This week’s Haftarah begins with the call, “Return, Israel, to your G-d, for you have failed with your sin” [Hosea 14:2]. This is oriented towards the Kingdom of Israel, where Hosea prophesied. Therefore, he uses the names Israel and Ephraim which are pertinent for the tribes in the north. The main reason that it was difficult for the northern tribes to repent was their distance from the holy service in Jerusalem, which began in the days when the Kingdom was established by Yerovam. This explains why the prophet proposes a path of repentance that does not include atonement based on sacrifices, which are prohibited outside of Jerusalem. Instead, he advises them to make use of speech. “Take words with you and return to G-d. Say to Him: Forgive all our sins and take our good intentions, and our lips will substitute for bulls” [14:3]. The emphasis on bulls and not sheep is because this is a matter of atonement for sins, which is achieved on Yom Kippur when the High Priest sacrifices a bull.
The people of Israel have been promised that if their repentance is real they will achieve the same level of atonement that can be achieved through sacrifices. Three verses in succession mention Lebanon: “Its roots will be strong as (the cedars of) Lebanon” [14:6]; “It will have a scent like Lebanon” [14:7]; “Its memory will be like the wine of Lebanon” [14:8]. These three elements correspond to the sacrifices – the flesh of the animals, the incense, and the libation of wine. These are all brought in “Lebanon,” which is one of the names of the Temple (see Rashi, Deuteronomy 4:25). And “Let its glory be like the olive” [14:7] is a reference to the oil of the Mincha sacrifice.
Based on this prophecy of Hosea, which was linked to the unique historic background of the Kingdom of the north, a tremendous idea was developed which offered solace to us, the exiles of the Kingdom of Judah, during the whole time we did not have an Alter to provide us with atonement. This idea is that repentance is sufficient for atonement for all sins. (See Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva 1:3).
But this raises an obvious question. If repentance can atone for all the sins, why is there a need for the full set of rituals performed by the High Priest on Yom Kippur? Why is it so important to us in the Mussaf Prayer on Yom Kippur to emphasize our yearning for the renewal of the sacrifices of atonement and for sending the scapegoat into the desert?
The answer to this question is that we yearn for a time when the personal repentance by every person takes place as part of a general public activity. The High Priest incorporates all of the souls of Israel within his personality. In the era of the Temple Yom Kippur was a time of great joy (Taanit 26b), since there was a general feeling of a promise of atonement, while the main burden of the service was on the shoulders of the High Priest and the people showed their desire to join him by fasting themselves. However, today each person acts alone to atone for his own sins, without any combined experience of general atonement. This in itself is a major and terrible lack which we must work hard to rectify.
The thirteen traits of mercy listed by Micah (7:18-20) which are read after the words of Hosea show that G-d has a desire to develop methods of atonement that are suitable for Israel at any time.
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Source: “NOTES FROM THE HAFTARAH” – a biweekly column in Shabbat B’Shabbato (Zomet Institute) See: http://www.zomet.org.il/eng – Vayeilech 5776, issue 1644.