Saturday April 19, 2014
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19.04.2014
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Dr. Aviad Hacohen

Open your heart

"From this day of atonement, until the next day of atonement," these words from the Kol Nidre (literally "all vows") prayer, said on the eve of Yom Kippur, have been the cornerstones of Israel's national and personal soul-searching throughout the years.

Each one of us carries many "vows" — hopes and promises — at the start of each year. At the end of each year, each one of us comes to the realization that only some of our vows had been fulfilled. As it absolves us from these unfulfilled vows, the Jewish tradition urges us to atone for our mistakes and confess our sins. Not just for the sake of self-flagellation — to feel pain and sadness for the mistakes of the past — but also, perhaps mainly, for the sake of repairing our future.

Perhaps for the benefit of the "righteous" among us, who believe that they are pure perfection, our sages formulated a detailed list of the different types of sins. Alongside the general sins, like "ashamnu" (we have been guilty), "badadnu" (we have betrayed), "gazalnu" (we have stolen), comes a list of more specific transgressions — an up-to-date catalogue of sorts — that can be tailored to each person's personal needs. The traditional list of sins includes one transgression that appears strange at first glance: "...sins that we have sinned before you with astonishment of heart" (timahon levav).

By way of inertia, the reciting of this "vidui" (confession) prayer has become no more than force of habit for many people over the years. Since this strange item appears only at the end of the list, most people have never given any thought to the meaning of the words "timahon levav." An overview of different prayer books and translations of the prayer into various languages reveals a wide variety of interpretations indicating no small degree of confusion in the face of this indecipherable sin. Some see it as an independent and specific sin of confusion over methods of observance, or the loss of a loved one that brings confusion into people's lives. Some even see it as a sort of umbrella sin that includes all the sins that stem from the heart's doubts and missteps.

Delving into the origin of the term, you will find that the only mention of it in the Bible is in the seventh portion of Deuteronomy, which talks about the blessings of observance and curses for violation of the law. Alongside a host of ways in which God will punish sinners, "with consumption, and with fever, and with inflammation, and with fiery heat, and with drought, and with blasting, and with mildew; and they shall pursue thee until thou perish" (Deuteronomy 28:22), there is one most terrible curse: "The Lord will smite thee with madness, and with blindness, and with astonishment of heart" (Deuteronomy 28:28). The question only becomes more bewildering: Is astonishment of heart a sin or a punishment? And what is its nature?

Ostensibly, one could view "astonishment of heart" as a difficult and painful illness, like the madness or blindness mentioned in the same verse. Rashi, one of the most renowned Jewish commentators, interpreted the term to mean a heart attack. But the question resurfaces: What is the sin we are confessing to? Should a man have to confess to a heart ailment, or any other ailment, that befalls him?

It may be that, as Rashi suggested, timahon levav should be interpreted as a heart attack, not in the medical sense but rather in the moral sense. Many good, innocent, honest people study Torah, observe all the commandments in their homes and communities, but still harden their hearts to the plight of strangers who are not among their immediate acquaintances.

The way things are in this world, many people are quick to confess to sins they have committed against God, but don't dedicate enough attention to their relations with their fellow man, or to the hardness of their hearts in the face of others' suffering. The sin of timahon levav, the last on the confession list, is there to give us one more reminder to atone for the sins we've committed against our fellow man — the sins that Yom Kippur does not absolve, not until forgiveness is achieved.

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