Rabbi Nancy Wiener, D.Min.
Dr. Paul and Trudy Steinberg Chair in Human Relations; Founding Director, Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling at HUC-JIR/New York
It shall be a Sabbath of complete rest for you. And you shall afflict your souls on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall observe this your Sabbath. (Lev. 23:32)
These words appear in this week’s Torah portion to describe Yom Kippur. The phrase V’initem et nafshotekhem is at the center of the verse. The common translation of the Hebrew root ayin-nun-heh, initem, in this context is “afflict.” According to the rabbis, the affliction to which this verse refers is the fast on Yom Kippur. Afflicted souls resonate so loudly with us today. With this pandemic weighing heavily on us, as the death toll rises with no end in sight, as we see our lives and worlds transformed, our souls are afflicted.
As days have turned into weeks that have turned into months, this period of sheltering at home, has forced us to desist from our normal daily rhythms. Many of us find our attention focusing on the deprivation that is upending our sense of time and place, as the boundaries that existed between home and work seemingly vanish. We feel the pain and loss of not being close enough to touch and smell and walk alongside so many of the people who enrich our lives. Our souls can feel afflicted.
Yet, it is two different readings of the phrase V’initem et Nafshoteikhem that can offer us the possibility of reframing the impact this time has on our souls. First, that same root ayin-nun-vav means “to sing” or to “lift up one’s voice”. Thus, V’initem et Nafshoteikhem can be translated “And let your souls sing.” Alternatively, by changing one vowel (vowels generally do not appear in written Hebrew texts) the phrase becomes V’anitem et nafshoteikhem, rendering it “And you shall respond to your souls.”
A story is told that each morning Rebbe Nachman would rise and before going to join the community in prayer, he would stand by a pond and listen to the frogs. It was only when he was truly present enough to hear their varied tones and multi-layered chorus and feel awe and appreciation for this amazing gift, that he was ready to begin his own prayer—letting the universe sing through him.
How difficult it is, in our normally crazy, hectic lives, to stop, listen, appreciate and respond to the sounds that surround us, to be grateful for them and to find within them deep meaning for our own lives. We can only respond authentically when we stop and take the time to receive what is being offered. As we practice listening to what is going on around us, it is in the process of receiving and being with what we have received that our souls have an opportunity to connect with other souls and to the soul of the world. V’anitem et Nafshoteikhem, “And you shall respond with your souls.”
In this time of greater solitude and silence, the words of Rabbi Morris Adler can lead us to improve our capacity to listen and respond. He wrote:
There are voices that can be heard only in silence. The artist and thinker withdraw to privacy to create and meditate. The poet seeks solitude to hear the melodies of his soul. The solitary stroller in the woods hears music that would go unheard midst noise. The silences of the night would lose their eloquence in the glare. There are symphonies that are audible only to the undistracted and the silent.
Maimonides suggested an entirely different reading for V’initem et nafshoteikhem. He heard them as words of encouragement. He explained that by refraining from bodily concerns (fasting on Yom Kippur) our souls can be liberated so that they might soar. He continued, “Trusting in the power of forgiveness, our souls are free to sing.” With extra time, in the more isolated existence brought on by Covid-19, we have an opportunity to return to ourselves and what embues our lives with meaning.
In so many ways this pandemic is an unrelenting affliction, with innumerable challenges and losses. Nevertheless, we each have the possibility of transforming it into an unexpected, uninvited opportunity to have more time--undistracted, silent time—to catch our breath, to listen and respond to the symphonies around us and within us and, hallevei, to make this a time when we let our souls soar and sing.