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. But 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 stressed the importance of reciting the Song of Ha’azinu and knowing it by heart, “for it purifies the mind and heart ….”
But 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.
“For this commandment which I command you this day, is not concealed from you, it is not 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
Which “commandment” was Moshe Rabbeinu referring to? Many of the commentaries explain that Moshe was not referring to one specific mitzvah, rather to the Torah in its entirety. Moshe was telling the people, “although there are many mitzvos and expectations – do not get overwhelmed. There are many obligations and responsibilities, but you will succeed.” Others explain that the mitzvah (commandment) refers to the mitzvah of Teshuva (repentance and return). Although we may stray far from God, the ability and opportunity to return and rekindle the relationship is always available to us.
Whatever the precise definition may be – the message is the same. Creating personal holiness, cultivating a spiritual identity, cementing a passionate relationship with God may seem difficult, but all our spiritual aspirations are within reach
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) advances an alternate insight. Moshe says to the Jewish people:
Lo Ba’Shamayim Hi, It is not in the heavens – God does not ask you to live in the heavens. God does not expect us to achieve angelic perfection. He does not ask us to stop being human and live in the celestial sphere. He does not even demand of us to be wholly righteous
What does God ask of us?
Ki Karov Eylecha HaDavar, this thing is very close to you – Just reach a bit beyond yourself. Hashem wants us to grow. It does not have to be dramatic or heroic growth, just be a little more, just become a bit holier each and every day. When Yaakov fled from home to escape the wrath of Esav, he received a magnificent vision. He saw a ladder with its base on the earth, yet its top extended into the heavens. What was the meaning of this vision? Yaakov was to be the father of the 12 tribes, the father of Bnai Yisroel, and God was communicating to him the Divine expectations of Yaakov’s offspring. God says to us: “Life is a ladder – all I ask is that you try to advance up the rungs. You need not climb two at a time; you need not ascend at a quick pace, just climb. Just take the opportunities that are within reach (karov- close) and find a way to move yourself and your life forward.”
This was one of the last messages Moshe gave to our ancestors. Moshe who taught us so much, provided us with the Divine framework for successful living, concluded his tenure of leadership with a simple message. God does not expect perfection, God does not need us to be angels. He just wants us to grow. All Hashem desires is for us to climb the ladder of personal development and self-actualization
As we enter the Yomim Noraim we must feel confident and excited for the year ahead. There is much we must accomplish and much we must rectify. There are things which work well, things which need repair and things which must be fundamentally changed. But we must remember Rome was not built in a day. People are not built in a day. To fully actualize our potential takes years and for some, an entire lifetime. Yet, all God asks of us is just a little growth every day. All my Father desires is for me to try to climb up another rung. And if I fall, all He asks is for me to find the courage to begin the ascent once again. Ki Karov Eylecha HaDava, (it is very close to us) – happiness, fulfillment and self-actualization are all closer than we think. All we need to do is reach a bit beyond ourselves.
I want to take this opportunity to wish each of you Kesiva V’Chasima Tova. May each us, together with our families and our nation, be inscribed for year of life, growth, holiness, health, happiness, and redemption.
Moshe continued to inspire and direct the Jewish people towards a beautiful future with his loving and caring words:
“Now if you give ear to the voice of the Lord your God, and keep with care all these orders which I have given you today, then the Lord your God will put you high over all the nations of the earth: And all these blessings will come on you and overtake you, if your ears are open to the voice of the Lord your God. A blessing will be on you in the town, and a blessing in the field. A blessing will be on the fruit of your body, and on the fruit of your land, on the fruit of your cattle, the increase of your herd, and the young of your flock. A blessing will be on your basket and on your bread-basin. You shall be blessed when you come and blessed when you depart (Devorim 28:2-6).”
What is the meaning of this phrase, “You shall be blessed when you come and blessed when you depart”? The ancient commentary, Targum Yonason (Rabbi Yonason ben Uziel) explains, “You shall be blessed when you enter the Beis Midrash (study hall) and blessed when you go out to conduct business.” On a simple level, Moshe is telling the people that they will experience both spiritual and material blessing. Perhaps, on a deeper level, Moshe is explaining the need to take your values with you wherever you go. Some live life in a bifurcated state. I wear different personas in different situations. In Shul, I look one way, yet at home I am different person. I have one set of values in the office and another in the Beis Midrash. We must work hard to develop and solidify an unwavering code of ethics and morals that defines us, regardless of where we find ourselves. We must create an identity which is steeped in commitment to Torah, Halacha, and Hashem. We must then take this identity with us wherever we go. Whether we are in the business world or within the sacred walls of our Shul, our holiness and personal piety must always accompany us.
The Talmud discusses the importance of refraining from talking while putting on one’s Tefillin. Specifically, one must be careful not to speak between the donning of the Shel Yad (Tefillin put on the arm) and the Shel Rosh (Tefillin placed on the head). In fact, the Talmud explains that speaking between the Shel Yad and Shel Rosh is of such severity that a soldier who had done so would not go out to war (out of fear that he compromised his personal merits). What could be so terrible about this seemingly minor infraction? Rav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik (1903-1993) explains that the Shel Yad represents my actions; the Shel Rosh represents my thoughts and beliefs. There cannot be a disconnect between what I believe and what I do. The moment this disconnect occurs is the very moment in which a person is compromised. It is easy to articulate beliefs – our job is to live them. Our ideals, tenets of faith must follow us every were go and be manifest in the way we live life.
