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Courageous Repentance Shabbat Shuvah/Vayelech—the Sabbath of Return

Photo of porcelain Ming Dynasty figurine (Wanli Reign 1573-1620) in the Shanghai Museum blowing what looks like a shofar, although it’s actually a conch shell

The first Shabbat of the year is always Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Return, a time of reflection and self-examination. Falling in the midst of the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, it is a special time to concentrate on how we can improve ourselves and our lives in this shiny new year.

We are taught in Jewish tradition “For sins against God the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) atones, but for sins against our fellow human beings the Day of Atonement does not atone.” (Mishna Yoma 8:9). That means we can and should pray for forgiveness for anything we have failed to do for ourselves or for God. But if we have hurt another person—and all of us have, haven’t we, in the last 12 months?—we must apologize to that person directly. That lesson is a profound one, and particularly important in Judaism. God can help us on our spiritual paths, but when our issues are interpersonal it is up to us to work on resolving them.

The most important lesson of this season is that this is the time to ask forgiveness from anyone we might have offended. We must seek to repair our relationships with those people who are most important in our lives and do so sincerely and openly.

The short Torah portion we will read on Shabbat Shuvah is called VaYelech in the book of Deuteronomy, last of the five books of the Torah. The phrase Chazak v’amatz, meaning “be strong and courageous,” appears three times in two different forms. The first is the collective, addressed to the people of Israel, “All of you be strong and courageous.” The second and third time the phrase occurs Moses is addressing his successor, Joshua, directly: “Be strong and courageous in leading this people.”

Soldiers are sent into battle with the exhortation “Chazak v’amatz, be strong and courageous!” for the task they are forced to fulfill will undoubtedly take them into life-threatening danger. In a larger sense, that phrase has become a kind of byword in Judaism for moral courage. We tell people who are enduring great challenges chazak v’amatz, be strong and courageous, meaning hang in there, bear up under the strain, keep a stiff upper lip. Rak chazak v’amatz Joshua is told—just be brave and courageous and everything will work out for the best. Do your best to stand the strain, work hard against the forces of doubt or despair, and God will reinforce your strength and redouble your commitment.

It’s good advice, not only for future leaders of the Jewish people like Joshua, but for everyone—even bar and bat mitzvah boys and girls. Be brave and courageous. Face your fears and your challenges openly. Don’t pretend that hard tasks don’t await you but know that if you are resolute and committed you can accomplish them. Chizku v’imtzu—chazak v’amatz. Be strong and courageous and you will overcome.

That phrase applies to our own teshuvah, our efforts at repentance, as well. Are there those to whom you are uncomfortable apologizing for mistakes you made in the past? Take courage, VaYelech teaches, and in this week of Shabbat Shuvah find the strength to ask them to forgive you. Are there those you do not wish to forgive? Be brave and let those resentments go, take the initiative and forgive those who have wronged you.

If we can each do this we will help heal our own damaged relationships, and the torn fabric of our community. And we will begin the new year in the right way.

May you each find your own teshuvah over this coming Shabbat and on Yom Kippur next week and help to begin 5779 with clean hands and a pure heart.

Gmar Chatimah Tovah, may you be sealed in the book of life for a good year!

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