“האזינו השמים ואדברה ותשמע הארץ אמרי פי”
“Listen, O heavens, and I will speak! And let the earth hear the words of my mouth!” (Devorim 32:1)
People relate to music in different ways. Some enjoy slow, melodic tunes which create the inner space for contemplation and introspection. Others enjoy upbeat and fast paced music which allows for a sense of simcha and excitement. Parshas Ha’azinu contains Moshe Rabbeinu’s shira (song). But this song is neither slow nor fast, instead it is a song of testimony.
As the nation prepares to enter the Land of Israel, Moshe has important information and direction he must share. In this song of Ha’azinu, Moshe reminds the people of their responsibilities to themselves, their nation and their God. The shira is filled with both joy and sadness. Joy over the beautiful connection we have with our Father, and sadness as there are times when we leave, forsake and abandon Him. Despite the valleys and low points of the relationship, our collective heart is always with Hashem and we know that His Divine heart is always with us. The Maharal of Prague and the Maggid of Mezeritch stress the importance of reciting the song of Ha’azinu and knowing it by heart, “for it purifies the mind and heart ….”
Shira is not simply a song, it is one of the most pure and beautiful expressions of love, devotion and commitment. Henry Giles, an English preacher in the mid-1800’s, wrote: “A song will outlive all sermons in the memory.” When there is a need to express something more profound than the simple meaning of spoken words, shira begins where words end.
Why did Moshe choose to deliver his last messages in the form of a shira?
Rabbi Aharon Soloveitchik of blessed memory, in his comments on Shiras HaYam (the song recited by the nation of Israel upon crossing the Red Sea), explains: “Shira is appropriate only when one attains a victory—and to be a victor one must actively participate in the struggle” (The Warmth and the Light, Feldheim, p. 129).
Shira can only be sung when one has accomplished something of epic proportions. Shira is the melodic culmination of man’s work, toil and struggle to accomplish a particular goal. In order to cross the sea, the people had to summon incredible inner strength and belief in themselves and God. After walking into the roaring waves and emerging on the other side they sang shira reflecting their incredible spiritual accomplishment.
Perhaps this is why Moshe chose to conclude his life and begin the next chapter of the Jewish narrative with shira. Moshe told the people: My children, you have triumphed. There were times during our forty-year journey when it looked as if we would not make it. There were times when you wanted to give up; there were times when I felt I could not go on. But you persevered, we persevered, and we stand just mere steps away from the realization of our destiny. You have made it this far, and I know that you can be successful in the future. My happiness and pride are so great that I cannot capture it in words. I choose to express it in shira.
As we stand on the brink of a new year, there are many uncertainties. But one thing is certain: we will face challenges. There will be both national and individual hurdles and obstacles we must traverse. May we find the strength to embrace and overcome our challenges. May we merit to lead lives of spiritual accomplishment. May we find the courage to create the melodic notes of our personal shira.
If there is one prayer that resonates in the heart of every Jew it is Kol Nidrei. The very tune is haunting yet enchanting, saddening yet uplifting. Yet, when one looks at the words – they seem to be anything but inspirational. Kol Nidrei is a form of Hataras Nedorim, revocation of vows. We begin the holiest day of the year by releasing ourselves from the vows of the past and proactively annulling the vows of the future. On a legal level this is very important as violating one’s vow is considered a severe transgression. We do whatever we can to repent and absolve ourselves of sin as we enter this sacred day. And still, we find ourselves confounded by a basic question: of all the beautiful prayers we have in our liturgy, why begin the holiest day of the year with revocation of vows? There are many prayers with moving words, prayers that capture the true essence of Yom Kippur; prayers that speak to the theme of purity and repentance. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to use some of these prayers as the liturgical introduction to this holy day? Why do we begin with Kol Nidrei? What is the message?
Perhaps, to answer this question we must strive to understand the purpose and power of a neder (vow). The paradigmatic neder is the Nazirite vow. A person takes a vow to abstain from wine and cutting his hair. The Nazir is forgoing certain physical pleasures and choosing to place less emphasis on his “self.” Why would a person do such a thing? The Rabbis explain – because deep down he knows he can be something more, deep down he knows he possesses greatness within but needs the proper framework to extract it. He needs to shift the focus from pleasure seeking to purpose seeking. Sometimes in life we need a push; we need some level of tension to actualize our potential. This is the neder – the binding promise which creates the framework to allow the individual to access his internal reservoir of potential.
