SALT - Sunday, 7 Tishrei 5777 - October 9, 2016

  • Rav David Silverberg

            Yesterday, we raised the question as to the meaning of the term “timhon leivav,” one of the sins which we confess in the vidui service on Yom Kippur.  As we saw, the source of this term is the tokhecha, the Torah’s frightening list of calamities that God threatens to bring upon Benei Yisrael if they disobey His commands, which includes the curse of “timhon leivav” (Devarim 28:28).  We need to understand the meaning of “timhon leivav” in the context of the tokhecha, and on this basis understand the sin referred to by this term in the vidui service.

            The verb t.m.h. appears much earlier in the Torah, in Sefer Bereishit (43:33), in describing the bewilderment of Yosef’s brothers as they feasted in Yosef’s home in Egypt: “Va-yitmehu ha-anashim.”  Yosef – the Egyptian vizier whom they did not recognize as their brother – seated them in age order, and they were amazed that he knew their ages.  It appears that this world expresses paralyzing astonishment and shock, a state of dysfunction wrought by a completely incomprehensible situation or intractable dilemma.  When the Torah warns of “timhon leivav,” it refers to a condition where people are unable to think coherently and rationally due to the shocking nature of their situation.  Indeed, as mentioned yesterday, this curse appears together with the warnings of “shiga’on” (“insanity”) and “ivaron” (“blindness”), which also describe a state of impairment leading to dysfunction.

            If so, then we are left with the question of how to explain the sin of “timhon leivav” mentioned in the vidui prayer.  If this term refers to a kind of mental impairment resulting from emotional trauma, then how can we speak of a sin of “timhon leivav”?  How can we confess to being guilty of experiencing such a state?

            The answer, it seems, is that at times we unnecessarily act as though we are “bewildered” and dysfunctional.  Like a person who has lost his way and decides to walk randomly ahead rather than ask for directions, we have the tendency to conduct ourselves based on habit, intuition, or popular fads, rather than bothering to determine the proper course of action.  We prefer the bliss of ignorance over the challenge of acquiring knowledge; we choose the simplicity of “cruise control” to the painstaking process of inquiring and finding answers.  The sin of “timhon leivav” is the sin of self-imposed ignorance and bewilderment, of living unthinkingly, happily uninformed and oblivious of what is truly expected of us, of calmly and instinctively treading along the path that is familiar and fashionable, without challenging ourselves to ensure we act correctly. 

            The period of the Yamim Noraim, as the Rambam famously writes in explaining the symbolic meaning of the shofar (Hilkhot Teshuva 3:4), is intended to “awaken” us from our “slumber,” to snap us out of state of spiritual unconsciousness and get us to start thinking about how we live and how we should be living.  On Yom Kippur, after we confess the specific mistakes we have made, we acknowledge the fundamental flaw of “timhon leivav,” of our chosen state of blissful dysfunction, of resigning ourselves to ignorance and mindlessness.  And we proclaim our desire and commitment to overcome this passive spiritual state and to take responsibility for ourselves, to actively pursue knowledge and to pay close attention to our conduct and decisions to ensure that we are living the way God wants and expects us to live.