This Friday evening, we will worship together at what is called “Shabbat Shuva,” the Sabbath of Return. It is named for the Haftarah portion assigned to this week, Hosea 14:2-10, which begins with the words: Shuva Yisrael ad Adonai Eloheinu ki kashalta ba’avonecha: “Return, Israel, to Adonai your God, for you have stumbled because of your sin.” Certainly, so many of us know our duty during the days in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, to reflect, think about our sins, and yearn to be better people. We “return” to God by admitting our faults, vowing to change, and asking forgiveness. It is a terribly awkward, difficult, and painful few days. This is especially true because God can only forgive sins against God and Judaism requires that humans ask humans for forgiveness for our sins against each other.
We ask all for forgiveness, for sins known and unknown, and we forgive those who ask us for forgiveness. We are instructed to show compassion and understanding by hearing one another’s pleas and forgiving, rather than by displaying the hubris of forgiving before forgiveness is asked. We are further instructed that, if our pleas for forgiveness are rejected three times, God will step in and forgive us on their behalf. On Yom Kippur, we spend 24 hours in prayer, in thought, and in hunger. These acts press the “reset” button and prepare us to move forward. Our reward after all of this struggle, all of our painful metamorphoses, is a new start, the slate wiped clean, our name judged equally with everyone else, and a new year to make new versions of ourselves.
But Shabbat Shuva is only the halfway mark.
The irony of this Shabbat is that the Torah reading is Vayelech, Moses’ last words to the Israelites, which begin as follows: “He said to them: I am now one hundred and twenty years old, I can no longer be active. Moreover, Adonai has said to me, ‘You shall not go across yonder Jordan.’” Our greatest prophet, Moses, reminds us that all of us are allowed passage into the holy land, but he is not. All of us: the descendants of the makers of the golden calf, of Korach’s rebellion, of the kvetchers, and rebels, the descendants of the ungrateful who cried countless times, “If only we had stayed in Egypt!” But Moses is not granted this gift. Why?
Back in Numbers, chapter 20, Moses is instructed to provide water to our ancestors who yell to Moses, “Why have you brought the LORD’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there? Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!” Moses asks God what to do, and God replies, “You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.”
However, due to understandable frustration (this was not the first or last time the Israelites kvetched and gave no thanks for the miracle of the Exodus), Moses makes a different choice, a choice we have all made. He responds with anger.
Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank.”
In response to Moses’ actions, God punished Moses: “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” So basically, because Moses reacts in anger once, out of a thousand interactions with God, he is barred from the land of milk and honey, the promised land, Canaan, now Israel.
Earlier I mentioned that this was ironic, but the truth is, it’s incredibly troubling. Here we are at Shabbat Shuva, knowing that we have acted in anger—we’ve disobeyed orders and requests, we’ve lost our tempers, we’ve called people names—but in just a few days, we will want for nothing and we will be refused nothing. But Moses, whom we quote left and right, whom we admire and hope to embody, does not get the chance that we are given each year. Why? Because Moses hit a rock instead of talking to it? That is the sin to end all sins, above maliciousness, deception, verbal abuse, and cruelty? This cannot be reconciled. There are routes to its understanding through literary criticism and scholarship, but at face value at this time of year, it presents us with a feeling in which we are meant to feel this week: humility. Moses was the ultimate martyr for us, accepting a terrible punishment due to our ancestors’ ungrateful rebellion. The opportunity that we are given on Yom Kippur, the chance to begin again, is not something to be taken lightly. It is not, as made apparent by Moses’ barring from the holy land, a gift that all receive. This is why this week we should show great humility. We should be incredibly humble knowing that God will look on us more favorably than upon the prophet who stared God in the face and to whom God passed on the words of the Torah.
This week we are given an immeasurable gift. Let us not squander it.