Haazinu contains a lengthy poem that comprises almost this whole sidrah. It is part of a speech that Moses shares with our people before we enter the Promised Land. The poem declares God's majesty, power, presence, and capacity to forgive. Since the poetic fragments of the Torah represent the most ancient strands of our tradition, these verses of poetry convey many core spiritual concepts of our faith.
Let us consider two words in the poem's first verse. They are Haazinu, "Hear, O heavens, and I will speak" and V'tishma, "Hear, O earth, the words of my mouth." (Deuteronomy 32:1) Is it the repetition of these two verbal forms that carry the meaning of "hearing" only for poetic purposes? To probe this question, we are presented with guidance by turning to Rashi's comment on Genesis 18:2. Rashi teaches us that because the word vayar, "and he looked," is repeated twice, there are two types of seeing. The first is the ordinary physical act of looking. The second is looking with clarity, empathy, and a deep understanding. The same concept applies in this first verse of our Torah portion with regard to the sensory act of hearing.
There are two ways in which we can hear. The first is obviously the physical capacity to perceive sound by the ear. We hear words spoken and ideas and feelings expressed. We assimilate these sensations into our consciousness and oftimes respond to them. However, the depth of our response depends not just on the physical act of hearing (haazinu) but also on tishma, hearing with understanding and compassion. We hear surface sounds ( haazinu) and are challenged to hear them with understanding (tishma) and respond to them with empathy.
For example, we hear words spoken in the media by journalists, politicians, and pundits. We hear those words, but do we take the time to try to absorb and understand them? We hear the voice of the struggle of our people in the Land of Israel, but do we really hear and understand the message that is being shared with us? It is a call asking us not to disengage from our relationship with the State of Israel but to truly hear her need for our commitment and involvement.
On a spiritual level, the heavens may just be asked collectively to hear (haazinu), but we on earth are challenged to hear with understanding (tishma) that the earth, our loved ones, and life itself are God's gifts to us. We are challenged to hear God's presence in our lives (sh'ma). We are challenged to listen to the sacred wonder of every aspect of life. Hearing God's presence means going to the core of our being to become the person that God has enabled us and wants us to be, namely, listening to the best and noblest parts of our inner self. Can we hear God calling from within? God calls out signals to us through our every heartbeat. God is our host through every breath, through every bit of nourishment we take.
Is God the whisper of our conscience or a moment of awe and discovery? At times, God's presence is the inner, silent certainty of a presence, as testified to by Psalm 23: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me."
The watchword of our faith is not Haazinu Yisrael but rather Sh'ma Yisrael, "Hear O Israel," in order to teach us to listen with openness and receptivity. God calls to us at every moment of our lives, opening us up to all kinds of inner forces, feelings, and sparks of insight. May we, in the spirit of this week's Torah portion, Haazinu, identify one of the voices calling to us as the voice of God, which has called to us since our birth. In so doing, we will be recalling the words of the Yiddish poet H. Leivick, who wrote:
A voice calls out: "You must!"
Must what? O voice, explain!
Instead of an answer, I hear
That call again.
I peer behind the door,
I dash at every wall;
I search, though no one strange
Has sent that call.
I've known them all my life,
The caller and the call.
This excerpt of H. Leivick's poem "A Voice," translated by Cynthia Ozick, appears in A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry, edited by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg, New York: Schocken Books, 1976.