Moshe gave us so many blessings during his forty years of leadership, but nothing was as beautiful as the beracha in this week’s Parsha. “You shall be blessed when you come and blessed when you depart.” May you, my beloved flock, take your belief, holiness, and greatness with you on every step of the life journey ahead. Do not leave your ideals behind, do not speak between the Shel Yad and Shel Rosh. Allow your holy belief to inform the way you live and impact every aspect of your life.
“When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to take it; it shall be [left] for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord, your God, will bless you in all that you do.” (Devorim 25:19)
The harvest season was a joyous one for the farmer. Months of hard labor, weeks of uncertainty had finally yielded a beautiful bounty. It is in this very moment of harvest that God commands the farmer that if he inadvertently leaves behind some harvested grain, he must leave it for the poor. If the farmer complies, he is promised beautiful blessing from God. This became known as the mitzvah of shichicha (forgetfulness).
God will bless you – Although [the forgotten sheaf came into his hand without intention [of the owner]. How much more so [will one be blessed] if he did it deliberately! Hence, you must say that if someone dropped a sela, and a poor man found it and was sustained by it, then he [who lost the coin] will be blessed on its account. — [Sifrei 24:149]
Rashi was bothered by the idea that blessing would come on account of an unintentional act. After all, the farmer did not intend to give anything to the pauper. He would have preferred to prevent the sheaf from falling and being left behind. Yet, despite this “inadvertent mitzvah”, he receives blessing and reward from God. Why should the farmer be rewarded for this inadvertent act? A mitzvah is meaningful when it stems from a desire to serve God, infuse light into the world, and create purposeful change. The farmer forgot a sheaf of wheat. Why should this be counted as a mitzvah for which one receives reward?
The Ibn Ezra (Avraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra, 1089-1167) explains that nothing happens by accident. When the farmer leaves behind a sheaf of wheat, it stems from a subconscious desire to be charitable and provide for the poor. On a conscious level, the farmer wants to take in every last stalk, while on a subconscious level, he wants to share with his impoverished brothers and sisters. The mitzvah of shichicha shows us that on a subconscious level we want to do good. There are times in life when we are not conscious of what we want to do or who we want to become. Holiness is part of our core and the very fabric of our persona. This personalistic holiness presents itself in so many ways, including the things we forget in the field.
This idea is profound as it highlights a fundamental belief – at our core, we are holy and good. We do not believe that man is inherently evil and must overcome his innate darkness in order to become holy. We believe that man is inherently good, kind, charitable, and holy. God rewards for our inadvertent mitzvos as they highlight the holy subconscious we each possess.
As we progress through the month Elul and take stock of what we have and have not done, we sometimes feel depressed over our mistakes and missteps. We think that our mistakes have compromised our inner purity and have rendered us broken and at times, irreparable. The mitzvah of shichicha reminds me that no matter what I have done or how many mistakes I have made, holiness is part of my core. At times, my personal holiness may not be apparent on the conscious, visible level, but it is always present beneath the surface, just waiting to come out and illuminate the world.
“You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities that the Lord, your God, is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment.” (Devorim 16:18)
The beauty of our Torah lies in its ability to convey profound, life-enhancing messages in a nuanced and gentle manner. Moshe instructs us to set up judicial systems in each of our communities. The judges must be just, pious, and upright and dedicate themselves to upholding the rule of law. They may not give preferential treatment to one litigant over the other, and their conduct, both in and out of the court, must be beyond reproach. They must overcome their fear of the powerful and not instinctively side with the poor. Their ultimate allegiance is to God, the Torah, and the creation and preservation of a just society.
The great Chassidic master, Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809), sees an additional, spiritual and interpersonal message in this verse. During this month of Elul, we prepare for the upcoming Days of Judgement, Yimei HaDin. We ask God for mercy and compassion. We ask our Father to look at us through the Divine lens of Rachamim (compassion) and not through the prism of Din (justice). How do we “convince” God to make this shift? After all, if I have done something wrong, if I have committed some relationship trespass against God, what right do I have to ask for the mercy? If I have committed the “crime”, am I am not deserving of the punishment?
The Rebbe explains that our actions in this world impact and inform the way God acts towards us. The Baal Shem Tov explains that God is like our shadow (Hashem Tzilcha –Psalms 121:5); meaning just as my shadow mimics my every move, so too, God’s reaction towards me is a reflection of my actions towards others. Thus, if we want Divine compassion and mercy, we must extend those very traits and behaviors towards others. If I want God to give me the benefit of the doubt, I must extend that same courtesy to another. If I want God to see beyond my faults and shortcomings, I must strive to do this for those around me. If I want God to bestow blessing upon me, I must go out of my way to bestow upon others. If I want God to help me in difficult times, I must be ready to roll up my sleeves and help another in his time of need.
This is the meaning of the above-mentioned verse. “Shoftim V’Shotrim Titen Lecha B’chol She’arecha, (you shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in your cities)” – I have the ability to influence Divine judgment through the judgements I make within my own city, within my own world. “V’shaftu Es Ha’am Mishpat Tzedek, (you shall judge the people righteously)” – If I judge the other with compassion, if I judge the other with mercy, if I give the other the benefit of the doubt – I will bring down Divine compassion from above.
It is during this sacred month that we must prepare ourselves to give an accounting of the past year and to ask for another year in which we can accomplish and be productive. We all need a bit of Divine compassion, Rachamim to help us through this process. We learn from this opening verse that the best way to convince God to take care of us is to take care of one another. If we shower compassion, mercy, and love upon one another; if we are a bit less critical of one another; we will be privileged to receive a generous dose of Rachamim from our Father above.
Let us learn this lesson, let us live this lesson, and in its merit, may we all be inscribed in the Book of Life.