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ב"ה

The Parting Poem

Friday, 7 October, 2022 - 7:28 am

The matinee is often less well attended than the evening performance, just as the main show gets more attention than the side show. 

As we celebrate the Shabbat between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, we may be tempted think of it as an afterthought. Yes, it’s Shabbat, but it is so ordinary that it pales in comparison to the two holidays which bookend it.

But, on further reflection, it is perhaps this Shabbat and the theme of it’s parsha, Haazinu, that is most befitting to connect Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

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This is the second-to-last parsha in the Chumash. Its primary feature is Shirat Haazinu, the song or poem that Moshe shares with the Jewish people on his final day on earth. In it he summons heaven and earth to serve as ‘witnesses’ as he directs and admonishes the Jewish people. Moshe figures that these witnesses will still be around generations later to see whether the Jews fulfill the ways of G-d.

Moshe was about to depart this world – earth – and enter the eternal afterlife – heaven. Why did he summon both heaven and earth? Would it not be sufficient – and more appropriate – to call upon earth alone? After all, the Jews would be on earth, not in heaven.

Perhaps Moshe is beckoning both heaven and earth to demonstrate the two extremes in our Divine worship.  Some aspects of our relationship with the Almighty are heavenly, spiritual in character. Prayer, Torah study, love of G-d are some obvious examples. Many other commandments of the Torah revolve around particularly worldly endeavors. Eating kosher, business ethics, helping the destitute, and observing Shabbat come immediately to mind.

Moshe summons both heaven and earth because both are necessary to validate the Jewish people’s fidelity to the Torah.

Sometimes we get into a spiritual zone and neglect the material commandments. We are entranced with holiness and celestial pursuits. But the poor man cannot get his bread from our prayers alone.  We need to physically feed him.

At other times we are deeply engaged in tending the garden, catering to the many needs of our material world.  Our bodies are doing the heavy lifting, but our souls’ involvement might be lost on us.  Our body is sweating and achieving, while our soul is left uninspired, disconnected. The body is active, but is trapped in the limitations of humanity. It cannot touch the Divine.

Judaism requires that we involve both body and soul. The covenant of G-d and Israel is akin to marriage. And the relationship between body and soul is also like marriage. Each is a critical partner in accomplishing the Divine mission for which we were created. Engaging in only heavenly affairs is not the Jewish way. Occupying oneself strictly with (sacred) bodily endeavors is also not the Jewish way.

Our mission is to bring heaven down to earth, to synthesize the two.

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Dressed in white, we pray and fast on Yom Kippur.  We are like angels, elevated to a heavenly sphere. Sukkot, by contrast, is a festival of the earth. We build a structure and live in it. We celebrate with food and dancing.  We unite with nature and see G-d through the prism of His creations.

Moshe’s parting poem is the perfect segue from Yom Kippur to Sukkot.  On Yom Kippur our souls are on fire. On Sukkot it’s time to translate that holiness into action. To merge soul and body. To fuse heaven and earth.

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