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Return Again

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Take words with you and return to the LORD. Say to him: "Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously, that we may offer the fruit of our lips." Hosea 14:2

The Torah portion for this week is Vayelech, which means "and he went," from Deuteronomy 31:1-30, and the Haftorah is from Hosea 14:2-10.

The Sabbath tomorrow has a special name due to its placement between the holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Appropriately, this Sabbath is called Shabbat Shuva, which means "Sabbath of Return," echoing the first verse of this week's Haftorah reading: "Take words with you and return to the LORD."

But, wait - haven't we been here before? Wasn't it just last year that we confessed all our sins to God and resolved not to repeat them? Yet here we stand and we have to repent for many of those same sins all over again! What's the point? Don't we and God all know that we are bound to stumble and fall again this year?

A story is told about a young Torah scholar who had strayed from the path of obedience and faith. His rabbi visited him to try to convince him to repent and return. The young man looked sadly into his teacher's eyes and said, "Do you think that I haven't tried to return? Do you think that I'm completely void of remorse? That I have never considered coming back? Many times I have repented, yet it is to no avail; I always return to my sinful ways. I have strayed, it seems, too far from the path. For me there is no hope."

The rabbi told the young man, "We say in the Yom Kippur prayers, 'for You, God, are the Salchan, Forgiver of Israel.' Why do we refer to God as a Salchan, instead of the more familiar term Soleiach? Because a Soleiach is someone who forgives once, but a Salchan is someone who is constantly forgiving." The rabbi went on to explain that God never tires of forgiving us - and so we should never tire of repentance, even if we have to repeat it over and over again.

In Hebrew, the first verse of our reading literally says: " . . . return until the LORD." Based on this strange wording, the Jewish sages teach that a person can never get all the way "to the LORD." We never fully arrive at perfection; rather we return as far as we can go, and then repeat the process again.

As long as we think of repentance as an all-or-nothing experience, it's easy to give up and stop trying when we know that we are bound to mess up again. However, when we recognize that repentance is a dynamic experience that ebbs and flows like the sea, we can feel confident in returning to our God over and over again. Each time we make it a bit closer to God, and in the end, our lives are judged not by how close we get, but by how far we have come.

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