Abarbanel on the Parsha

For the week ending 9 May 2015 / 20 Iyyar 5775

Parshat Emor

by Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett
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In this Parsha the Torah instructs us to “afflict” ourselves on Yom Kippur, the tenth day of the month of Tishri. The word that is used for the self is “nefesh, a reference to the soul or essence of the individual. What exactly is meant by affliction? Ibn Ezra, in Parshat Acharei Mot explains that affliction refers exclusively to refraining from eating and drinking. However, Abarbanel says that even though we can say that all fasting is affliction, it is not correct to say that affliction is defined only by fasting. Psalm 102:24 says clearly, “He has afflicted my strength through the wandering of exile.” This is clearly a reference to another kind of affliction. Similarly, the Torah states regarding a wife’s personal vows, “Any vow and any oath-prohibition to cause personal affliction, her husband may let it stand and her husband may revoke it.” (Bamidbar 30:14) It is clear that this is a reference to many examples of personal affliction besides fasting.

Abarbanel offers an expanded definition of this affliction of ourselves, an affliction of our very being. We are commanded to afflict ourselves by eliminating our desire for food, drink, intimate relations and other pleasures. This also includes regret for having previously overindulged, worrying about how this has negatively affected us and chastising ourselves for inappropriate misuse of these desires. This is the essence of the prophet Isaiah’s reproof of the people of his generation when they complained to G-d, “Why did we fast and You did not see? Why did we afflict our souls and You did not know?” (Isaiah 58:3) The people complimented themselves for refraining not only from food and drink, but also from inappropriate physical actions and thoughts as well. The prophet answers them that their sense of affliction is actually worthless, as he tells them in the same verse, “…on your fast day you seek out personal gain and you extort all your debts.” He is telling the people that they are actually fulfilling their desires; they are distancing themselves from the things that bring sadness and pain to the soul. As a result the prophet tells them in the next verse, “You fast for grievance and strife…”

Thus, affliction must be understood as everything that causes pain to the soul, the essence of the individual. This is why the Torah states in this Torah portion, “Afflict your souls and bring a fire-offering to G-d.” (Vayikra 23:27) Afflict your souls with repentance, with regret; divest yourselves of inappropriate behavior and thoughts. This is the real essence of affliction. The fats and the blood of the sacrificial offering are to be considered as your own. Knowing that the sacrifice of an animal is meant to teach us that we must give ourselves over completely to G-d, knowing that we have allowed our desires to control us, and reproving ourselves with regretting and repenting brings about the pain and sadness of true affliction.

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