To take this one step further, perhaps, the neder can be viewed as a personal aspiration or dream. I know where I am now, and I know where I need to be; the neder is the vehicle to help me bridge the gap. The neder creates a legal reality in which I must actively work to actualize my dream/aspiration. But there is a danger in dreaming – many dreams fail to materialize, many dreams come crashing down, many dreams end in disappointment. When one experiences too many failed dreams, one loses his resolve and courage to dream any more. It is too hard to leave oneself open to hurt and feelings of failure; better to live without dreams than to dream and fail.
This coming Tuesday night when we enter the hallowed sanctity of Yom Kippur, we reflect on last year and realize that many of the things we wanted to do, we didn’t. Many of the dreams we had remain unrealized or worse, ended in failure. And so, the first thing we do on this sacred day is revocation of vows, Hataras Nedorim – we let go of our failed dreams. We let go of the unrealized dreams of last year. We let go because we will not allow ourselves to be burdened by the yolk of failed dreams. Carrying around these failures can be stifling. We let go in order to dream anew.
This is our mandate over Yom Kippur – dream a new dream! Ask yourself, who do I want to be? What do I want my life to look like? What do I need to accomplish? We unburden ourselves in order to fill our hearts and souls with new, magnificent and holy dreams for the coming year. There is no better, more appropriate way to start this special day than with the recitation of Kol Nidrei.
I hope and pray that we will each find the courage to dream a new dream. Let us hope that God sees the beauty in our dreams and gives us the strength to make them come true.
G’mar Chasima Tova and Good Shabbos
In one of his final addresses to the Jewish people, Moshe says,
“For this commandment which I command you this day, is not concealed from you, nor is it far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?’ Rather, [this] thing is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it (Devorim 30:11-14).”
The commentaries are bothered by one simple question, “which commandment is Moshe referring to?” Some explain that Moshe is actually referring to the Torah in its entirety. The Ramban (Nachmanidies, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270) explains that Moshe Rabbeinu is referring to the mitzvah (commandment) of teshuva (repentance). Moshe is telling the people that the ability to return and reconnect with God is not beyond us. We do not require an intermediary, expert or someone more spiritually skilled to help re-forge and reinvigorate the bond with our Father Above. “Ki karov elecha haDavar miod, b’ficha, u’bilivavcha (this thing is very close to you, it is in your mouth and in your heart).”
Rav Avraham Tzukerman zt’l (Rosh Yeshiva Kfar HaRoeh) explains, “Ki mikora shel nishmas ha’adam hu mi’limala….V’ha’adam sho’eyf tamid lashuv l’mikoro (the source of man’s soul is above – in the celestial sphere – and he yearns perpetually to return to his source).” The desire to return is innate. The desire to have a close connection and passionate relationship with God is woven in to the very fabric of our spiritual DNA. Although the body was fashioned from the earth, the soul comes from above and yearns to reconnect.
Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook zt’l (1865-1935) offers a beautiful parable. When a chick is ready to hatch, it begins to slowly peck at the shell. When it makes the first hole it then begins to peck harder, ultimately thrusting its head through the small opening. How does the chick know that there is a whole world waiting on the outside? How does the chick know that what is on the other side of the shell is better than its current circumstances? “Elah zohi techushato ha’tiviit, ha’locheshet lo sod zeh (rather, this is its internal intuition and nature which whispers this secret).” Just as the chick instinctively knows what to do to get to a better place, the soul knows what to do to reconnect with God.
We often find ourselves encased by the shell of our reality. For some of us the shell is a result of decisions we made or did not make. For others the shell is a result of circumstances beyond one’s control. This life shell makes us feel removed and so distant from the Heavens above. Rosh Hashanah is the time to peck away at that which confines and limits us. Rosh Hashanah is a time to think beyond our shell and realize that there is a beautiful world with so much opportunity that awaits us. Rosh Hashanah is a time to realize that we can have a meaningful and passionate relationship with God. It is within reach. It is innate. It is possible. “It is very close to you.” Let us each find the strength to open our heart and allow our soul to go where it knows it needs to go.
I want to take this opportunity to wish each of you Kesiva V’Chasima Tova. May each of us, together with our families, and our nation, be inscribed for a year of growth, holiness, health, happiness and most importantly – redemption.
“And it will be if you obey the Lord, your God, to observe and fulfill all His commandments which I command you this day, the Lord, your God, will place you supreme above all the nations of the earth…You shall be blessed when you come, and you shall be blessed when you depart.” (Devorim 28:1,6)
Moshe conveys a seemingly simple idea: do what God asks and in turn, God will take care of you. Heed the commandments, follow the rules, and God will bless you with financial prosperity and regional security. But what is the meaning of the last verse? What was Moshe referring to when he said that we will be blessed “when you come” and “when you depart?”
