The Shabbat before Yom Kippur is widely known as Shabbat Teshuva, the "Shabbat of Repentance." Jewish tradition maintains that the spiritual power of the week stems from the Shabbat that precedes it, and this would indicate that the source of the spiritual potential of the Day of Atonement originates in this Shabbat.
Before we set out to explore this idea, let us define "Day of Atonement" accurately. Yom Kippur is not a day on which atonement is offered. The idea of Yom Kippur is that the day itself atones.
For example Rebi maintains (Talmud, Yuma, 85b) that the day itself atones even the sins of one who does not repent. Although Jewish Law does not endorse this point of view in its entirety, it does not distance itself from the idea.
Maimonides explains that the day itself atones together with repentance. (See "Laws of Repentance" 1,4) Thus he presents the achievement of atonement as the result of a combination. Repentance alone does not accomplish atonement. The power of the day combined with repentance is required to accomplish the task. How can we relate to the idea of a day accomplishing atonement?
We read Parshat Ha'azinu this year on this very special Shabbat that falls right before Yom Kippur.
We read Parshat Ha'azinu this year on this very special Shabbat that falls right before Yom Kippur. While this is not an annual occurrence, [whenever there is a Shabbat between Yom Kippur and Succot, we read it on the Shabbat following Yom Kippur] nevertheless there is a clear connection between Parshat Ha'azinu and Yom Kippur.
It is always immediately adjacent, though sometimes it comes before and sometimes after. Following the concept that there are no coincidences in matters of the spirit, there must be some innate connection between the Day of Atonement and Parshat Ha'azinu. By extension of the same logic, the power of Shabbat Teshuva this year is also drawn from the words of Torah contained in this Torah portion. It turns out that uncovering this connection sheds a lot of light on the question of how a day can have the power to atone.
THE SONG OF MOSES
Our Torah portion is composed of a song of Moses -- it is a melody that embraces Jewish history from its inception to the very end of days. One resorts to song when the medium of ordinary prose is inadequate to express the deeper hidden undertones of the message. What is this extraordinary aspect of Jewish history that can only be conveyed through song?
Nachmanides comments at the end of the song:
If this song were written by a fortune teller who guessed the outcome [of Jewish history] by studying its beginnings and extrapolating its flow from them, reason would still dictate that we believe all of it, so accurate a forecast has it proven to be up to the present time; all its predictions have come to pass without exception. How much more is it incumbent upon us to accept it and anticipate its complete fulfillment with all our hearts, as these are the words of God, told to us by His prophet, the most trusted in all His house, without equal in the past or future. (Devorim 32,40)
But how is it possible for Jewish history be so predictable? Didn't God give us free will? How could He predict so accurately in advance what we were going to do with it? Doesn't this accuracy indicate that all our actions are preordained?
HEAR, O HEAVENS
The answer to this question requires the exploration of some other ideas whose source is our Torah portion.
Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak; and may the earth hear the words of my mouth. (Deut. 32:1)
Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth, for God has spoken. (Isaiah 1:2)
Rashi quotes a question asked by the rabbis of the Midrash: Why does Moses ask the heavens to give him an ear and the earth to hear the words of his mouth, while Isaiah does exactly the opposite, and asks the earth to give him an ear and the heavens to hear his words?
Moses was closer to the heavens, so he had to ask the earth to hear his words, as earth was farther away.
The answer quoted by Rashi: Moses was closer to the heavens than the earth; thus he asked the heavens to lend him an ear, for he was in a position to whisper into their ear which was located right next to him, while he had to ask the earth to hear his words, as the earth was far away. Isaiah, however, was positioned on earth. The earth could bend its ear to his whisper whereas the heavens could hear him only from afar.
Asks the Ohr Hachaim, how can this be? Both Isaiah and Moses were mortals, and all mortals speak on earth.
He answers: A person has two parts; the origin of his soul is located in heaven, while the extreme extension of the human soul extends down here to earth and ends in the body. Moses' words originated at the source of his soul, in heaven, and could be heard down here on earth as they issued from his mouth at the extreme end of their journey, whereas Isaiah's words originated down here on earth and traveled from there to the pinnacle of his soul in heaven.
