Ha'azinu 5781: Atonement = To Be One With
Ha'azinu (Deuteronomy 32 )
GOOD MORNING! Yom Kippur begins next Sunday evening, September 27. The upcoming Shabbat that falls between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called “Shabbat Shuva” – the Sabbath of Returning. The concept of “returning” may seem a little odd; to where are we “returning”?
As mentioned last week, Rosh Hashanah begins the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah – commonly translated as the Ten Day of Repentance. In actuality, the word teshuvah means "return," but it is often mistranslated as "repentance." These Ten Days of Returning begin with Rosh Hashanah and end with Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement, often referred to as the holiest day of the year.
This is a very unique concept and an absolute kindness and gift from the Almighty. Teshuvah actually offers mankind the one thing no one really believes is possible to achieve: The ability to change the past.
Maimonides, the great medieval philosopher and codifier of Jewish law, rules that it is a mitzvah – a positive commandment – to repent. In other words, the Almighty Himself is asking us to return to Him. As we shall soon see, there is a very powerful message here, one that we must try to internalize. Indeed, the very success of accomplishing the essence of Yom Kippur can only be achieved by understanding this concept.
Q & A: WHAT IS THE ESSENCE OF YOM KIPPUR AND HOW DO WE OBSERVE IT?
"This shall be an eternal decree: …on the tenth of the month you shall afflict yourselves and all manner of work you shall not do, neither the native born nor the convert amongst you. For this day, he [the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest] shall atone for you to purify you from all of your transgressions – before the Almighty you shall be purified” (Leviticus 16:29-30).
As mentioned above, the Torah states that we shall "afflict ourselves" on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. According to Jewish law there are five "afflictions" that we must observe on Yom Kippur. We are prohibited from 1) eating and drinking 2) wearing leather shoes 3) marital relations 4) anointing the skin with salves and oils, and 5) washing for pleasure.
Yom Kippur is the anniversary of the day Moshe brought the second set of Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai. This signified that the Almighty forgave the Jewish people for the transgression of the Golden Calf. This day was thus decreed to be a day of forgiveness for our mistakes.
However, this refers to transgressions against the Almighty. Transgressions against our fellow man require us to correct our mistakes and seek forgiveness. If one took from another person, it is not enough to experience regret and ask the Almighty for forgiveness; first, one must return what was taken and ask for forgiveness from the person and then ask for forgiveness from the Almighty. God does not forgive a person for sins committed against another person unless the injured party offers forgiveness first.
The actual process of teshuvah is made up of four parts. 1) Regret: We must recognize what we have done wrong and regret it. 2) Cessation: We must stop doing the transgression. 3) Confession and Restitution: We must verbally confess and ask the Almighty to forgive us. We must correct whatever damage that we can, including asking forgiveness from those whom we have hurt – and making restitution, if due. 4) Resolution: We must accept upon ourselves not to do it again in the future.
A key component of the liturgy of The Ten Days of Repentance (Returning) and Yom Kippur is known as the 13 Divine Attributes of Mercy. The ancient source of this prayer is rather astonishing: The Almighty Himself taught it to Moses for him to teach it to the Jewish people as a way to seek forgiveness.
And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, “Hashem, Hashem, omnipotent, merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in kindness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…” (Exodus 34:6-8).
The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 17b) states, “There is a covenant (between God and His creations) that a prayer that contains the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy will never go completely unanswered.”
Even more remarkably, the very same passage in the Talmud describes the scene that unfolded between God and Moses; “Rabbi Yochanan said ‘had it not been an explicit verse in the Torah it would be impossible to even utter’ – the verse is coming to teach us that the Almighty wrapped Himself in a tallit (prayer shawl) like a shliach tzibbur (a cantor who leads the congregation in prayer) and demonstrated to Moses the order of the prayer. Hashem then told Moses; ‘Any time that the Jewish people sin they should recite this prayer and I will forgive them.’”
Obviously the Talmud is telling us that it is very difficult to conceive of the Almighty dressing up and giving a demonstration of how to seek forgiveness from Him. Yet that is exactly what happened. So we are left wondering what exactly was the point of God dressing up and acting it out for Moses? Why would Moses be in need of a visual demonstration? What message was God conveying to Moses?
Generally, asking forgiveness from someone is very difficult. It requires an admission of wrongdoing or, at the very least, communicating that the intention wasn’t to harm. But the most daunting part, and usually the reason that people procrastinate asking for forgiveness, is because of the uncertainty of how the injured party is going to react.
Will that injured person yell and scream at me? Or worse, will they try to use my admission of guilt as a way to take advantage of me in some way? The anxiety of these potential consequences usually prevent one from making the effort to mend fences.
Now consider a different scenario: How would you feel if someone would come to you and let you know that the person you injured feels badly because this incident has created a rift in the relationship and that this person really just wants to talk and make up with you? Suddenly it becomes a lot easier to make that phone call.
It is for this very reason that the Almighty took the extraordinary steps in demonstrating the path to forgiveness. The purpose of the “show and tell” demonstration was so that Moses would understand and convey to the Jewish people, that Hashem Himself is leading the path to His forgiveness. In other words, Hashem – who is the injured party – is willing to lead the congregation in prayer because more than anything He wants His children, the Jewish people, to return to Him.
Hashem is communicating to Moshe that there should be no barriers to asking for forgiveness because Hashem Himself wants to fix the relationship. It is for this reason that a proper prayer of forgiveness will always be answered. God is, in essence, telling us that He is always waiting for us to come home to Him and asking us to return.
On Yom Kippur afternoon we read the Book of Jonah (i.e. "Jonah and the Whale" – though it was some sort of a fish and not a whale). The essence of the story is the same theme that we saw above. God was concerned that the ancient city of Nineveh was steeped in sin and deserved annihilation. God therefore asked Jonah to go inform the city that they must immediately repent or face the consequences. (Interestingly enough, Jonah initially refused the mission on the grounds that if the inhabitants of the city of Nineveh, who weren’t Jewish, would readily repent, then this would reflect badly on the Jewish people in Israel who were also steeped in sin and hadn’t repented.)
As a final point on the subject of Yom Kippur, after making a tremendous effort to seek forgiveness from those who we have injured, make restitution, and seek forgiveness from God, we must then ask ourselves the following question:
"What can I do in the future to improve my relationship with the Almighty and my observance of His commandments? What affirmative steps can I take to build a better connection with the Almighty? How can I become a better person, spouse, parent, or child? What can I do to help my community and mankind?”
Obviously, the answers to these questions are always going to be a work in progress. But that is the true beauty of our lives; the ability to become more and strive for ever greater heights. Wishing my readers all over the world a most meaningful fast and Yom Kippur experience, and a Gmar Chatima Tova.
Ha'azinu, Deuteronomy 32:1 - 32:51
The Torah portion is a song, a poem taught to the Jewish people by Moses. It recounts the trials and tribulations of the Jewish people during the 40 years in the desert. Jewish consciousness, until the present generation, was to teach every Jewish child to memorize Ha'azinu. In this manner we internalized the lessons of our history, especially the futility of rebelling against the Almighty.
The portion ends with Moses being told to ascend Mount Nevo to see the Promised Land before he dies and is "gathered to his people." By the way, this is one of the allusions to an afterlife in the Torah. Moses died alone and no one knows where he is buried. Therefore, "gathered to his people" has a higher meaning!
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