Index of Writings

Ha'azinu

We wander through life searching for bridges to move us closer to each other and nearer to God. Parashat HaAzinu shows us how to build bridges between heaven and earth while being, as the last portion of the year, a bridge itself between the end and the beginning. Its very form, a song, opens the heart to receive its urgent message of hope and direction; as we reach the inevitable end of the book, its passion inspires and propels us to begin the study again.

The portion opens with Moses declaring, "Listen heaven! I will speak! Earth! Hear the words of my mouth!(Deut. 32:1). Like a dying father who warns his children that he no longer will guide, scold, or defend them, Moses calls upon heaven and earth to be witnesses: Human beings are inclined to do better when we know they're being watched. If Israel does right, earth will open with fecundity, and likewise, if we sin, earth will close itself to us. Like parents, heaven and earth will watch and keep us on the path by their example. Heaven and earth not only listen to God, they do what they are supposed to do, e.g. the sun rises and sets, seed that is sown sprouts, donkeys carry burdens. Heaven and earth do this without reward, without regard to what will happen to their children, without concern for reward and punishment. They do not change from God's intention for them and neither should we.

At first God created the world with the upper realms for upper things, and the lower realms for the lower. But then Moses became a bridge: "And Moses went up to God (Ex. 19:3) "And God came down up Mount Sinai"(ib. 20) . God will redeem Israel only through bringing heaven to earth and earth to heaven: "Out of heaven God made you to hear the Voice, that God might teach you, and on earth God showed you the great fire (Deut.4:36)(Mid.R.v,2).

Like Moses, we, who contain both heaven and earth, are a link between them. It is with the physical, with our ears, eyes, and heart that we apprehend that which is spiritual. We cannot imagine God without emblems of earth: God is a rock and God's words are rain. And without God, we cannot understand earth.

Torah is a bridge, too. It comes from heaven yet is made of skin, ink, and human skill. "My lesson shall drop like rain, my saying shall flow down like the dew--like a downpour on the herb, like a shower on the grass"(Deut.32:2). Just as one rain falling on many trees gives to each a special savor in keeping with its species, so these words are one, yet within them are TaNakh, Mishnah, Halakhot, and Aggadot (sifr.Deut.). Once again we find a bridge, this time in the word.

Moses begins the exodus out of Egypt with a word song, or musical poem (Ex.15:1-18) and ends the journey with the song in HaAzinu. The exodus song expresses gratitude for Israel's physical salvation, i.e. not drowning in the Red Sea, while the second poem sings of that which cannot be seen, the future. The last song reveals a leader less worried about his people's material well-being than with their spiritual journey, and he hopes for an Israel that will prevail in spirit as well as body. The people need their home, but without God, it means nothing.

If, as Marshall McLuhan suggests, the medium is the message, why does Moses sing the lesson? Maybe the words near the end of the parashah offer a clue. "And Moses came and spoke all the words of this song in the ears of the people, he, and Hosea the son of Nun. When Moses made an end of speaking all these words to all Israel, he said unto them: 'Set your heart unto all the words I bear witness with you today, so that you may charge your children to observe to do all the words of this law'" [italics mine] (Deut 32: 44-46). Like a poem, all the words, concentrated, associative, and mysterious, count.

Rashi describes the words of Torah as "mountains suspended upon a hair", because each word is so packed with meaning, connection, and direction. Heaven is in each word, and no one word is more important than another. All of Torah is a song and not always plainly spoken. It is not merely allegory but invites, indeed requires, deeper inquiry and explanation. Moses warns that this is "no vain teaching for you." If we don't get it, it's not because the teaching is empty, but that we are.

In Chukkat, God tells Moses to use words to bring forth water from a rock, but Moses loses patience and instead of speaking to the rock, he strikes it twice with a stick, and water gushes out (Num.20:7-11). The thirsty Israelites were happy but God was not, because the gesture was merely physical, while the word was the spirit. If the Israelites had seen that a rock, without eyes and ears, responded not to a blow but to the word, then they would have learned to know God's power made manifest through the word.

In HaAzinu, why did Moses, who has been talking directly with the Israelites, gather them not to speak to them but to listen to him speak to heaven and earth? God created heaven and earth to praise God, but for this one moment Moses silences them, commanding them to listen. For this one moment, all listen. Sometimes listening is the hardest thing. We live in a time where we are afraid to listen, afraid of what we may or may not hear. Will we hear love and justice or will we hear envy and hatred? How can we hear God? Like the sh'ma, HaAzinu suggests that sometimes we need to sit quietly and listen; only then and there can we sense God's presence.

While words are a bridge between heaven and earth, it seems that we have yet to find the right combination of letters and words. Perhaps when we can do that, we will be able to read both the white and black fires, or languages, of Torah. The parashah begins with the word, "Listen," or "Give ear." May we remember to use whatever earthly gifts we may possess--our ears,eyes, hearts, and minds--to find, reach for, and plant heaven here.

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