It is here that I would like to share with you three different approaches, which coalesce into a meaningful and important three-pronged lesson:
Rabbi Moshe Alshich (1508-1593) explains:
“You came into this world with nothing – yet, you felt blessed and happy. Your departure from this world should be the same.”
We often attribute our lack of happiness to something material which is missing. If I only I had this or that – I would be so much happier. Possessions are certainly wonderful and can make life more enjoyable, but they can’t create happiness. True happiness comes from within. True happiness is the state of being which occurs when you know you are living a meaningful life, making a difference and accomplishing what God put you on this world to do. We come into this world with nothing, yet, we manage to find happiness. The things we own don’t generate happiness, it is the intangibles within which create true simcha (joy).
Yonosson ben Uziel explains this phrase in a different way:
“You shall be blessed when you enter the Beis Midrash (study hall) and blessed when you go out to conduct business.”
We must take our spiritual ideals with us wherever we go. Whether you are in the Beis Midrash or in the Board Room, the same set of values must inform the way we live and the decisions we make. Torah and mitzvos don’t only provide guidance in the framework of our religious lives during moments of religious study and worship. God’s word affords us clarity and direction when going out into the world as well.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) adds an additional dimension of understanding:
“May you be blessed in your home life and may you find blessing in your communal life.”
We must take the personal blessings that God gives us and use them to enrich the lives of those around us. We can’t just live for ourselves. We must avoid the trap of egocentricity and self-centeredness. We must avoid the temptation to keep and use our blessings for ourselves and no one else. Whatever you have been given in life, find a way to share and give to those around you. Don’t wait to be asked to help – be proactive. If you see there is someone in need or something that needs to get done, roll up your sleeves and do it.
Our great prophet and teacher Moshe taught many life lessons, but it is in this week’s Parsha he shares with us perhaps, three of the most important ideas for successful living:
Lesson #1: Happiness doesn’t come from anything you can acquire – it only comes from a feeling of personal accomplishment and fulfillment.
Lesson #2: Take your spiritual values with you wherever you go in life and allow them to shape and inform your personal behavior wherever you may be.
Lesson #3: Use your blessings for the benefit or your community and your people. Don’t live in a bubble, be ever cognizant and aware of how you can help the other.
These are the lessons our ancestors learned so many years ago and they are the lessons we must internalize today.
“When you build a new house, you shall make a fence (guard-rail) for your roof, so that you shall not cause blood to be spilled in your house, that the one who falls should fall from it [the roof].” (Devorim 22:8)
We must learn to be vigilant. We must take great care to avoid harming or injuring a fellow Jew. We must even make sure that my property doesn’t pose a risk to the other. In Biblical times, roofs were often flat (as they were used to dry produce and for other related activities of daily living) and therefore, fences had to be constructed around one’s roof to ensure that no one would fall. On the most basic level, the Torah is instilling within us a heightened sensitivity for the other. We can’t harm with our words, our fists or our roof; we must be ever cognizant and aware of the safety and security of the other.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson 1902-1994) explains this verse as a metaphoric message:
“Ki sivneh bayis chadash, (when you build a new house)” – The home represents a new life initiative. When you embark upon something new …
“V’asisa maakeh l’gagecha, (you shall make a fence for your roof)” – You must set boundaries. Just as the fence is the boundary for the roof, we must learn to make boundaries in life.
Life is filled with much new construction. We build new relationships and careers. We start new journeys and explore new possibilities. Whenever we start something new, we must learn to establish appropriate boundaries and erect the necessary fences. Our careers may thrust us into a world that does not share our values and ideals. The demands and expectations of the work force may put us in situations of spiritual and moral discomfort. What fences must be created to ensure that we don’t lose our spiritual identities while climbing the ladder of success? What can we each do to protect our personal holiness even while spending our days in environments which may not be conducive to personal growth?
Marriage requires a great deal of effort and attention. At times we take liberties with the dignity, honor or feelings of a beloved spouse. At times we do things which are hurtful, insensitive and demeaning. What fences do we need to create in our marriages to ensure that we are each behaving as a proper spouse, nurturing marital love and growth.
On a personal level, we are often bombarded by temptation and desire. What fences should we create for ourselves to ensure that we continue down the path of growth and not fall into the abyss of personalistic darkness?
In life, we are constantly embarking on new construction. We construct homes of careers, marriages and develop ourselves. Each of these beautiful homes require a fence. It is the fences of self-discipline, moral clarity, spiritual motivation and desire for growth which ensure that which we build will be beautiful, fulfilling and safe for ourselves and for those whom we love.