Shabbat Shuvah: Master of the universe is on our side

Shabbat Shuvah

Deuteronomy 32:1-52

Hosea 14:2-10

Micah 7:18-20

Yoel 2:15-27

Year after year, all evidence to the contrary, I spend part of Rosh Hashanah services searching for the prayers about repentance.

Since this is the season of tshuvah-repentance work, I always assume that this will be the primary theme of the Machzor. But year after year, I am reminded again that the primary theme of the Rosh Hashanah service is not repentance, but the greatness of God.

We invoke images of God as Sovereign, as Judge, as One who remembers all, as Author of revelation and as Power behind the redemption of the world. But on this day we do not talk primarily about sin and forgiveness.

That theme, instead, comes to the fore on Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of Penitence or Turning, which falls between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The theme of sin and forgiveness continues through the Aseret Yemei Tshuvah — the Ten Days of Penitence — and comes to its climax on Yom Kippur.

Amid the exquisite poetry of the parashah that we read this Shabbat Shuvah, we find one verse that essentially summarizes the predominant theme of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy just past.

"See, then, that I am; I am God, and there is no god beside Me; I create death and I give life; I have wounded and I will heal; None can deliver from My hand" (Deuteronomy 32:39).

This is a stark and terrifying summary of God's power. The verse proclaims that God is the only Power in the world, the Force that creates life and death, suffering and healing, the One in Whose shadow our lives unfold.

These words are difficult — frightening, awe-inspiring, provocative.

What kind of relationship can we have with a God who confesses to being the Creator of death? How can we possibly be expected to place our lives in the hands of this Power?

How are we to understand the Machzor's emphasis on God's power? And how are we to use these images in our own work of self-examination and reconciliation these holy days?

I got some help with these issues this year from an unexpected place.

At a ceremony at my stepson's Jewish day school, all of us — parents and kids together — were asked to spend a few moments studying one of the daily prayers. Our family was assigned the second paragraph of the Amidah prayer, acknowledging God's awesome power.

Our kids immediately connected to the beautiful examples of God's power in the prayer — God as the One who sustains life, supports the ailing, heals the sick, frees the fettered. At first the kids were less sure about how to relate to another central image in the prayer: God as the Master of death as well as life.

The kids started talking about how it feels to pray this prayer. They talked about feeling safe, protected, cared for by the Power who supports life.

And before long, they made the connection with death as well. My stepson said, "It feels good to know that death is in the hands of Someone we trust." God's power and compassion fit together into a loving, protective whole.

So, too, in this holy season. How can we possibly do our tshuvah work until we know where our place is in the universe? First, we need to know which pieces of life belong to God and which to us, what is our work and what is God's, which goals to reach for and which to let go of.

Only then can we decide where to go in the year ahead: What do we need to make right in our lives? Where have we gone astray? What do we need to correct and transform in our lives?

In order to do the painful work of tshuvah, exploring yet again how our flaws have held us back from being who we wanted to be this past year, we need to know that the Master of the universe is on our side. Who could do this work of repentance without knowing that we can and will be forgiven? Who could muster the courage to shine a light on our own soul, without sensing that we are loved as we try to grow?

In this week's haftarah, the prophet Hosea imagines God saying to all of us, "Return, O Israel, for you have stumbled" (Hosea 14:2).

Like a parent lovingly extending protective arms to a child learning to walk, we are asked to see God encouraging us, coaxing us forward, assuring us that we can do it. May our turning and returning be for blessing.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at