(Hosea 14:2-10; Joel 2:15-27; Micha 7:18-20)
October 4, 2003
Shabbat Shuva is the Shabbat which occurs during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. During this time of introspection a Jew is commanded to come to terms with those aspects of his or her life which have alienated them from God. This process is marked by an attempt to reach a reconciliation between each person and God. The haftarah for this Shabbat focuses on this process. In his call to “return” to God, Hosea urges: “Take with you words and return unto the Lord; Say unto Him [God] ‘Forgive all iniquity’, and accept that which is good; so will we render for bullocks the offering of our lips (nashlima parim sfateinu)” (Hosea 14:3 – old JPS) The last part of this verse is rendered differently in the new JPS translation: “Instead of bulls we will pay the offering of our lips.”
What this actually meant in Biblical times is hard to discern. However, this idea became a fundamental part of post-Temple theology where it was no longer possible to carry out the sacrificial rites of atonement. In order to understand the significance of this idea, it is necessary to appreciate what sacrifices meant to the religious person in Biblical times. Sacrifices were not merely an appetizing gift to God in order to curry favor. The theology of the sacrificial order was actually much more sophisticated. The religious person wished to offer up to God the ultimate gift – his or her life. Since such a sacrifice was not possible, an animal was offered as a vicarious replacement for this ultimate sacrifice. The worshipper’s intention, however, was that he/she was offering up him/herself.
When the Temple was destroyed, words replaced animal sacrifices as the means for reconciling a person’s relationship with God. The requisite religious intention of the sacrificial order remained the same. As a consequence of this change, the phrase “Instead of bulls we will pay the offering of our lips” became significant in a way that may not have been envisioned by previous generations. Commentators now had to contend with the question of exactly what was meant by “offering of the lips”. Rashi contends that these “offerings” must be prayer: “those sacrifices which we should have offered before You [God], we will pay them with the appeal of the words of our lips.” Rabbi David Kimche, the 13th century Provencal exegete, seems more attuned to the context of this verse as well as its liturgical use as the haftarah for this Shabbat. He contends that these words must be words of confession: “ These words must be the confessions of our lips since You [God] desire repentance (teshuva) more than You desire sacrifices since sacrifices are inconsequential without confession of one’s sins…”
The message of this verse for this season is that we must throw ourselves entirely into the task of teshuva. This is the greatest gift we can possibly offer up to God.