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Va-yelekh 5766

Parshat Vayelekh
Shabbat Shuvah
(Hosea 14:2-10; Micah 7:18-20)
October 8, 2005

A conventional reading of the verses of this special haftarah for the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sees in the verses of this prophecy a prescription for repentance expressed by the prophet for the sake of Israel. It sets forth the manner in which a person should approach God and seek repentance. This is particularly true of the three opening verses: \”Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have fallen because of your sin. Take words with you and return to the Lord. Say to Him: \’Forgive all guilt and accept what is good (v\’kach tov) ; Instead of bulls we will pay the offering of our lips. Assyria shall not save us, no more will we ride on steeds; nor ever again will we call our handiwork god since in You alone orphans find pity!\’.\” (Verses 2-4) The fifth verse is God\’s response after these instructions: \”I will heal (erpah) their affliction; generously will I take them back in love, for My anger has turned away from them.\”

These verses give a model for repentance including the recognition of guilt, confession of sin, rejection of past practices and the decision not to return to past sinful acts. (see Fishbane, Haftarah commentary) These verses are not without difficulties. In particular, it is difficult to know how to interpret the phrase \”v\’kach tov – accept what is good\”. What is being offered to God? The medieval commentators vary on this question. Rabbi David Kimche (13th century Provance) defines the \”good\” as a \”good heart\”; Rabbi Joseph Kara (12th century France) as \”good deeds\”; and Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th century Spain) as \”good words\”.

This ambiguity prompted more creative interpretations of this passage. The following midrash chose to define this term by turning the whole sentence into a dialogue. It places the phrase \”accept what is good\” in God\’s mouth rather than as request from the worshiper to God: \”When a person goes to honor a government official, he goes with his hands filled with gifts and returns empty handed; but God isn\’t that way, rather you visit the Holy One blessed be He empty handed and return full, as it is written: Forgive all guilt – accept what is good.\” (Pesikta Rabbati Shuvah Ish Shalom ed. p. 185a)

This midrash, which posits that a person visits God during this season empty handed (full of sin) and returns full (forgiven), served as the impetus for Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (19-20th century Lithuania) to interpret all of these verses as an exchange between God and the worshipper. Following the method of this midrash, he places the words \”in you alone orphans find pity\” in the mouth of prophet as a description of the behavior of the people instead of as a description of God. As a result of the people\’s exemplary behavior, God retorts (changing the form of the verb): \”I (God) will be healed (erapeh), for My anger has been turned away from them.\” This response is prompted because there are, according to him, only two sins which wax God\’s anger: idolatry and mistreatment of widows and orphans. (see Deut. 11:17) (adapted from Meshech Hochmah Vayelech end Cooperman ed. Vol. 3 pp. 421-2)

This creative reading of the prophet leaves us with a vital message. Our actions have a theurgic effect in the world. We indeed do have the ability to affect God and assuage His anger. All it takes is a simple act of kindness.

About This Commentary

This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in  Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva.  He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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