“The Shabbos Shuva drasha will be given at 5:00 in the main sanctuary.” The age-old custom of listening to a Shabbos Shuva drasha will take place all over the world this Shabbos and definitely should not be missed. When the community gathers together to hear words of inspiration from the rabbi, it is a wonderful opportunity to prepare ourselves for Yom Kippur. The fact that we have come together as one unit to raise our level of spirituality causes much joy to Hashem, and that in itself is a reason to take part in this special event.
But we must know that besides the rabbi’s speech, there is another important one, given by none other than the navi Hoshea during the Shabbos morning services. For some people, hearing the chazzan begin reading the weekly haftarah is a signal to doze off. What a pity! These words contain such holy inspiration that just hearing them will help us peel away some of the layers of sin that cover our hearts. And certainly anyone who listens to Hoshea’s message will learn what to do in order to achieve true repentance.
So let us take a look at the opening words of the haftarah of Shabbos Shuva. There we will discover what we should be doing during these special days.
The haftarah begins: “Shuva Yisroel ad Hashem Elokecha, ki chushalta ba’avonecha! Return, Yisroel, unto Hashem your G-d, for you stumbled in your iniquity. Kechu e’machem d’vorim v’shuvu el Hashem – Take words with you and return to Hashem…” (Hoshea 14:2-3).
The midrash (Shemos Rabba, Tezaveh) explains what these “words” are: “Klal Yisroel says to Hashem: ‘We do not have sacrifices to grant us atonement!’ And Hashem answers, ‘I only request words from you, and words means Torah.’ So Klal Yisroel says ‘But we don’t know how!’ And Hashem answers, ‘So cry and pray to Me. Did I not redeem your forefathers in Egypt because they prayed to me… and in the days of Yehoshua, was it not through prayer that I performed for them miracles? So too, I do not want from you offerings or korbonos – just words…’”
This amazing midrash addresses our generation, as we also do not have sacrifices. Hashem compares us to being in Egypt – where we needed salvation from the torture and slavery that entrapped us. And today we need miracles just like our nation needed in the times of Yehoshua. Why is this so?
The painful answer is that even though we try hard to fulfill the commandments of the Torah, many times we, unfortunately, fall short. And when a temptation to sin arises, we usually overcome it – but many times we don’t. All this needs atonement, as it is not possible to enter the World to Come with stains on our souls. We may have to endure various punishments or suffering, chas v’sholom. But Hashem, in His great kindness, gives us the opportunity each year, during these ten days of repentance, to achieve that soul cleansing and avoid the need to undergo pain.
So we say to Hashem: “What should we do? Once, we had a Bais HaMikdosh where we could offer korbonos and receive atonement. But we don’t have that anymore! We try to learn Torah, but we don’t know how! Our learning is not on the level sufficient to save us from our dire situation.” Hashem answers: “Cry and pray to me! That is what you should bring me – words of prayer!”
We see from here that there is a deep connection between prayer and repentance.
We find the same connection from the fact that viduy, confession, is part of the Yom Kippur davening – it appears five times during the silent Shemoneh Esrei and five times during the chazzan’s repetition. Similarly, we say in the moving prayer of U’nesaneh Tokef: “But repentance, prayer, and charity remove the evil of the decree!” So an integral part of achieving atonement is through prayer. Why is this so?
In Your Presence
As part of the viduy of Yom Kippur we say over and over “al cheit shechatanu lifanecha.” We ask forgiveness for the sin that we sinned “in Your presence.” I heard from the mashgiach of Yeshivas Toras Moshe in Yerushalayim, Rav Elchonon Meir Fishman, that the main reason we sin is that we forget we are in the presence of Hashem.
He illustrated his point in this way: Let us imagine that right now we hear the shofar of Moshiach. When that great shofar will finally be blown, there will be no doubts – this is it! Moshiach is here! As it gets louder and louder, someone walks into the room and starts telling you a juicy piece of loshon hora. Normally, you would have trouble resisting, but this time you scream: “Get out of here! The King is coming; how can I sin in His presence!”
When we express our remorse, we admit that “the sin was in Your presence.” The first step in repentance is to say to Hashem that until now we lived as if we were not in front of You, but now we have come back.
Now we can understand why we repent specifically during Shemoneh Esrei. As we explained many times in this series, tefillah is a meeting with Hashem. We put aside all other matters, business and personal, and turn to Hashem in prayer. At that moment, when we feel the strong connection to Hashem, we are able to truly feel how far we have strayed. We can honestly say that we sinned because we did not feel that we were in Your presence. So please accept our regret and forgive us!
This is what Hoshea is telling us: The way to repentance is through prayer! Praying is the quickest and most direct way of placing ourselves back in front of Hashem. That is why he stressed taking “words with you and return to Hashem” – because through these words of prayer we return directly to Hashem. And once we are there, we will be able to see everything in the correct perspective and truly turn over a new leaf in our lives.
The Remaining Prayer
Rav Nosson Wachtfogel zt”l, the esteemed mashgiach of Lakewood, would explain that it says in Tehillim (102:18), “Panah el tefillas ha’arar v’lo baza es tefilasam – He will have turned to the prayer of each devastated one and not have despised their prayer.” The midrash (Shochar Tov) says that “This refers to a generation when there will not be a prophet, a Kohen, or a Bais HaMikdosh to atone for them. But there will be one prayer and that is the one that they pray on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Dovid HaMelech is praying that Hashem should not despise that tefillah.”
Rav Nosson would point out that we see this clearly in our days: Even the most unaffiliated Jew goes to shul for the High Holidays, and people who do not usually put much effort into their prayers make sure to find a good shul to attend. Because every Jew senses deep down the amazing power of this remaining prayer – the only thing we have left from the Bais HaMikdosh.
And then Rav Nosson would begin crying and say: “This is all we have left! In the tefillos of the Yomim Hanora’im we have the holiness of the Bais HaMikdosh! The Kohen Gadol! The offerings! Let’s not miss this opportunity!”