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The Tears of Our Liberation: HaAzinu

HaAzinu: Deuteronomy 32:1 – 52


Found in this week’s Torah portion is a meditation for the High Holy Days.

          Know, now, that I AM; I AM Is-ness itself. I AM that which manifests as Creation, there is nothing else. I AM death and I AM rebirth; I AM the wound and the healing. (Deut. 32:39)

However incredibly powerful these words, however astonishing the fact that they were penned in biblical times; reading them, our ego is left yearning to truly know the Truth they are enjoining us to awaken to. Who has the key to the jail of self? How can I break free from the suffocating constriction of the “me” and, like the caterpillar escaping its cocoon, become the butterfly my soul knows itself to be? Maybe our questions, themselves, stand in the way of realization. The psalmist points to an answer that involves neither a key-holding messiah or the paradox of the “me” wanting to free itself from itself: “From my confinement I called upon the Eternal; the Eternal answered me with enlargement.” [Ps. 118:5]

But what does that mean? The first step, it seems, is for us to become aware of our “confinement.” No one can escape the prison one doesn’t know exists. For our mystics the prison is that of the false self that narrows our identity to the world of our thoughts and the acting stage of the constructed world onto which it performs. The identification with this illusory character that bears our name is the confinement that keeps us from knowing ourselves as the Divine Being we are. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, wrote: “confinement is… our very existence as beings-in-ourselves, as people who feel that we are separate from Oneness, and as long as this is true, we have not admitted God as our manifestation.”

For the Rebbe, this “confinement” isn’t just the reality of the lay person, it can also be the reality of the tzadikim (mystical masters, righteous ones):

…the tzadikim weep because they have not (yet) fulfilled their mission. For the descent of the soul is not an end of itself; it is a means to a yet greater ascent, a complete self-effacement as the soul recognizes its nothingness and the all-embracing reality of God. And since the tzadik has some reality in his own eyes, he is not yet at his journey’s end. He still has cause for tears.

These are the tears from the realization of our “confinement,” our human limitations, that the High Holy Days are inviting us to shed. The tears themselves and the realization they bring about, the Rebbe argues, are the way to freedom. When one realizes the powerlessness embedded in one’s inherent limitations, including the tzadik among us, “the Eternal answer[s us] with enlargement.” For the Rebbe, “enlargement… is the loss of man’s self-consciousness and his assimilation into the Divine.”

Teshuvah then, he continues, “becomes more than repentance for sin; it becomes the returning of the soul to God, the end of spiritual alienation.” The Rebbe, therefore, affirms that self-transcendence is possible while still inhabiting a body. For him it is, in fact, “a break-through which is possible only to the soul in its earthly existence. [One] has become one with the Infinite in the very midst of the finite.” May we all shed the tears of our liberation during the High Holy Days and remember the “T AM” we are.