In the week leading up to Yom Kippur, Rabbi Berman spoke to us students at YCT about this topic, painting a broader picture of the context of Yom Kippur and what these verses are doing. I will neither be summarizing his speech, nor presenting all of his ideas, but rather certain elements. All quotes to follow are from that speech.
Framing the discussion, R' Berman queried "When the Torah says some five separate times תענו את נפשותיכם, what does that mean?" Yes, he said, that "the ספרא says תענו את נפשותיכם is a particular set of forms of withdrawal," however, he, said, "I would like to explore with you, generally, what is the meaning of עינוי? And, in particular, since the Torah keeps using that term over and over again, what's the meaning of עינוי נפש? It's not just תענו - it's תענו את נפשותיכם, כל הנפש אשר תענה, ועניתם את נפשותיכם - what's the sense of עינוי?"
Further, he queried,
If, in fact, these are not wrongful activities, why does the Torah prohibit them? My core suggestion is that whenever the Torah forbids an activity for a limited period of time, the purpose of the prohibition is for us to engage in the evaluation of that activity. That is, these activities are indeed so powerful that if we fail to engage in a periodical evaluation of these activities, they can begin to take over our lives in ways that ultimately will corrupt these good activities.He then embarked on an exploration of the term עינוי as it is used in the Torah in four different ways: "The term עינוי in the Torah is used in a variety of different contexts. The one that's probably best known is the עינוי of slavery, the עינוי of מצרים (Egypt)." That is, "the עינוי of מצרים was that someone else had gained mastery over our productive energies. The עינוי was the coercive force that someone else was exercising over our productive energies."
The second is "the עינוי of rape, as in the case of Dinah." He then succinctly defined this as "the עינוי of rape is the forceful gaining of mastery over another person in their sexual expression."
"Then there's a third form of עינוי in the Torah which appears a number of different times", that of the "עינוי of the abandonment of one's culture," pointing to the beautiful woman and Sarah's and Hagar's relationship.
The last of these is that "there's a term עינוי used in the Torah in regards to particular kinds of economic oppression."
After surveying these different uses, his concluding definition is that "עינוי is fundamentally an act which compels another to submit." I am convinced!
So, now that we have one part of the equation, that being עינוי, what about the other? Regarding נפש, a term I explored in my last posting, which denotes the physical body, we now have a more complete picture: The point is to compel one's physical body to submit.... But, to what? It may seem, actually, that one is to utilize their לב (mind) to compel their physical body to submit - to submit to not being fulfilled - keeping it down, as it were. I could leave it there, but one wonders if, perhaps, it may serve to help one better enjoy the holiday which shortly follows it.... Just a thought as we are concluding Sukkos this year and entering into Shemini Azeres - חג שמח - Happy Holiday(s)!