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Sabbath of Return

In the Jewish liturgical calendar, the Sabbath between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuva - the Sabbath of Return.

One thing I like to do during the Jewish High Holy Days is to read from the treasury of traditional Jewish wisdom compiled and edited by S.Y. Agnon for this festival period. [1]

As I reflect on Shabbat Shuva, with the help of Agnon, I am touched by Judaism's sensitivity to both the just judgment and gentle mercy of our Creator-Redeemer God.

These holy days, that will soon culminate in Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), are serious indeed, filled with the insistent call to repentance, eschewing lame excuses and half-hearted effort. At the same time, this call to "Return!" is filled with the mercy and compassion of the God who has no desire for crushing judgment or to force his people into a loveless submission. Rather, the God of love and gentleness speaks tenderly to his people, and is ready to walk with us all in our human woundedness and fears, hopes and dreams.

Thus do the Jewish sages tell the story of a king's son who was unable to make the 100 days journey back to his father. The king replied to his son:

"Go as far as you are able, and I will come the rest of the way to you." [2]

We hear, too, in the voice of Rabbi Alexandri:

If a person uses a broken vessel, it is considered a disgrace. But not the Holy One, blessed be he. All his vessels are broken. “The Lord is close to those that are of a broken heart” (Ps 34:19).” [3]

Our return to God is often impeded by the shame and paralysis of our own sinfulness. Our inner critic admonishes us: You are not worthy of God’s forgiveness! Yet the Jewish sages remind us otherwise: God knows and understanding our wounds and blemishes better than we know ourselves, and still regards us as precious and loved, longing to be close again.

How comforting to know that we don’t have to be 'perfect' or to 'have it all together' in order to turn, and to begin the return, to God.

Further, teshuva (repentance) is not a 'quick fix', it is a journey into deeper relationship. Here again, the tradition speaks with nuanced insights:

“Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God.” The meaning is, return until the Lord, that is, the Creator, becomes “your” that is, your own God. [4]

Food for thought… as we grow in solidarity and interfaith awareness of Jewish communities moving through their High Holy Days, and as we ponder afresh our own religious tradition.


1. Shmuel Yosef Agnon (1887-1970) was a great Hebrew writer of the 20th century and a winner of the 1966 Nobel Prize in Literature. His work referred to here is Days of Awe: A Treasury of Jewish Wisdom for Reflection, Repentance, and Renewal on the High Holy Days (New York: Schocken Books, 1965, 1975).

2. Pesikta Rabbati, Shuvah Yisrael. See Days of Awe, 139.

3. Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, Shuva. See Days of Awe, 140. Verse numbering may differ: see Ps 34:18.

4. Avodat Yisrael. See Days of Awe, 141.


Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry arising from the Catholic community, encouraging Christians to grow in appreciation of the Jewish tradition and to reflect on Torah with the help of Jewish insights. More...

© Teresa Pirola, Light of Torah, 2023. This article can be reproduced for non-commercial use, with acknowledgment of website.

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