Moreover, the reason they were speaking from the opposite extremities of their souls is due to the fact that they were addressing the same issue from two different sides. Moses was calling on the heavens and the earth to bear witness to the covenant between the Jewish people and God.
As it would be job of the heavens to shower reward for compliance -- i.e. to rain -- and for the earth to bear bountiful fruit or to visit retribution for non compliance by doing the opposite, both the heavens and the earth were invited by Moses to serve as witnesses. They were appointed at the highest level, represented by the very pinnacle of Moses' soul.
Isaiah was calling to the heavens and the earth, the witnesses appointed by Moses eight hundred years earlier, and informing them that the time for them to "cast the stone" of retribution had arrived. His call originated on earth, the locus of the violation of the covenant.
A VIEW OF JEWISH HISTORY
Jewish history can be viewed from both ends of the soul. It can be seen from the point of origin in heaven and from the opposite extremity down here on earth.
Herein lies the secret of its predictability. The soul at its point of origin is attached to God. God is not subject to time. Time is a creation.
The Gaon of Vilna explains that the word bereishit, "in the beginning," besides being the very first word of the Torah, also serves as the first of the ten creation speeches (Talmud, Rosh Hashono, 32a). The content of this creation speech is a precise description of God's very first creation, the winding up of the clock of time. Modern physics has helped us to comprehend how time is only a part and parcel of created reality by introducing humanity to Einstein's concepts of relativity and space-time.
As God is above created reality, being its initiator, He is naturally above this realm of relativity and space time. For Him the divisions of time -- the past, present and future -- simply do not exist. Whatever is real is known to God. There is no such thing as before something happens or after it happened. If it is part of reality at any time He can see it.
To God the entire history of His creation is equally visible along the entire continuum of created time.
Thus to God, the entire history of His creation is equally visible along the entire continuum of created time. It is also so for the soul, which at its source is attached to God and therefore shares God's perception. Thus Moses, the human being who attained the highest level of prophecy conceivable, could express the entirety of Jewish history before it ever happened.
But even Moses could only perceive it this way at the source of his soul, not at the opposite extremity extending down to his body. That is why he could only sing it, not say it in prose.
This vision, being above time, could not be expressed at all on the ordinary level of consciousness. The difference between Moses and the rest of us lies not in what we can see with our physical eye. The difference lies in being in touch with the origin of our souls. The ability to see through the eyes of the soul is a form of perception that we call prophecy.
ABOVE SPACE AND TIME
Human history unfolds down here on this world where the future is invisible and the options are wide open. However, if man triumphs over evil through his free will at some later date, this future victory is already visible to God now, as He is above space-time, and thus also visible to His prophet Moses who is attached to God at the source of his soul.
This idea has a deeper aspect to it. Man's struggle against evil only exists at the lower extremity of his soul located in the world bound by time. At the point of origin, where the soul is attached to God, there is no such struggle.
And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good. (Genesis 1:31) In the Torah scroll of Rabbi Meir, they found written in place of the Hebrew words tov me'od meaning "very good," the words tov movet, meaning how good is death. The Midrash goes on to explain that this was Rabbi Meir's interpretation of the verse "very good." Creation was merely good until God created death; then it became very good. (Bereishis Raba, 9,5)
Perhaps we can gain some insight into Rabbi Meir's thought from another Midrash (Ibid 9,7) which states that the evil inclination can be "very good." Why? Because without it, no person would build a house, or marry, or have children or go into business. So declares King Solomon: And I saw that all labor and skillful enterprise spring from man's envy of his neighbor. (Ecclesiastes 4:4)
The struggle with the evil inclination is part and parcel of the world in which there is death. It belongs to the world of creation down here. At the origin of the soul, where the soul is joined with God, there is no struggle, no evil inclination, no death.
How can I have free will in my feet if I do not have it in my head and heart?
But how can this be? If the soul is an integrated whole from its origins to its furthest extremity, and it has no free will at its origins, how is it possible for it to have free will only in its extremity? How can I have free will in my feet if I do not have it in my head and heart?
