Shabbat Shuva takes its name from the first word of the special haftarah for the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: “Return (Shuva), O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have fallen because of your sin.” (Hosea 14:2) This verse is a clarion call for us to end our alienation from God. And several verses later, God promises a warm welcome to those who do their part: “I [God] will heal their affliction; generously will I take them back in love, for my anger has turned away from them.” (Verse 5)
On the basis of these verses, the following midrash expresses this idea even more powerfully: “Said Rabbi Yudah son of Rabbi Simon: ‘Return Israel, to the Lord your God,’ even if up unto this time you have denied God (kofer b’ekar). Rabbi Elazar offers a parable to illustrate: ‘Normally, if a person embarrasses his friend in public and later wants to make amends, the friend is likely to say to him or her: You have embarrassed me publicly and now you want to make amends privately? If you really want to reconcile with me, gather together the people who were around when you shamed me [apologize] and then I will forgive you. God, however, is different. If a person curses and reviles God publicly, God will simply ask him or her to do teshuva and that if enough, as it is written: ‘Return to me, O Israel.’” (adapted from the Pesitka d’Rav Kahana 24:12 Mandelbaum ed. pp. 369-70)
An earlier midrash presents an even more daring example: “’Who is like God on heaven and on earth.’ (Micah 7:18) God acts differently than people do. With flesh and blood, [there is a hierarchy], a superior official can override the decision of a subordinate but not the opposite, but for You, God, there is no one who can interfere with your decisions, so you can be forgiving! … Rabbi Judah ben Bava said: ‘This can be compared with a man who was put in prison. No amount of money can buy him his freedom, but with God, things are different. He tells us: ‘Do teshuva and I will accept you.’ This is why the prophet Hosea says: ‘Return, O Israel’” (adapted from Sifre Bamidbar 134 as retold in Menorat Hameor Elnekaveh vol. 3 Teshuva p. 11)
These colorful parables come to illustrate how strongly the tradition feels about giving people the ability to change who they are and become better people. God willingly abdicates his honor and dignity to facilitate this process. All that is required is human effort and God will graciously avert even His own decrees. What more can we ask for in this season when teshuva – repentance is the order of the day? The least we can do is try.