Divrei Torah

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September 17, 2021 - Parashat Ha'azinu

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In the Aftermath of Yom Kippur
A D’var Torah for Parashat Ha’azinu
By Rabbi Jeffrey Segelman

The poem/song of Ha’azinu begins with a grammatical problem. The first verb in the opening verse – ha’azinu, listen – is in the imperative form. However, the second verb – tishma, hear – is in the simple form. Moses demands that the heavens “listen” and then lets us know that the earth “will hear.”

This inconsistency captured the attention of the Or HaHayyim (Rabbi Chayim ben Attar). After addressing this problem on the level of peshat, he continues from the perspective of derash: “Moses addressed the two components of which a person is made, the spiritual and the physical. The ‘heavens’ represent the spiritual dimension and ‘the earth’ represents the physical/material.” In other words, Moses was speaking to the soul and to the body. The grammar points to a very important and very instructive lesson: the soul (shamayim) MUST listen. And when that happens, the body (ha’aretz) will hear.

Yom Kippur ended with the blast of the shofar – one of the most spiritually moving moments in the life of Jew. It brings to an end a remarkable day. When Yom Kippur ends, we feel genuinely forgiven, renewed, alive. Over the course of twenty-five hours, we engaged in introspection to make peace with our past. Just as important, we dreamed of who we would/could become in the new year. We accepted upon ourselves “kabbalot” (what we would call in English, new year’s resolutions) to finally embrace the changes we want to make in our lives as we search for greater meaning and inner peace.

But that was yesterday (or maybe the day before.)

Now reality sets in. You’re looking out the window at your partly constructed Sukkah while you’re busy preparing for Shabbat. And you’re returning the calls and responding to the emails that came over yontiff. The children (and even some of us) are getting ready for the new school year. Life in Covid continues to be a moving target that challenges much of how we plan our days. You get the idea.

It doesn’t take long to be brought down from the spiritual high of Yom Kippur. Neither does it take long for many of us to realize that life is going to get in the way of becoming the person we dreamed about becoming during that high. It’s very frustrating, even demoralizing, and, if you’re like me, it’s only going to get more frustrating in the weeks and months ahead. It hurts when we cannot realize our finest spiritual dreams and our best spiritual selves.

So let’s listen again to the Or HaHayyim.

The imperative “listen” is directed to the soul. We embraced that imperative. We worked hard to get our souls to hear a still small voice. We began the hard work of focusing our souls’ attention over 40 days ago with Rosh Hodesh Elul. We heard the shofar every morning to wake us up and clear the paths to our souls. We added psalm 27 day and night. We added a few weeks of selihot to our davening. We had an intense week of prayer and teshuvah after Rosh Hashanah. And then we had one day, Yom Kippur, in which we focused completely.

And it worked. Our souls heard the still small voice that spoke of love and forgiveness. We heard the voice remind us of how we can change and become better. We got high on our spiritual dreams.

And if we heed the Or HaHayyim, the soul-listening is what matters. Our physical/material real life selves aren’t always ready to hear. Our bodies are not always in a space where those dreams can become reality. Yet if our souls stay focused, then the rest of ourselves will hear it eventually.

That is, if we don’t give up.

Look back at the parsha. Read the poem. The Jewish people didn’t get it. All the things that the song warned us about came true. And yet, we are still here. In 5782, we are still reading it. Why? First because while the Jewish body wasn’t ready to embrace the dream, the Jewish soul heard it loud and clear. And even when the Jewish body said, “Not yet,” the Jewish soul never gave up.

Life will put countless obstacles before us and we may never fulfill our Yom Kippur dreams. That’s ok – so long as we don’t let our souls lose the dream. As long as our souls keep listening, the rest of ourselves will eventually hear.

One of the things that we teach and learn at AJR is the art of letting our souls lead. For some people, their bodies lead their souls. They give up on their spiritual dreams when the bodies don’t comply. But not us. We live lives in which the soul listens and leads with the understanding and the hope that if we stay focused on our souls someday, our bodies will embrace the dreams as well.

Yom Kippur happens but once a year. But if you want a daily reminder of this vital lesson, hear the words of the Kotzker Rebbe. On the verse in the Shema, “and these words shall be on your heart…” the Rebbe taught: “Put these words ‘on’ your heart because often the heart is closed to them, and does not let them in. Therefore, do not discard them. Place them and keep them ‘on’ your heart for at some moment, perhaps when we least expect it, the heart will open and they will enter.”

Yasher Koah that we focused our souls and we heard and we dreamed. May it be God’s will that no matter what life will put in our way, we will not be demoralized, we will keep our souls focused, and we will attain the selves that we know we can be.

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah!
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Rabbi Jeffrey Segelman is Director of Fieldwork and a lecturer in Professional Skills at AJR. He is also the rabbi emeritus of the Westchester Jewish Center.