abandonment.

This notion separates Israel from all other nations. The dynamics of our existence is Yotzei Min HaKlal (out of the norm). No other nation on earth exists under these conditions. Great and mighty nations have crumbled, benevolent and admirable nations have become mere references in history. Only Israel has endured the rigors of history.

Moshe Rabbeinu in his last message also alludes to this concept:

“Give ear O heavens and I will speak; and may the earth hear the words of my mouth.” Devarim 32:1

RaShI explains that Moshe called upon the heavens and the earth as witnesses because they are eternal in nature. As long as this world exists, Israel will survive against all odds, against any form of oppression or any form of freedom. Regardless of holocausts or inquisitions; regardless of freedoms and acceptance, the heavens and the earth are witnesses to Israel’s longevity.

I propose another viewpoint to this concept. Our covenant with HaShem likened Avraham’s descendants to the stars of the heavens and to the sands of the earth. Avraham was blessed that from him a great and numerous nation would descend until the end of time. No matter what land they would find themselves in, no matter what conditions they would be compelled to live under, his progeny would affect great things in each and every generation.

Allow me to propose that when Moshe called the heavens and the earth as witnesses, he was in fact calling upon Israel to act as their own witnesses to his words. Regardless of whatever calamities the future holds, Israel is everlasting – like the heavens and earth. Israel will eventually reap the joy of redemption, the result of following HaShem’s Torah.

For one hundred and ten generations Israel has survived the oppression of some nations and the freedom of others. We have made an indelible mark upon mankind that can never be erased. But Israel’s mission is not to win Noble peace prizes, it is to bring redemption to the world by acting in a noble and a holy manner, by living HaShem’s will.

Hosea says:

“Shuvah Yisra’el Ahd HaShem Elokecha – return O Israel to HaShem your G-d…
May You forgive every iniquity and accept goodness, and let our lips substitute for the bulls…
Assyria shall not save us; nor will we ride upon the [Egyptian] horse;
nor will we ever again refer to the work of our hands as gods, for only in
You will the orphan find compassion.” Hosea 14:1-3

May Israel’s atonement during these High Holidays find favor in HaShem’s eyes. May He forgive our misdeeds so that we may bring goodness to those less fortunate (“only in You will the orphan find compassion”). May we see this year, the in-gathering of the exiles, the lost ones from Ashur and the humbled ones from Mitzra’im, and rather than only yearning for bygone days, may our lips always testify that HaShem is One and His Name is One!

I wish you all a sweet, healthy and memorable new year.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig
Devarim 32:1-52
Haftorah – Hosea 14:2-10,
Joel 2:11-27, Micah 7:18-20
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