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.
In this week's parashah, Moses' song Haazinu, recited almost at the border of the Promised Land, at the precipice between Moses' life and his impending death, is both a poem of warning and a poem of hope, a poem that is, itself, "on the edge." It tells how God cares for Israel like an eagle parent protecting its young birds, and yet Israel disobeys God and consequently suffers punishment.
Haazinu is rich in the language of the senses: hearing, taste, touch, and sight. It evokes two kinds of hearing, as Rabbi Perelmuter points out. With regard to the sense of taste, the Israelites are fed with honey and the finest wheat; concerning the sense of touch, God engirds the people; and regarding the sense of sight, God guards them with His eyes. And yet, each of the senses involves both a blessing and a curse: The vineyards that produced wine and sanctity and joy were also grapes of corruption and wrath. The honey and fine wheat they ate made the people grow "fat and gross and coarse." (Deuteronomy 32:15) The sense of personal touch and the caring with which God nurtured the people was met with disloyalty and rejection. God's teaching, like the rain, and God's speech, like showers on young growth, were not heard. God's gifts fell on deaf ears.
Haazinu is a poem about the history of the Israelites—their hopes and failings, their greatness and haughtiness, and their hovering on the edge between celebration and warning, a fulcrum balanced between blessing and curse.
This Shabbat we, too, stand on the edge, perched between the end of the Days of Awe and the beginning of Sukkot. We will move from a time of judgment to a time of shelter. Although Sukkot celebrates the abundance of the earth and its harvest, we are also asked to recognize the fragility of the world and are commanded leishev basukkah, "to dwell in a sukkah." We are asked to stand in between these two realities—the earth's bounty and its fragility.
Sukkot is also z'man simchateinu, the "season of our rejoicing," and yet we are asked to leave our comfortable homes and dwell in fragile huts, where wind and cold may cause us to shiver and nature's gentleness or cruelty can be experienced. We even read the words of Ecclesiastes on the Shabbat during Sukkot to remind us of the ambivalence between abundance and bounty on one hand and vanity and futility on the other. It is a precarious balance, like that of Moses at the precipice between life and death—remembering all that he had done in his life for his people and anticipating all that they will do without him when they enter the Land.
Sukkot is a holiday of fullness, harvest, and feasting, as well as the opposite, namely, the wandering in the wilderness, the fragility of our dwellings, and the impermanence of our lives. Sukkot asks us to become a bit uncomfortable and to really take notice of all the times when we have felt secure. Sukkot asks us to recognize how dependent we are upon our comforts and to feel blessed because of them. And most important, Sukkot asks us to draw strength from our nonmaterial anchors and from our Jewish rites and rituals. It reminds us of how the Israelites learned to trust God, who promised them a home in the Land, and asks us to remember our ancestors in the desert and the fact that God's sheltering presence in the form of a cloud was the sukkah over their heads.
Haazinu reminds us of how God girded and guarded us and of how we "neglected the Rock that begot" us and "forgot the God who brought" us forth (Deuteronomy 32:18), while Sukkot reminds us not to forsake God. Haazinu reminds us that Moses was commanded to ascend the heights of Abarim but not to enter the Promised Land, whereas Sukkot reminds us that we did enter the Land and tasted its bounty. Both Sukkot and Haazinu remind us not to squander God's blessings, to remember God's presence in our lives, and to trust that same invisible God who cared for the wandering Israelites and who still cares for us today. Both Sukkot and Haazinu ask us to be aware of and generous with our blessings. Both of them remind us not to forget both the abundance and the paucity, the blessings and the curses, as well as the shelter and the judgment.
Haazinu, Deuteronomy 32:1–52
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,555–1,566; Revised Edition, pp. 1,398–1,412
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,251–1,270