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Thursday
Sep132012

HEARING THE SOUNDS OF SINAI

REDUNDANCY

Parshas Nitzavim always precedes Rosh Hashanah. This implies that there is an organic connection between this parsha and the new year that commences with Rosh Hashanah, the Ten Days of T’shuva and Yom Kippur. The obvious connection between Nitzavim and these Days of Awe is that their central theme is T’shuva, often translated as “repentance,” and more precisely as “return.”

In this week’s parsha the Torah states:

“…When all these things come upon you among all the nations where G-d your G-d has banished you—the blessing and the curse which I have set before you—you will take it to your heart, and you will return to G-d your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul. You will listen to His voice, to everything that I am commanding you today, you and your children. Then G-d will return your captives…”

The key words in this section are: “You will return to G-d your G-d… You will listen to His voice.”

One can ask what the Torah means when it says “You will listen to His voice.” If listening to G-d’s voice simply means to follow His commandments it would be a redundant statement, for listening to G-d’s commandments is mentioned explicitly in this verse. Why is there is a need to state both “You will listen to His voice” and “To everything that I am commanding you?” It could have simply stated: “You will listen to His commandments.”

An answer to this question can be given by using a novel approach to understanding what it means to “listen to G-d’s voice.” It is not simply a reference to complying with the commandments. Rather, it refers to hearing a heavenly voice that emanates from Mount Sinai, which is a prelude to listening to the commandants.

RETURN, EXCEPT ACHER

The Talmud (Chagiga 15a) relates the tragic and rather unusual story of a great Sage, Elisha ben Avuya, who became a renegade. He flouted Jewish law and brazenly violated the most fundamental teachings of the Torah. As a result of his transformation into an apostate, he was nicknamed “Acher—the Other One.” Rabbi Meir, one of his loyal disciples, decided not to abandon him and continued to study under him. The Talmud states that Rabbi Meir knew how to distinguish the good from the bad. He likened his learning from Acher to one who eats a fruit and spits out the pit.

The Talmud relates that one Shabbos, as Acher was riding his horse (a forbidden activity on the Sabbath), Rabbi Meir walked alongside him and listened to Acher expound the teachings of the Torah. At a certain point, Acher reminded Rabbi Meir that he had reached the limit (2,000 cubits) a Jew may walk outside of the city limits so that he would return. Rabbi Meir took Acher’s literal suggestion of returning and challenged Acher to return in the figurative sense of the word and do T’shuva.

Acher’s response was, “Everyday there is a Heavenly voice that emerges from Sinai which states, ‘Return, errant children.’ When I hear that voice it is stated with a caveat: ‘except for Acher!’” Acher was convinced that he had transgressed so egregiously that all the doors to his return had been shut.

In truth, Chassidic thought teaches us that even Acher was not beyond salvation. Even if G-d had declared that the doors were shut for him, it only meant that he was expected to do a more energetic T’shuva and thereby break down the barriers that would not let him enter G-d’s domain. According to Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (K’dushas Levi-Tavo), he could not rely on Heavenly voices to do T’shuva; he had to generate his return on his own.

What emerges from this Talmudic discussion is that G-d generates a voice from Sinai that admonishes us to do T’shuva and return to Him.

WHO HEARS THE VOICE?

The Baal Shem Tov asked an obvious question:

If most people who are in need of doing T’shuva don’t hear this voice that emerges from Sinai, of what avail is it? And those spiritually advanced people that do hear the voice don’t need it.

The Baal Shem Tov answered that while our conscious mind does not hear this voice, the part of the soul that is not cloaked within our body does indeed hear the voice emerging from Sinai and relays its subliminal message to the conscious mind. When this occurs we feel inspired, if only for a few seconds, and we harbor thoughts of T’shuva. So whenever we feel inspired, especially when the inspiration is spontaneous, it is a sign that our soul has just heard that Heavenly voice.

MUTED

There are times, however, when even the echoes of Sinai are muted. The combined effect of our physical bodies, animal souls, materialistic pursuits and indulgences, transgressions and the very phenomenon of being in an oppressive exile can so stifle and mute the sounds of Sinai that we don’t even entertain fleeting feelings of T’shuva.

How do we overcome this desensitization process?

The answer is provided in the verses that were cited above.

“…When all these things come upon you among all the nations where G-d your G-d has banished you—the blessing and the curse which I have set before you—you will take it to your heart, and you will return to G-d, your G-d, with all your heart and with all your soul. You will listen to His voice…”

Feeling the pain and the curses of exile empowers us to break through the resistance that we have developed and allows for the free flow of our soul’s inspiration into our consciousness.

To be sure, we do not ask for pain and suffering or for the extension of the exile, G-d forbid. On the contrary, all of our prayers are punctuated with the most heartfelt pleas to G-d to end the suffering. But yet, after the fact, we should recognize that the hidden blessing in all of the past travail is that it helps us break our resistance to hearing the sounds of Sinai.

Preferably, it is the blessings that we experience that shine G-d’s light on us and illuminate our paths so that we can hear the sounds of Sinai. If we fail to see the G-dly light in the blessings, the curses of the past will have to break through our resistant exterior.

This then is what the Torah means when it talks about “listening to G-d’s voice.” This is the voice of Sinai that can now be felt and is what stirs us to do T’shuva.

A TIGHTER CONNECTION TO ROSH HASHANAH

We can now detect an even tighter connection between this week’s parsha and Rosh Hashanah. Not only are they connected through the theme of T’shuva; they are also linked by the notion of how challenges help us obtain a clearer and crisper reception of the sounds of Sinai.

This week’s parsha speaks of how the pressures of exile, with its attendant curses, pierces through the resistant armor that blocks our ability to receive a clear signal from our soul. Likewise, according to Maimonides, the sounding of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah is intended, among other objectives, to jolt us out of our reverie. Once we are awake and alert, we can then hear the daily sounds that emanate from Sinai. Moreover, we then connect with the sounding of the Shofar that accompanied the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, which is yet another objective of the Shofar of Rosh Hashanah.

WE ARE ALL INSIDERS

In order for these jolting forces to work, there is one proviso. We cannot imagine that we are Acher, an “another,” an outsider.

The apostate Elisha ben Avuya, cited earlier, could not return because he heard the Heavenly voice declare, specifically, that everyone can return except for Acher. It did not say “except Elisha ben Avuya,” which was his proper name. He heard the voice exclaim Acher, the “other one.”

When a Jew, no matter how far he or she has strayed and desensitized himself or herself, recognizes that he or she is always an insider, he or she can certainly return.

STANDING ON THE BRIDGE

As we stand on the bridge between the two years 5772 and 5773, we are reminded that we are now also situated on the bridge between the 2,000-year exile and the final Redemption through Moshiach. When we view all the negative things around us, we should exploit their power to awaken us to the reality of our situation. The sound of the Shofar that heralds the Messianic Age has already been sounded. This Rosh Hashanah, it is our role to hear and heed the call of the Shofar, not only as an echo of the past, but also as the sound of the future Redemption.

And may we all be inscribed and sealed for a good and sweet year, a year of visible good, including the ultimate good and blessing of the total revelation of Moshiach and the imminent final Redemption.

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