September 21st, 2018

In Parshat Ha’azinu Moshe puts his final words into song telling us to put it in our mouths, meaning to recite and possibly to learn it by heart. The song is set all the way through with the short lyrical verses, and the words give our sages leeway for many interpretations. Moshe opens “Listen (Ha’azinu) heaven and I will speak and let the earth hear (Vetishma) the words of my mouth.” Rashi tells us that Moshe hints that he will not be around for much longer, but the heaven and earth will be with us eternally to bear witness to our covenant with Hashem. In addition this implies that the heaven will only provide us with the rain the earth needs if we keep to the right path, as we are told in the second paragraph of the Shema. More mystical interpretations remind us that the Torah opens in Bereshit – “In the beginning Hashem created the heaven and the earth, and the earth was nothing (tohu vavohu), and Moshe is telling us without the Torah the earth will return to void.

There is much discussion of the difference between listening and hearing and in the simplest terms we can understand it as listening refers to concentrating and being close by, particularly as the word for listening comes from the word for an ear, whereas hearing is what we hear without necessarily concentrating. Interestingly, many years later, Isaiah opens his prophesy with “Hear (shimu) within the heavens, and listen (Ha’azini) earth,” opposite to Moshe, and the Midrash Sifri tells us that Moshe was closer to heaven and received the full message and understanding of the Torah. However I think we should really understand this as that when Moshe was speaking to his flock they had been under the shadow of close contact as in the wilderness and Bnei Yisrael, for better or for worse, interacted directly with Hashem, whereas Isaiah is talking to a people much like ourselves, living day to day lives without the feeling of direct influence of Hashem, a far more difficult challenge.

In an usual turn, the Chizkuni who lived in the 13th century probably in France, and bases most of commentary on Midrash and Rashi, looks at Moshe’s opening words in the opposite way. He suggests that listening refers to someone distant making an effort to listen, Hearing on the other hand is the passive action of hearing without making an effort and suggests that this actually makes more of a subliminal imprint on the mind. His views the different situations of Moshe and Isaiah, Moshe is at the end of his journey and these are his last efforts whereas Isaiah is at the beginning of his long journey of prophesy asking for the heavens to help bring his message down to earth which he hopes over time to imprint on the minds of Israel in his lengthy prophesies.

Which ever way we look at it, Moshe’s swan song is another way in which he gives us a special gift in a flow of poetry, which perhaps we should learn by heart. I was reminded of something we say in our prayers on Rosh Hashana – “For you (Hashem) hear the sound of the shofar and listen to the truah.” We are commanded just to hear the shofar which we all hear, old or young religious or not, and whether we understand it’s message or not we ask Hashem to listen to our prayers, and it is always special to see those who come in to the shool just to hear the shofar at the end of fast.

My father z”l had a really beautiful voice which I have not inherited and even when older would always wish to be a chazan on Yom Kippur, as he was aware that his father had been led to his death in Treblinka around this time of year. Recently when in London one of the members of the Golders Green Shteibel, where the honours were auctioned, told me that my father would buy this gentleman Maftir Yona, as a thank you for being invited over Shabbat, and made sure he paid for it before travelling to Israel for Succot and so he did in his final year not knowing that his time was to come on the day after Simchat Torah where he died in Israel. May their souls rest in peace.