The Poetry of Forgiveness
Poetry is the soul of religion. This week on the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Shabbat Shuvah (the Sabbath of Repentance), we will experience the power of exquisite poetry in both the Torah reading, Parashat Ha’azinu, and the special Haftarah excerpted from the prophetic books of three so–called minor prophets, Hosea, Micah, and Joel. (They are minor only in length, but their messages are no less incisive than their much wordier counterparts.)
It is entirely fitting that the poem of Ha’azinu is the reading for this week of our renewed focus on repentance. It recognizes the continuing pattern of ancient Israel, a pattern continued to our own times. Despite God’s immeasurable kindnesses to the people throughout their history as a nation, it was assumed that they would again be disloyal to God in the future. God intended to punish Israel severely but then (perhaps remembering the lesson Moses taught God after the molten calf apostasy incident of Exodus chapter 32) decided to minimize the punishment. The reason for that divine change of heart was, as we ascertain by overhearing both sides of God’s internal dialogue, so the other nations would not mistake Israel’s impending suffering for God’s weakness. That theology echoes succinctly in the liturgy of Avinu Malkenu: “‘asei lema’ankhah ‘im lo’ lema’aneinu. Forgive us, O God, for Your sake, if not for our own.” We will use any ploy that results in merciful treatment, even if not fully deserved. In our own defense, however, we do so with the liturgical insight that God wants to be merciful; in the words of the High Holiday Mahzor, God is “the King who desires life” for us.
The Torah reading is quite short. The poem is only forty–three verses, taking advantage of a central element of poetry, the ability to incorporate and interweave many complex themes and images into just a few lines. The poem is immediately followed by three verses in which Moses exhorts the people to heed everything he has taught them. The Torah, he explains, is no small matter: it has the potential to guide their very lives. With that, Moses is told by God that the day of his death has arrived. He will be able to offer a farewell blessing and will then die after viewing the land of Canaan, but only from a distance. (One wonders whether the announcement here of Moses’ impending death might also hint at guidance for the penitent: do what you can, even if you cannot be assured of experiencing the final success of your efforts.)
In its poetic language and imagery, the Haftarah continues the theme of repentance, with its powerful opening words: “Shuvah yisrael, Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God.” Recounting several themes of the Torah reading, the prophet Hosea reminds the people that the successes they have enjoyed are from God, neither exclusively of their own making nor resulting from the political alliances they had courted with Assyria. God’s anger, the people are assured, will be assuaged, and God will eagerly take them back in love. God will continue to provide sustenance and support for them and will be like the dew, softly and gently enabling their produce and prosperity. (A similar image at the beginning of the Torah reading portrays Moses’ words, too, like the dew, soft and refreshing.)
The next segment of the Haftarah, from the book of Joel, adds action to rhetoric. The people are told to sound the shofar, to sanctify a fast, and to proclaim an assembly day. Everyone, from old to young, is asked to join in pleading for God’s forgiveness and protection, after which God succumbs to their supplications. God promises renewed abundance. Even more, God assures that they will no longer be embarrassed or shamed by other nations. Repentance will succeed, leading to fertility and dignity for the nation, and they will be back in God’s good graces.
The final component of the Haftarah (although not all communities include all three sections) is from the prophet Micah who asks, rhetorically, what other deity is like God, forgiving the people’s transgressions? Not only does God forgive, God takes the people back in love. Their relationship is renewed and strengthened. Even if future wrongdoing leads to future punishment — as seems to be inevitable with the Israelites and with us, the inheritors of their foibles and faith — the people’s relationship with God is guaranteed into the future. That guarantee was promised long ago, in ancient times. And so the Haftarah completes the cycle with a beginning assumption of the week’s Torah reading. God’s generous and forgiving nature goes all the way back, to the beginnings of the nation as God’s people.
No matter what our theological stance in understanding the compelling metaphorical language describing God, all the readings for this Shabbat underscore an essential reciprocity between God and the people. The basic pattern of biblical poetry, making a point by repeating it in slightly different words, and even the way this parashah is written — in two parallel columns — emphasize that notion of reciprocity. Our sincere repentance will lead to divine forgiveness, support, and love. God, too, will repent for any plans to bring punishment if we undertake our part of the reconciliation.
The message of Shabbat Shuvah is clear. Return. Come back. God is eager to meet us more than half way. Yet even if we have doubts about God’s actions, our own behavior can put us back on the right path. Listen to the poetry and move to its cadence.
Dr. Stephen Garfinkel
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.