May 22, 2004
Hosea’s opening message is a painful one. The relationship between God and Israel is likened to an unsuccessful marriage fraught with disloyalty, indiscretion and a lack of appreciation on the part of one spouse for the other. Yet, while it opens with a message of despair and alienation, the recognition of this dire state is not its ultimate purpose. Hosea yearns to be a prophet of hope. Consequently, he is equally concerned with the process of reconciliation and return to God since it is inconceivable to him that this relationship could be terminated. The ambiguity and complicated nature of this process is captured in the following verse: “Pursue her lovers as she will, she shall not overtake them and seek them as she may, she will not find them. Then she will say, ‘I will go and return to my first husband for then I fared better than now.’\” (Hosea 2:9)
This verse encapsulates the troubled relationship between God and His people – between a minority people and its struggle to reconcile its unique identity while facing up to the cultural forces which surround it. It is tragic that sometimes members of a troubled and beleaguered people become distracted and allured by the overwhelming forces of the pervasive culture and religion. Sometimes these cultural forces drag people into submission. At other times, people actively pursue them. This was as true in the days of Hosea as it is today.
However, Hosea also realized that sometimes people discern the wrong-headedness and emptiness of this act of assimilation and consciously attempt to reverse this self imposed exile from their true identities and their relationship with God. This turnaround has the power to restore that which was lost. The Talmud characterized the power of this process this way: “Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Yose: ‘Better is one self reproach in the heart of a person than many stripes, for it is said: ‘And she shall run after her lovers …then shall she say, I shall go and return to my first husband, for then it was better for me than now.’ (Amos 2:9)” (Berachot 7a)
Rabbi Yochanan emphasizes that this struggle for identity is ultimately one that cannot be externally imposed on an individual. Rather each person must reconcile him or herself with God. This act of self will is call teshuva.