The gift of our words

The gift of our words

Parshat Vayelech, Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30

“Turn, O Israel, toward the Eternal, your God, that you may confess to your transgressions. Take with you words and turn to God saying, sweep away in forgiveness all that is sinful, and in taking what is good let us become whole through the wealth of our lips” (Hosea 14:2-3).

These words from Hosea are read as the haftarah portion on the Shabbat that falls during the High Holidays. It is called Shabbat Shuvah, because of the first words of this section: shuvah yisrael, “Turn, O Israel.” The theme of Hosea’s words is fitting for the 10 Days of Repentance, the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. By urging Israel to turn toward God, Hosea reminds us to take seriously the task of reflection and introspection, as we strive for repentance during this holy time.

Hosea gathers the people and declares, “Take with you devarim and turn to God.” Devarim can mean “words.” But it can also be translated as “commandments,” “matters,” “events” and “things.” So Hosea’s direction to us can mean more than “take with you words and turn to God.”

The key to this lies in understanding the meaning of another word in the verse: farim. Farim can mean “wealth,” but it can also mean “cattle.” For our biblical ancestors, cattle and wealth were one and the same. If one was wealthy, it meant that one had acquired a large herd.

Hosea encourages us to turn to God in order to “become whole through the farim of our lips.” If farim is translated as “cattle,” then how can cattle be “of our lips?” It is possible to understand this metaphorically. Our material possessions become “of our lips” when we speak of them. They do make us rich, but not necessarily in the way that one might think.

The farim of which Hosea speaks are riches of a different sort. The words we bring to God represent the “wealth of our lips.” This is what helps us to become whole. The commentator Radok confirms this: “Take with you words. … In your returning to God, God does not require of you material wealth or animal sacrifices, but words of sincere confession.” Our wealth, then, comes not from our possessions, but rather from our words. Words are what God wants of us. Our voice, our most valuable possession, is the true wealth of our lips, and thus the true gift we can give to God.

On Shabbat Shuvah we heed Hosea’s call to find and use our voices in turning to God. With words we speak of transgressions, and with words we ask for forgiveness. With words we seek atonement. Our words become a gift of indeterminable value — a wealth of connection to God and relationship with those around us. When we turn to each other to speak and to listen, we will become whole.

Rabbi Jessica Locketz is the associate rabbi at Temple Emanuel of South Hills. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.