Sunday, May 3, 2020

Parashat Aharei Mot: The Life of Speech

The Life of Speech
Thoughts on Parashat Aharei Mot 2020
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And Aharon shall lay his two hands on the head of the goat and confess over it all the transgressions of Bnei Yisrael and all their sins (VaYikra 16:21)

The confession of sins, vidui, played an integral role in our national atonement on Yom Kippur. Aharon once represented the people on that day by confessing their sins while placing his hands atop the goat which was sent off to the desert. Today, in the absence of a Mikdash and kohen gadol, we each confess our wrongdoings on Yom Kippur, as part of the repentance process.

HaRambam ruled that merely admitting to sin in our mind is insufficient for vidui. We must, instead, verbally confess our transgressions.[1] While generally accepting the halakhic principle of “hirhur ke-dibur,” which equates concentrated thought to verbal expression, HaRambam inexplicably presents the confession of sins as an exception to the rule. Why?[2]

I am reminded, in this context, of a related concept in a different realm of halakhah. Although we fulfill the missvah of talmud Torah by simply contemplating its words and precepts, the Hakhamim nonetheless emphasized the value of verbal articulation while learning. They referred to a particular “life” that is generated by uttering words of Torah. And they stressed the strengths of memory and retainment which are born out of learning aloud.[3] How do spoken words affect our comprehension? And what is the connection between our mouths and the “life” and retention of Torah?

The kabbalists separate the human personality into three separate facets. They refer to the two outer extremes as neshamah and nefesh. While the neshamah represents our thought and mental comprehension, the nefesh is our physical motion and activity. The integral component that links those two aspects, however, is ruah. The ruah represents our emotions, expressed by our speech.[4]

During my first year as a high school teacher, Rabbi David Eliach taught me an invaluable method. “Have the students talk,” he repeatedly told me, “Force them to read the text out loud.” I soon learned that by doing so, the words had a way of “concretizing” in my students’ minds. Simply reading with their eyes and giving thought to the concepts left them static in their memory. By speaking the words with their mouths, however, the students breathed into them a dynamic “life” and personal character.

Indeed, it is our ability to talk which allows us to transcend a world of facts and principles into one of feelings and perspective. Consider, for example, our earliest expressions of speech – Adam’s naming of the animals in Gan Eden (Bereshit 2:19). Leon Kass noted the significance of that gesture. He commented on how human acts of selection are shaped by interests, which spring from desire. “The same is true of human speech, even of simple naming,” he wrote, “Although the ability to name rests on the powers of reason, the impulse to name is rooted in desire or emotion.” While bare reason is motiveless and impotent, the act of choosing words and naming is an expression of “an inner urge, need or passion, such as fear or wonder, anxiety or appreciation, interest or curiosity.” The content of speech, Kass thus suggested, reflects the inner soul of the speaker.[5] By forcing Adam to choose the names of the animals and express them with his speech, God introduced him to the emotive side of his personality. He exposed Adam to his ruah.

Our ability to retain information is dependent upon the depth of its penetration into our being. Merely reading Torah with our eyes and minds leaves its words separate and apart from ourselves. Speaking it with our mouth breaths life – our life – into the text. It is for that reason, as well, that one must verbally confess their sins in the process of teshuvah. Thinking about the sins is a mental exercise. Verbalizing them is an emotional experience.

The verbal vidui of Yom Kippur, then, reveals to us the mystery of our expressive ruah. It teaches us that our thoughts and ideas remain dormant when left unspoken. By choosing words of expression, however, we integrate our mindful neshamah with active nefesh, generating the vitality of life through speech.

[1] HaRambam, Mishneh Torah: Hilkhot Teshuvah 1:1.
[2] This issue has been discussed at length by several halakhists. See a summary and discussion in R. Yosef Cohen, Sefer HaTeshuvah vol. 1 (Jerusalem, IS, 2006), pg. 33-35.
[3] See Eruvin 53b-54a. And cf. HaRambam, Mishneh Torah: Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:12.
[4] See, e.g., R. Hayim of Volozhin’s Nefesh HaHayim 1:14.
[5] Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom (Chicago, IL, 2003), pg. 75.