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Haftarah: Shabbat Shuva: Falling Short

The Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is named “Shuvah” after the opening word in the prophecy of Hoshea, which is read as the Haftarah.  This prophecy is considered the most powerful Biblical vision of Teshuva, returning to God.   The prophet is addressing idol worshippers, adulterers, thieves, and murderers, people who do not fear their king or God.

Hoshea chooses an interesting story of Teshuva to use as a springboard for this important lesson. He could have chosen the Tribes of Israel, who wanted to repent for their sin against Jacob and Joseph. He might have chosen the Teshuva of his ancestor, Reuven, whose story of return is described in detail. King David’s direct approach to fixing his sin with Batsheva could have served as an excellent example. Yet, Hoshea chose to ignore all of the above and brings us all the way back in time to Cain, the first killer, and his Teshuva.

“My sin is too great for me to carry. You, God, will have to carry it for me.”   We do not read of any apology. Cain did not make any promises for the future. He does not express regret over his action. He is troubled by the “weight of his sin”.  Why did Hoshea choose Cain’s story? Why would the prophet speak to a generation that has fallen so low, and does not seem to feel the weight of their sins, of Cain’s Teshuva, which does not seem to be the most inspiring Teshuva story?

Hoshea saw Cain as more than the first killer.  To this prophet, Cain was a complex man, whose fall must be understood as more than committing a passionate murder.  The Cain and Abel story actually begins with Cain as a hero! It was Cain’s idea to bring a sacrifice. His younger brother simply copied him. In fact, after accepting Abel’s sacrifice, God pleads with Cain to improve his offering and actually promises Cain that he will rise above his brother. Cain is the innovator. Cain is the one who invented the idea of  making an offering of  the hard won results of his efforts. Cain’s offering of what he successfully grew battling the ground which had been cursed was a powerful statement of sharing his success with God. Cain was a servant of God. Cain expressed his devotion. Cain was filled with potential. But, he failed.

His valiant effort fell short. His expression of devotion was not what it should have been. It could have been better. It should have been better. God actually requests that Cain make some improvements.  But the frustration was too much. The failure of what he considered his best effort fell short. Cain is the first to reach out to God, but his reach exceeded his grasp.  He wanted his expression of service to succeed, but it didn’t. He introduced a new idea to the world, but it did not work for him. He could not accept the failure of his efforts and he fell into a pit of frustration, ultimately leading to the murder of Abel. 

Cain had a relationship with his creator, but it was a failed relationship. He could not bear the weight of his failure.

Hoshea believed that his generation and ours, often experience frustration in a relationship with God. He understood that his contemporaries turned away from God in frustration. They could not live up to the challenge of dealing with an infinite Being. Hoshea watched his generation turn away from God in disappointment with themselves.  Once they failed to live up to what they believed were the standards of a relationship with God, they turned in the other direction. Hoshea took his contemporaries back to Cain, back to the first person to believe that a relationship with God was too demanding, until he understood that he could ask God to help him “carry” his sin. Cain finally understood that God was not demanding perfection or even greatness. God wanted a relationship; even if the terms of the relationship would be that He, God, would help Cain carry his sin.

The sages chose this prophecy for this week to remind us that we should not fall into the same trap that fell Cain, and Hoshea’s generation, a trap that often catches us. This period of connection with God should not be the standard by which we will judge our relationship on a constant basis. Hoshea asked us, and the sages remind us, it is sufficient to understand that we can ask God to help us too, “carry” the weight of any efforts that fell short.

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