“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 allow 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 that 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 closeto 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, return). 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 into the very fabric of our
spiritual DNA. Although the body was fashioned from the earth, the soul comes from above and yearns
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 hearts 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 us together with
our families and our nation be inscribed for a year of growth, holiness, health, happiness, and most
importantly – redemption
In his final days with his beloved nation, Moshe tries to give proper instruction to his beloved people. “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 last phrase, “Baruch ata b’voecha, u’baruch ata b’tzeysecha, you shall be blessed when you come and blessed when you depart”? Rashi explains, “Your departure from the world should be like
your arrival to the world. The same way that your arrival was without sin (cheyt), so your departure should be without sin (cheyt).” But how are we to understand this statement? There is no person who is without sin.
Even the most righteous and devout of people possess shortcomings, faults, and make mistakes.
To fully appreciate this statement, we need a new definition of the word “cheyt.” The Maharal (Rabbi Judah Lowe 1526-1609) explains that we often assume the word “cheyt” means sin – but in fact, it means empty or
void. Sin has repercussions. I have done something wrong, and now there is a resulting negative impact that manifests itself in punishment. We do believe that every action has a reaction. We do believe that just as
every mitzvah has rewards, every sin has repercussions as well. But we also believe in the mercy and love of God. We know that Hashem loves us in ways that we cannot comprehend. We know that with sincere
teshuva (repentance) we can negate the punishments and negative decrees. As such, the real collateral damage of sin is not punishment – it is the distance. You see, every time I sin, I create a distance, a chasm
between myself and Hashem. Every time I sin, I push myself away from my Father and find it difficult to connect and feel His presence in my life. This is the tragic reality of our negative reactions – distance from
Him who we need most. Sin represents a violation of the sacred trust between me and God. In relationships, a breach of trust creates a distance between the parties. This is true with people, and it is true with God. This
is the sad reality created by sin. We have the ability to bridge this distance through prayer, chessed (acts of kindness), and teshuva (repentance).
“Your departure from the world should be like your arrival to the world; the same way that your arrival was without cheyt, so your departure should be without cheyt – perhaps, in this context, cheyt doesn’t mean sin –
it means emptiness or a void. Moshe was trying to teach the Jewish people a magnificent lesson. When a baby comes into this world, it doesn’t take much to make the infant happy. If the baby has a mother to hold
him, a warm blanket, and his mother’s milk, he is content. He doesn’t feel like he is deficient or lacking anything. Now, it is possible that another baby has a warmer blanket, a fancier bassinet, or designer onesies,
but our first little baby is completely unaware. He simply basks in the happiness of what he has without feeling deficient because someone else may have more. Moshe Rabbeinu blesses his beloved flock and tells
them, “the same way when you entered this world you didn’t feel deficient, you were happy with the blessings you had and content with the life you were given, I give you the beracha that you should leave this world in
the same state, feeling content with your blessings and appreciating the beautiful gifts of life.”
As we prepare to enter the sacred days of Rosh Hashanah, we begin to think about all of the things we need. We will ask God for health, livelihood, success, and happiness. We will pray for the safety and success of our
children and our people. But it is equally as important to stop and appreciate all we have been given. Too often, we feel a void because we don’t have as much as the other. Too often, we measure our blessings
against the blessings of our neighbor. We must learn to find happiness in what we have, and we must learn to express gratitude for what we have been given.
May we be privileged to feel the contentment of our youth throughout our entire life.
לא תראה את שור אחיך או את שיו נדחים והתעלמת מהם השב תשיבם לאחיך
You may not observe your brother’s ox or his sheep lost and conceal yourself from them; you must surely
return them to your brother (Devorim 22:1).
The Torah introduces us to the obligation of Hashovas Aveidah (returning lost objects). If I stumble upon the lost object of another, I am obligated to collect it and try to identify the owner. This obligation may pose difficulties or create great inconvenience, yet the Torah encourages me not to turn a blind eye and pretend as if I didn’t see the object. Hasheyv Tishe’veym, you must surely return the object to your brother. This mitzvah is part of our code of chessed (kindness); a code which lays the foundation for our entire system of behavior and conduct.
The Ibn Ezra (Rav Avraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra, 1089-1164) makes a fascinating observation. This mitzvah follows on the heels of the laws of war (as stated earlier in the Parsha). What is the nature of this juxtaposition? What is the connection between Ki teitzei la’milchama al oyvecha, when you go out to war against your enemies and returning lost objects? The Ibn Ezra explains that the obligation of Hashovas Aveidah (returning lost property) applies even when one is going out to war.
Upon further reflection, this statement of the Ibn Ezra is exceptionally profound. One could only imagine the intensity of emotion experienced by the solider as he readied himself to leave his home and fight for his people. On one hand he was filled with confidence and assured of the holiness, meaning, and necessity of the battle he was about to wage; yet there must have been sadness, anxiety, and uncertainty as he bid farewell to his family, wondering if this would be the last time he would hold his wife and kiss his children. As he marched into battle, he had to be ready to take life and not allow his emotions to eclipse his sense of duty. In the midst of all this inner turmoil, if the solider were to come upon a lost lamb grazing by the side of the road, he would be expected to try to find its owner. How are we to understand this? Shouldn’t the Torah exempt an individual who is about to go out to war from the performance of this mitzvah? Isn’t readying oneself for battle considered a mitzvah which should exempt the soldier from the performance of other mitzvos (in this case returning the lost object)?
Rav Henoch Leibowitz zt’l (Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim, 1918-2008) explains that we have the ability (and obligation) to be sensitive to the needs of the other, even in the most trying of times. Our mind may be occupied with our own survival; nevertheless, we can and must be conscious of our neighbor’s needs at all times.
There are times when we encounter personal difficulties and challenges. There are times when we are overwhelmed by the enormity of our circumstances. There are times when our “plate is full” with various life stressors. It can happen that during these times of personal stress we lash out at others and justify these behaviors by pointing to the intensity of our circumstances. We learn from the mitzvah of Hashovas Aveidah that we must uphold the highest standards of interpersonal conduct even during personally trying times. We must always be conscious and attentive to the needs of others even when we are in the midst of personal challenges.
This lesson resonates with particular meaning during this month of Elul. It is during these days leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that we try to introspect, reflect, and make a plan for the future. We are focused on fixing our flaws and building on our accomplishments. Even during such an important time, we can never become so focused on ourselves that we lose sight of the other. Even as we continue to grow as individuals, we must be cognizant of the other right beside us.
We learn from this Parsha that a Baal Chessed (kind individual) is not someone who engages in random acts of kindness, rather, he is someone who maintains a continuous sensitivity to the needs of others in all circumstances and at all times.