The haftorah for שבת שובה is unique, because it is taken from a selection of different נביאים. That only works because they are all part of תרי עשר, which are combined into a single scroll because they are so short. That’s relevant when the haftorah is read from a scroll, because of the טירכא דציבורא of switching scrolls, but we’ve kept the minhagim even when we read from a printed תנ״ך. I’m going to look at two of the parts, from ספר הושע and ספר יואל.
הושע was a נביא in the time of חזקיהו, when the Northern kingdom of Israel was exiled by Sargon, king of Assyria, and the Southern kingdom of Judah was besieged by his successor Sennacherib, but miraculously saved.
And הושע was specifically a נביא of the kindgom of Israel, and was from Reuven, which had been exiled a generation before:
His message was a warning to Israel, that just as the tribes east of the Jordan had been exiled, so too would all of Israel if they did not repent:
Our haftorah is the last perek of הושע, and it’s all about תשובה, not punishment:
Note that he starts with שובה עד ה׳ and continues with שובו אל ה׳. That’s the same pattern we see in the original parasha of תשובה:
There are lots of interpretations of this distinction. I would read עד as “all the way”; that’s the goal of תשובה. But the first step is what matters: אל ה׳; just go “toward ה׳”. Make the first step, and the rest will follow. He then addresses the problem of גלות: if we cannot bring sacrifices, how can we offer a קרבן חטאת? The answer is that it is not necessary: נשלמה פרים שפתינו. He continues with a warning not to give up:
That’s in distiction to Yirmiyahu’s message 130 years later, when Judah falls:
And when they do this, קחו עמכם דברים ושובו אל ה׳, everything will get better:
Anyone with a brain in their head can understand what is necessary:
The message: תשובה is easy; just turn so you can walk along the path rather than tripping over it.
The portion of יואל has a similar message. It’s not clear when יואל was written:
דעת סופרים argues for the later date, בימי מנשה, based on internal evidence. מנשה was the son of חזקיהו; he was an idol worshiper who sealed the fate of the kingdom of Judah (so, a generation after הושע). ספר יואל starts with a prophecy of a plague of locusts:
This is a bad thing. It’s worse than an ordinary famine, because it is a plague, reminiscent of the plagues of Egypt:
This is a sign that ה׳ is angry with the people, the first sign of the תוכחה:
And it will end with the exile of Judah:
Our minhag starts the haftorah from the middle of פרק ב, where the נביא talks about real תשובה (with שבו עד):
Many minhagim start from the next paragraph, where the נביא just tells the people to fast:
And when that צום happens, everything will be better; the locust damage will be undone:
Again, just fast and ה׳ will make everything better. The message of שבת שובה is to take that first step. By the time we get to יום כפור, we get the bait and switch: we will have to do better; fasting accomplishes nothing:
So is the message of שבת שובה a lie? No. (רש״י, שמות יט:ה) כל התחלות קשות. The first step is the most important step. If we start by saying the right things, acting like we are doing תשובה, ה׳ will help us get to the point of שובה עד ה׳ אלקיך, having our תשובה שמגעת עד כסא הכבוד: