>Shabbat Ha-azinu/Shuvah 5772

Is there such thing as “gone too far?” It’s a pertinent question for this time of year, and for this Shabbat, known as Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat on which we read the words of the prophet Hosea: “Shuvah, Yisrael, ‘ad Adonai Elohekha–come back, Israel, to the LORD your God,” he implores his listeners, in his day and in ours. But what if the distance is too great to come back?

There’s a beautiful midrash on Hosea’s words in the collection Pesikta Rabbati that answers the question in very reassuring terms. Here’s what the midrash says:

“An interpretation of the phrase ‘Return, O Israel, unto the Lord your God’. [The people] said to God: ‘Master of the Universe, we fear from our sins which are so many!’ David said: ‘for my sins have overcome my head.’ (Psalm 38:5) So too Ezra said: ‘for our sins have overcome our heads and our guilt has mounted unto the heavens.’ (Ezra 9:6) The Holy One replied: ‘Do not be afraid of this condition; for even if your sins reach the sky, if you repent I will forgive you. Even if your sins reach not the first firmament, not the second firmament, not the third firmament, not the seventh firmament, but even if they reach up to the very throne of glory, if you repent, immediately I will accept you. ‘Return, O Israel’ even if your sins reach up to the Lord your God.”

What makes this midrash work, as is often the case with midrash, is a play on words. The word ‘ad in context means “to,” but its usual meaning is “until.” So here, the phrase is understood to mean “Return, Israel, even if your sins have made it all the way to God.” Those would be some rather penetrative sins, no? So what do you think of this interpretation? Are there transgressions that are such an affront to God (or humanity) that we are simply too far to return?

We’ll talk about teshuvah on Shabbat morning. Until then, Shabbat Shalom, and best wishes for a Shanah Tovah–a wonderful New Year of 5772!