Shuvah: Returning body and soul

Shuvah: Returning body and soul

Ha’azinu, Shabbat Shuvah
Deuteronomy 32:1 – 32:47

Moses begins parashat Ha’azinu saying “Give ear, O heavens, let me speak.” The poetry sings of Moses’ faith in God and his dire view of the consequences of Israel’s loss of faith. This year Shabbat Haazinu is also Shabbat Shuvah. In its special haftarah, we are told “Shuvah Yisrael…” — “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God.” Return b’lev v’nefesh — body and soul.
Most American Jews skip Shabbat Shuvah; in fact most skip Shabbat altogether.
For many Jews, it seems, all of their Jewishness is expressed on Yom Kippur. The swell of the crowd begins 30 to 45 minutes before the Kol Nidre service. Before the service, many larger synagogues and temples have professional musicians playing cello or violin versions of Kol Nidre or other appropriate music to “get us in the mood.” We hear the music, along with the rustling of crisply folded tallitot, for Kol Nidre is the only evening service when we wear a tallis. The rustling sound serves to remind us that so many lonely tallitot will be given their annual breath of air on this night, after having remained safely tucked away since last Yom Kippur. We hear the hazzan pleading, in words of the Kol Nidre, “Mi Yom Kippur ad Yom Kippur…” — from last Yom Kippur until this Yom Kippur — that our unworthy actions might be forgiven. The body (guf) perceives the words, but they do not penetrate to the nefesh — the soul. Body and soul (expressed in Hebrew by the idiom, b’lev v’nefesh) are estranged from each other.
The speeches and sermons happen at Yizkor because that’s when the most people are physically there. Our Judaic crescendo reaches its climax in the most quiet of moments — as we finally say the Kaddish Yatom, the Mourner’s Kaddish.
Then — feeling transformed, reenergized, fully injected with our yearly booster shot of Judaism — we walk out. The bodily exodus is often so great, so loud, that the ongoing service must stop dead in its tracks. Our Jewish body has schpilkes and we’ve got to go — to lunch, the mall, the television, the ordinary.
On Shabbat Shuvah we make our final preparation for what follows. On Yom Kippur, we will explore our souls, our selves and our potential choices. Perhaps this year, we can fully “return” —perhaps we may experience the extraordinary day of Yom Kippur in a new way. Shuva — return — means to become re-involved in our faith and our deeds, shuvah b’lev v’gam nefesh — returning bodily and also with our Jewish soul. Perhaps, this year, we can find the way to bring that extraordinary-ness into the ordinary-ness of all our days. That is my prayer for myself each year. That is my prayer for you as well.
Shabbat Shalom.

(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)