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עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

Who is Listening?

Posted by rabbiart on October 10, 2008

Ha’azinu is the last parshah that is read during the weekly Shabbat Torah reading.  A passage from Shmot (aka Exodus) is read on Shabbat Chol Ha’Mo’ed Sukkot, and the final parshah of the Torah is read on Simchat Torah. In the full (as opposed to the triennial) reading cycle, it is also the shortest parshah. To paraphrase from an old, old, old Saturday Night Live routine, the poem which occupies most of the parshah could be boiled down to “God good, Israel bad.”

Most of the parshah is taken up with a beautiful piece of Biblical poetry,  a poem which is a difficult passage to understand and interpret.  In most years the parshah is read on Shabbat Shuvah and therefore precedes Yom Kippur. In that setting, the message of warning and rebuke fits right in to the liturgical calendar.

This year it comes hard on the heels of Yom Kippur, where we are given the opportunity to become at one with HaShem, and is slipped into the calendar immediately before Sukkot – the season of our joy.

Maimonides (Hilchot Tefilah, Perek 13:5) writes the general rule that every aliyah begins with something good and ends with something good.  But, he mentions, this is not possible with parshat Ha’azinu.  He gives the specific beginning and ending verses of the aliyot.  Why, he asks, is it not possible to follow the general rule?  Because this parshah is a tochachah – a curse.  But, he says, because the curse is given to drive us to good behavior, even the “bad” verses are good.  Here is how he breaks out the aliyot.

  1. Verses 1 – 6
  2. Verses 7 – 12
  3. Verses 13 – 18
  4. Verses 19 – 28
  5. Verses 29 – 39
  6. Verses 40 – 43
  7. Verses 44 – 52

How should we read Ha’azinu this year?

We might start with this observation by Rabbi James Diamond writing at hillel.org.

Indeed, right after the poem, at the end of the parsha, Moses says this of the poem and of the whole Torah he has been teaching: For it is not an empty thing for you, but it is your very life; through it you shall long endure on the land to which you are crossing over the Jordan to possess it. (Deuteronomy 32:47)

The Jerusalem Talmud has a sobering comment on this verse: “It [Torah] is not an empty thing. And if you find it empty, the emptiness is in you!” (This is like the literature professor who, responding to a student who said he didn’t have a clue to what T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Wasteland” meant, asked the student, “To what defect in your character do you attribute your inability to understand this poem?”)

So to understand the parshah, we have to look inside ourselves. What defects are in us that keep us from being at one with the message of Ha’azinu? I’d list mine, but you don’t have the time to read them all. On the other hand, with Yom Kippur having passed just a day ago, the defect list should be pretty short, for individuals and for the Jewish people.

Perhaps a better approach for this year is to look for evidence of where, as the verse says, Torah is our very life.

Google “haazinu” and the first two results show haazinu.org – “an organization whose existence is predicated on providing every possible means of assistance to hearing-impaired youngsters”. According to the website, there is no charge for their services.  The site appears a few months behind today’s date, so let’s pray that they are doing well as they are doing good.  Check out the site, look for the latest event announcement and you will find out that by the way, Orthodox Jews golf, at least at fundraisers.  Once again (at least for the golfers among us) we find that what we have in common is more than what divides us.

Concerning what all Jews have in common, we can start with this parshah.  On this Shabbat, Jews around the world are all reading the same parshah – in its entirety.  In both the full annual reading and in the triennial cycle as it has come to be practiced, we all are reading this chapter of Devarim from beginning to end.  We all begin the first aliyah with these words:

הַאֲזִינוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם, וַאֲדַבֵּרָה; וְתִשְׁמַע הָאָרֶץ, אִמְרֵי-פִי

In the Tanach a common way of expressing a totality or all the points along a continuum is by pairs of opposite words.  One way to read this verse is that Moshe is asking the entire world; heaven, earth, everything in between, to listen to the words of this poem.

Here’s a davar acher (a different interpretation). Hebrew speakers will recognize הַאֲזִינוּ (ha’azinu) as the causative form of a verb for “listen”, and the root of the word as the Hebrew word for “ear”. We all know what shma is; תִשְׁמַע (tishma) can be read as the imperative form of “listen”.

Moshe is calling on, perhaps even causing, the heavens to listen, and commanding the aretz to hear him.

Think of all Moshe has been through.  How many times have the Israelites listened to him?  How many times have they put their own spin on what Moshe, speaking for HaShem, told them?  How many times do we “check our opinions at the door” when we are listening?  Is it even possible to do this? Of course not. Mixing metaphors here, we can only listen through the prism of our life experiences.  There simply is no such thing as “objective listening.”

Most often, when I hear someone preface a remark with “I’ll tell you the truth of the matter”, or “but the truth is”, I hasten to remind myself that there rarely is objective truth, and utterances introduced with these phrases should be immediately suspect.  We all come with our own agendas in hand.

Now, finally, Moshe has his last chance to speak. (Of course, he will have an encore in the final parshah of the Torah.) Moshe, of all the people in our tradition, is charged with speaking the truth – in capital letters as it were.

Moshe makes heaven listen, Moshe makes the earth hear.  Or not Moshe, but the words that Moshe speaks.  Heaven and earth listen without putting on their own interpretation.  No offense, Bill Reilly, but here is where we find a real “no-spin” zone. In the listening of heaven and earth – here before us, here after us –  is where the only real truths can be found.

In last week’s parshah we read (Devarim 30)

11 “Ki ha’mitzvah ha’zot” (For this mitzvah) that I command you today – it is not hidden from you and it is not distant.
12 It is not in heaven, so that you could say, “Who can go up to heaven and bring it for us, so that we can hear it and keep it?”
13 Nor is it across the sea, so that you could say, “Who will cross the sea and take it for us, so that we can hear it and keep it?”
14 Rather, the matter is very close to you – in your mouth and in your heart – so that you can keep it.

A final thought.  In this verse, hashamayim (heaven) is HaShem, ha’aretz (the earth) is us. When we are conscious that HaShem is listening to what comes out of our mouths – and paying attention to what we say with the way we live our lives, then the aretz – us – can really listen and hear, when HaShem speaks back to us.

Shabbat Shalom

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