The answer of course is simple. It is only by properly exercising his free will and overcoming his evil inclination that man becomes an integrated whole that stretches from one end of the universe to the other, all the way from the physical extremity of his body to the spiritual essence of God.
If he fails to overcome his evil inclination, he never integrates. His soul never fuses with the spiritual connection to God that he was created with the potential to plug into. In that case we would not refer to the connection with God as the source of his soul at all. The source would be right here in the created world where he coexists with the evil inclination and the angel of death.
DEEP SPIRITUAL WOUNDS
Armed with this information, we can appreciate the beautiful music of our Torah portion and begin to have a glimpse into how Yom Kippur works.
We know that surface wounds are easy to cure but internal injuries are dangerous. When the heart and brain are affected, the injury is often fatal. For the person who has managed to integrate his soul by the proper exercise of his free will so that his soul became a single entity all the way up to its connection with God, we look at the connection with God as the source of his unified soul and the extension down here in the physical world as merely the outer extremity.
In terms of the soul, every commission of a sin is the equivalent of the infliction of a spiritual wound.
In terms of the soul, every commission of a sin is the equivalent of the infliction of a spiritual wound. These spiritual wounds are all located in the outermost extremities of the soul when it originates at the point of its connection to God. All sins occur in the realm of the evil inclination and only affect the portion of the soul that coexists with it and death. In the integrated soul, these spiritual wounds are in the soul's outer extremity and are therefore easy to cure.
On the other hand, if the soul never integrates, then these wounds are not at the extremities at all. If the entire spiritual essence of man is located only in the created world, where it coexists with the evil inclination, then this part of man's soul contains all the inner spiritual organs. The same spiritual wounds inflicted by the same sins -- which amount to no more than flesh wounds in the integrated soul -- are now equivalent to injuries of the innermost organs. Such wounds can be spiritually fatal and are surely extremely difficult to heal.
The message of Parshat Ha'azinu is that we, the Jewish people will ultimately succeed in integrating our collective soul through the exercise of our free will through human history.
Thus at the end of days we will make our appearance as an integrated spiritual entity that stretches from one end of existence to the other; thus the source of our collective being can legitimately be described as the point of our collective soul that connects with God. Thus our spiritual wounds suffered through history are all located in the outer extremities of this collective spiritual being. Our internal organs are free and clear of spiritual disease. As this is the case, all our spiritual wounds are shallow and easily healed.
In the ordinary course of our lives we cannot function as integrated souls. God created us to struggle with the evil inclination, to overcome death by conquering this enemy. In this sphere of existence, the spiritual wounds that result from our sins can only be viewed as inner wounds. All of them cut deep and they are all difficult to heal. At this level, the healing power of repentance will only prove effective if it is sufficiently powerful to be able to heal the deepest spiritual trauma. Most of us are unable to generate such powerful medicine through our repentance.
Knowing this, God allowed us to anticipate the future once a year, and allowed us to appear before Him as the integrated spiritual entities that we shall ultimately be. For the song of Moses in Parshat Ha'azinu teaches us that, collectively, the Jewish people will eventually attain this level of being. As all of us Jews draw our individual life force and spirituality from this collective, which is already visible before God as an integrated spiritual entity, He deemed it just to regard us all in this manner one day a year.
When we are seen in this light, the deep spiritual traumas we have inflicted on ourselves by the sins we have committed throughout the year assume the non-threatening aspect of shallow flesh wounds.
The power of our repentance may be inadequate to correct the trauma inflicted on the inner organs vital to spiritual life, but it is more than enough to apply the spiritual bandages that are sufficient to close shallow flesh wounds.
But we must first sing the song of Ha'azinu to be able to fit ourselves into Yom Kippur.
As individuals, we do not necessarily appear at the end of days as integrated souls that connect to God. Who can say whether we will emerge victorious from our private individual battle with the evil inclination?
But if we never manage to attain the peak of spiritual height in our individual capacity, we may have no individual spiritual future to draw on.
It is only by identifying ourselves as extremities of the Jewish people, drawing our spiritual life force from the Jewish collective that we merit being seen in the present as integrated spiritual beings who stretch to the very highest pinnacles of being. It is only thus that the puny power of our repentance is adequate to heal our gaping spiritual wounds.