The Shabbat between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuva, after the first words of the special haftara that is read, which begins with “Shuva Yisrael! Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God….” (Hosea 14:2) Falling in the season of the High Holy Days, Shabbat Shuva is often called “The Sabbath or Return/Repentance.”
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are anomalies. Jewish tradition frames the three pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot in terms of the Jewish master story of the Exodus. On those holidays we are drawn into the saga of sacred history and are inspired to imagine ourselves as participants in the events that they commemorate. We are liberated from Egypt; we stand at Sinai to receive the Torah; we share the desert wanderings.
Even the minor holidays of Purim and Hanukka refer to the collective experience of the Jewish people in history: We are saved from the machinations of Haman; we are present at the rededication of the Temple by the Maccabees.
But the Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe) do not touch on the cycle of the regalim/pilgrimage festivals and their connection to the Exodus. Rosh Hashana and especially Yom Kippur instead focus on what happens to and for each of us as individual Jews.
Central to Yom Kippur as well is this imagery of opposing forces. Justice and mercy are brought into play, as we are called to account and held accountable. We are emboldened to stand for judgment precisely because we are assured that God’s compassion will “mitigate the severity of the decree.”
Apology and forgiveness similarly strive for balance, not ascendancy. On Yom Kippur we are reminded that for every person who owes us an apology, there is likely to be someone else whom we have offended or failed. Repentance and atonement are measured against each other.
But this sense of balance was not the only way in which Yom Kippur was understood. Rabbinic teachings struggle with a residual belief that Yom Kippur in itself magically atones for sins between humans and God — even without our involvement and absent our apology. It is as if even without our contrition, someone paid off a debt we owed on our behalf.
Rabbinic Judaism mostly rejected this approach, insisting that atonement requires interior contrition of spirit, which no one else can accomplish for us. We find this is the well-known teaching that sins between people and God are not atoned for on Yom Kippur unless and until one first makes restitution with people against whom we have transgressed. Restoring the balance between people is the prerequisite for restoring the balance between people and God.
The process of teshuva requires “both/and” rather than “either/or.” Opposing forces of human nature are accounted for not by one vanquishing the other, but by bringing them into balance.
Jewish tradition does not believe that the essential human condition is one of sin from which only God can redeem us. Atonement, while central, does not and cannot stand alone. Teshuva does not rely on God’s grace alone, although we gather the courage to confront failure and confess sin by premising our prayers on the mercy and compassion of God.
Atonement is not accepting a gift from God, but must be earned by efforts at apology, as difficult as it may be for us to go face to face with those we have wronged or who have wronged us.
The mythic imagery of the liturgy suggests that during the Ten Days of Repentance it is decreed “who will live and who will die.” While many Jews do not believe in the literal level of these words, the symbolic significance remains evocative and accurate. What we do in this brief time from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur is consequential. As with the larger canvas of life, so too these days of teshuva: We have only a limited amount of time in which to bring things into balance.