Published Works:
Public Speaking:
Rabbi Charles David Isbell, Ph. D.
Copyright 2011 Rabbi Charles David Isbell, Ph. D.. All rights reserved.
The following sermons were preached at Temple Sinai in Lake Charles,
Louisiana, during the High Holy Days of 2009:

 Evening Rosh ha-Shanah     Morning Rosh ha-Shanah
      Shabbat Shuvah      Kol Nidrei      Yom Kippur Morning

Shabbat Shuvah
September 25, 2009

  I have spoken often before about the fact that whenever a Shabbat comes
between Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur, it takes its name from the
Haftarah that we read from Hosea 14. Tonight I want to examine the meaning
of “shuvah” as the prophet Hosea used it. For those who are grammatically
curious, shuvah is an intensive imperative form of the root shuv. In English
it should be translated as a strong command: “return!”

  But return where? The complete command is “Return to YHWH your deity.”
And the necessity for returning, according to the prophet is that “you have
stumbled because of your iniquity.” Since this is true of each one of us,
perhaps it is not only to the ancient Israelites, but also to us that the
commandment to return is applicable. Again we ask: How can we return
YHWH? Hosea’s answer might surprise us.

  Hosea does not instruct us to return to worship service, to pray more, to
sing louder, to follow a set of agonizing rules. Instead, he suggests the
following formula for “returning,” by which he means repentance: “Take
words with you and return to the Lord.” Now we tend to downplay the
significance of mere words, and sometimes we discount a person if we think
he or she is “just talking.” But deep down, we know that the healing of a
broken relationship must begin with words that are truly sincere. Think of
how difficult it is to say simply, “I’m sorry.” “I was wrong.” “Please forgive
me.” Yet when we have turned away from another person, as Hosea says
the Israelites had turned away from God, the first thing we must do if we
wish to repair the breach our actions have created is to speak honestly. “I’m
sorry” is not only one of the most difficult things to say, it is almost always
the most effective way to begin.  So Hosea challenges us to begin turning
back to godness not by going through a ritual or a formal liturgy, but with
our words. In a stunning word picture of his own, he actually advises that we
must pay up to God using our lips instead of sacrificial animals. Let me note
parenthetically that we must discount the vanilla formula so often used: “If I
have said or done anything to hurt you,” in favor of an honest admission:
“Because I admit that I have hurt you, I ask your forgiveness.”

In Hosea’s era, the northern kingdom of Israel boasted two religious centers
at Dan and Bethel which worshippers visited regularly. Each center
possessed the figure of a bull that had been casted of gold, symbolizing the
power of God. In addition, the practice of sacrificing a real bull was
perceived as the ultimate act of seeking reconciliation with the divine
against whom one had transgressed. To be sure, these religious centers
were never accepted by the biblical prophets in the south as legitimate
alternatives to the great temple in Jerusalem, but for the people to whom
Hosea preached, Dan and Bethel were important centers of worship, places
where people could go to commune with God, to repent.

    In this context, it is quite surprising that the great prophet actually
appears to be downplaying the importance of public worship and accepted
religious customs, opting instead for a very simple verbal procedure to be
followed by people who needed to repent and thus find forgiveness from
God. This concept of the importance of words is central in Jewish worship
even today. In every service, standing before the holy ark containing the
Torah, we begin the tefillah by saying: ’Adonai sephatai tiftaH ufi yaggid
tehillatekha: “O Lord, open my lips and my mouth will declare Your glory.”
Tradition teaches that this prayer was first said by King David in the wake of
his calamitous affair with Bat-Sheva‘ (Psalm 51.17).

  Now it is noteworthy that David did not seek to offer praise to God until
after he had taken three prior steps. First, he admitted his guilt: “I have
sinned against you” (51.6). Second, he asked God to forgive him: “Purge me
… wash me … create a pure heart for me, O God” (51.9, 12). Finally he
promised to “teach” others the consequences of sinful actions, seeking to
help them learn the high price of disobedience and enable them to “return”
to God as he was doing (51.15).

  I believe the message of Hosea includes all three aspects of David’s
experience. Yes, we start with words, sincere words of confession and a
specific request for forgiveness from those whom we have wronged and
then from God. But the process is not complete until we can make a promise
that we fully intend to keep, the promise to live differently, the
determination not to repeat the same offenses over and over, even the
pledge to teach others not only the cost of disobedience but also the joy of
“clean hands and a pure heart” in the presence of God.

  As we prepare for the sober experiences of Kol Nidrei and Yom Kippur, we
must keep this process in mind. In my experience, those whom I have
wronged are relieved that I have recognized my failings and are happy to
forgive me and start the process of rebuilding our friendship or
relationship. God certainly stands anxious to forgive. But first we must ask.
Then, and only then, will we discover the joy of starting over with a clean
slate, purified and thus unashamed in the presence of others and the holy
One of Israel.    

Hosea 14.2-10
Return, O Israel, to the LORD your deity.
  You have stumbled because of your sin.

Take words with you and return to the LORD.

Say to Him: “Forgive all guilt and accept what is good;
  Instead of bulls, we will pay with our lips.
Assyria will not save us, and no more will we mount steeds,
  Nor will we ever again call our own handiwork, ‘our god.’

In You alone do orphans find pity!”

I will heal their backsliding, I will take them back lovingly and generously.
  My anger has turned away from them.

I will be to Israel like dew, and they will blossom like the lily.
  They will sink down roots like a tree of Lebanon.

Those who sit in its shade shall be revived,
  They shall bring new grain to life,
They shall blossom forth like the vine.
  Their aroma shall be like the wine of Lebanon.

Ephraim [shall say]: “What more have I to do with idols?
  When I respond and look to God, I become like a verdant cypress.”

Anyone who is wise will consider these words,
  Whoever is prudent will take note of them.
For the pathways of the LORD are smooth;
  The righteous can walk upon them, while sinners stumble on them.

      Evening Rosh ha-Shanah     Morning Rosh ha-Shanah
      Shabbat Shuvah      Kol Nidrei      Yom Kippur Morning
Louisiana State University
Department of Religious Studies, 107 Coates Hall
Baton Rouge, LA 70803-3901