Wednesday, 5 October 2011


Monday, October 3, 2011


by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman 

The maftir reading which we read on Yom Kippur, taken from Parshat Pinchas, Numbers 29:7, says "u'be'asur lachodesh hash'viee hazeh mikra kodesh yih'yeh lachem VI'INITEM et nafshoteychem kawl melacha lo ta'asu.

To wit: "the tenth day of this seventh month shall be a sacred holy day to you and: TYPICAL TRANSLATION: you shall afflict your souls and not do any manner of work."

Talmud Yoma (77a) dissects its meaning and comes to include all the prohibited behaviors of the day, noting that it especially means to fast. Hence we use the term TAANIT for connoting a fast day, such as Taanit Esther, which shares the same root. But perhaps an an alternative translation can offer a new insight: you shall ANSWER your souls! The infinitive verb form of the word LA'ANOT means "to answer." Note that the verb form is written in the PI'EL construct-VI'INITEM- which would serve to accentuate and emphasize its impact. REALLY ANSWER YOUR SOUL.

In Parshat Sh'mot, Exodus 1:12, we have the same verb- "vecha'asher y'ANU oto, ken yirbeh v'chen yifrotz... But the more they (the Egyptians) oppressed them, the more they (Israel) proliferated and spread."

So here it makes sense from the plain, peshat, meaning that it means "oppress," or "afflict." Now this is very deep. Usually when we answer someone we indeed end up afflicting them in some way. We often have some underlying need to dump on someone who genuinely needs help. As we have been dumped on all our lives by others, we sometimes have the urge to pass on the negativity of our own experiences onto others. Inquiry is seen as weakness, a seeming invitation for further oppression. Dialogue as weakness. Peculiar, yet the reigning motif of political conflict, especially in the MidEast.

In Exodus, the Israelites had just enjoyed generations of basking in the Egyptian goodwill stemming from Joseph's economic intervention which saved the country from utter ruin. Now they suddenly found themselves as slaves (ibid:8-11). Suddenly they were on the wrong side. Indeed overnight their whole world was turned upside down! They asked,"why?" and so "they answered them (read: oppressed them)..."

When one places suffering within a context of meaning it can be dealt with and tolerated. Many generations having lapsed, the new generation of Egypt lost the context for their suffering; their hardship became too much to bear. Meanwhile a prosperous Israel thrived among them in neighboring Goshen. The disparity aroused jealousy, another source of great psychic pain. Israel felt betrayed by the king and the society they had placed all their hopes in, indeed had staked their future upon. In whom should our trust really be placed?

Now in our parsha, Ha'azinu, we ask: what is the question and what is the answer? What pain has been inflicted on me, and how do I refrain from consciously or unconsciously passing it on to others? In this season of deepest reflection and self-accounting (cheshbon hanefesh), as we stand figuratively before the King of Kings, we ask, "why are we here? What is the ultimate purpose of our lives? What is the point of my life? What is the point of being Jewish?"

Not "why are we the eternal people," for that is a given, being that it is a Divine oath, but "what are we to do with this eternality?" Will we be IN the garden or OUT of the garden? In the Torah blessing we intone: "vechayey olam nata betochenu- and eternal life you hath planted in our midst." Will we seek shelter amidst the branches under the protective shade of the TREE of LIFE, which is Torah? Or will we we spurn this gift- the Torah, whose mitzvoth and teachings are literally the keys to our soul's eternal life?"

Ha'azinu hashamayim- Give ear O Heavens...vetishma ha'aretz- and Hear O Earth..."Heaven and Earth were the first born in Creation, partnering with G*d in the Creation of all that was to follow. Being the first of Creation they represent all that is potential. Humankind, being the last of Creation, represents the fulfillment of that potential. The Torah, the Sinaitic Revelation, takes us one step further and asks us to go BEYOND our potential.

And finally, the Messianic Age represents the fulfillment of that "going beyond." The Pagan Idea represented the eternal cyclicity of life. The Judaic Revolution realigned human consciousness to synchronize with the DNA blueprint, substituting the two dimensional pagan circle theory which has no sense of progression, with the three dimensional Hebraic spiral theory - G*d, Torah and Israel, which combines cyclicity with growth.

Forty represents transformation. The forty day period from Elul through Yom Kippur represents in miniature mankind's sojourn from Creation through Revelation and on to the Ultimate Redemption. The trumpets we blow on Rosh Hashanah symbolize the same trumpets we heard at Sinai, while the release from the obsessive burden of all bodily cares on Yom Kippur offers us a glimpse into the state of perfection of the Future World, when the soul and the body finally act in harmony instead of at cross purposes, when peace and justice is achieved for all. As such it is our day of greatest joy and celebration.

Shabbat Shuvah is the breather, the shabbat resting point, from which we symbolically catch our collective breath before we ascend to the peak of the Sabbath of Sabbaths, the Shabbat Shabbaton, which is Yom Kippur. The timeliness and concurrence of Haazinu with the Sabbath of Return- Shabbat Shuvah, is uncanny. We so often despair of our journey and grow weary of the effort just when the end is almost in sight. It's always darkest just before the dawn!

When we lose the connection to Sinai, we lose the compass pointing us to our ultimate destination. We are bidden by Moses for ALL generations to contemplate how and why we became prosperous in our land."Pay close attention to all the words through whichI warn you this day, so that you will be able to instruct your CHILDREN to keep all the words of this Torah carefully."

When Israel seeks to throw off the yoke of the Torah she is bending and distorting the spiral paradigm.

"Answer your souls' deepest yearnings- v'initem et nafshoteychem," and return to Hashem. If we make the Torah central to our lives we are indeed answering our soul's deepest desire, and INITEM is then translated as "answering our soul." But if we lose our center and allow centripetal forces to spin us around and bear down on us, thus losing the Torah as the guiding central moral force in our lives, then INITEM becomes translated as "afflict your souls."

So too with our redemption. It will either come gently if we are deserving, or not so gently, out of correction.

Which shall it be?

Shana Tovah. Ketivah vechatimah tovah!

© 2000 - 2011 by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

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