“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.
Teachings from the sefer Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh
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.
Teachings from the sefer Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh
Weekly class delivered at WITS/Machon Ohr Yehudis in Baltimore.