An entertaining drama has a lot of nail-biting suspense and uncertainty. What’s going to happen to your favorite characters? They’ve gotten themselves into quite a pickle this time!
The last chapter of the book you are reading (or the last episode of the drama you have been watching) ended with a big cliff-hanger. It left your heroes dangling precariously over a dangerous fate. You want to keep reading (or keep watching) to find out what will happen next. Hopefully they will find some key piece of information or important weapon or tool that will help them escape from certain doom at the very last moment.
This is the drama of the high holidays. Rosh HaShanah leaves us hanging, uncertain of our fates, breathlessly anticipating the big finale at Yom Kippur when everything will be resolved for better or worse. The special Sabbath called “Shabbat Shuvah” comes between those chapters, offering us the tools and instructions we need to survive this predicament.
Shabbat Shuvah falls in the ten-day window of time known as the yammim nora’im (ימים נוראים), a term that literally means “days of awe” or “fearsome days.” The term “days of awe” refers to the heightened sense of the fear of the LORD that we feel during the high holidays. From Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur, we are ever conscious of God’s impending judgment, the punishment due our sins, and the short amount of time we have left to do anything about it. The days of awe are days of uncertainty and anticipation. We don’t find out what happens next until Yom Kippur.
According to tradition, the heavenly court convenes for judgment on Rosh HaShanah, opens the books of judgment, and issues an initial verdict for each and every person on planet earth. For the next ten days, the court reviews our deeds and considers the verdict. On Yom Kippur, the tenth and last day of the heavenly court’s annual session, everyone’s verdict is sealed with his or her name recorded in either the book of life or the book of death. Those with their names in the book of life are granted another year of life whereas those sealed in the book of death will soon find their cases commuted to another courtroom, as it says, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).
We call the Sabbath that falls between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur “Shabbat Shuvah,” which means “The Sabbath of Repentance.” The Hebrew word for “return” is the imperative shuvah (שובה), a word that we might also translate as “repent.” The name Shabbat Shuvah comes from the synagogue reading for the day. The reading begins with the words, “Shuvah Yisra’el,” i.e., “Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity” (Hosea 14:2). Those are the survival instructions that the heroes in this drama need if they are going to survive to a happy ending.
The synagogue haftarah portion for Shabbat Shuvah is Hosea 14:2(1)-10(9). It instructs us to repent by returning to God with prayer and good deeds. Until the verdict is sealed on Yom Kippur, we still have time to sway the heavenly court toward a good verdict. During the days of awe, we make extra efforts in prayer, charity, and repentance. The holiday tradition has it that, beginning on Rosh HaShanah, the gates of heaven open to receive the prayers, confessions, and petitions of penitent sinners. On Shabbat Shuvah, the gates of prayer are still open. We still have time to repent:
Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. Take with you words and return to the LORD; say to him, "Take away all iniquity.” (Hosea 14:1-2)
On Shabbat Shuvah, we are still hanging in anticipation, waiting for the final judgment of Yom Kippur. Until that gavel falls, however, we can still find mercy from the heavenly judge. We only need to repent and return to the LORD our God and ask for his forgiveness, not on the basis of our own righteousness, but on the merit and virtue of our Master Yeshua who died for sin and lives to intercede for sinners before the heavenly court.