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At Yom Kippur's End -- Hear, and Heed, the Call

September 24, 2009 By:
Rabbi Howard A. Addison
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HA'AZINU, Deuteronomy 32:1-32:52

This week's portion, Ha'azinu, begins with an imperative -- "Hear!" Before his passing Moses composed an epic poem recounting the triumphs and travails of Israel's wanderings. He warned his listeners of the pitfalls that would lie ahead upon entering the Promised Land. Heaven and Earth were summoned as witnesses to a renewed covenant solemnized on the Jordan River's eastern bank.

It is more than coincidental that Ha'azinu, the portion of hearing, is read between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur on Shabbat Teshuvah. During this Holy Day season, both we and God are called repeatedly to listen. We are bidden to hear the shofar's call, to hear the inner call to repent, to hear sympathetically the apologies of others. Similarly, God is called through the shofar to mercifully hear our prayers and remember the covenant.

The Baal Shemtov indicated that such listening is but a prelude to an existence of continued attention. He claimed that God's voice calls to us daily through our experiences and encounters. Commenting on an early selection in Deuteronomy, the Slonimer Rebbe taught that real blessing is living a life attuned to that voice.

In moments of triumph and abundance, or in times of reversal and loss, blessing comes from hearing God's call to respond with righteousness, compassion, forgiveness and purpose. The curse is to be tone deaf to God's voice, to experience life as a roller coaster of happenstance, with no sense of divine narrative to guide us.

The truth of this insight became clear to me through a story that I read about Tracy, a young woman whose relationship with her father seemed nothing but a series of disappointments. From childhood on, each of her attempts to show him affection was rebuffed. Finally, out of frustration, she just stopped trying.

One evening, she invited her parents, now approaching old age, to join her at a restaurant. A combo was playing, and a small voice broke through her consciousness: "Try once more; ask your dad to dance." Countering years of bitter rejection, she decided to heed that voice. Surprisingly, her father swept her up in his arms.

Noticing that he didn't look her in the eye, Tracy took another risk and asked why. Tearfully, her dad told her of his affectionless childhood, and how he could only manage his overwhelming feelings of pride and love for her by remaining undemonstrative.

As the music stopped, Tracy excused herself to go to the ladies room. Coming out, she heard a terrible commotion, only to discover that her father had fainted, then died, soon after sitting down. The weeks that followed became a blur of grief. Throughout that period, however, Tracy was sustained by the memory of her father's embrace and his words as they moved across the dance floor.

Such a death was indeed tragic. But was it a curse? According to the Torah's call, "ha'azinu -- hear!" The curse would have been to ignore Tracy's inner, divine voice. Amidst loss, her blessing was the memory of that last dance of reconciliation.

On Yom Kippur, we will see the rabbi, cantor and others don white penitential robes reminiscent of shrouds, reminding us of our mortality and life's urgent preciousness. At Yom Kippur's end, pay attention to the shofar's final blast, for it invites us to listen daily for God's call. As Tracy discovered, true blessing may be found in our listening -- and our response.

Rabbi Howard A. Addison is religious leader of Congregation Melrose B'nai Israel Emanu-El in Cheltenham. E-mail him at: rabbia@juno.com.

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