“Invoking Heaven and Earth”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

It seems so natural to always begin the New Year with parashat Haazinu, the majestic song of Moses, which he sang moments before his passing. For those who read the parasha in translation, so much is lost–it is like kissing the bride through the veil. The Hebrew words are truly extraordinary, the poetry is exalted, and its message, profoundly elevating.

The late Bible scholar W. Gunther Plaut keenly established the context of the Haazinu message in his contemporary commentary, by writing:

The Bible ascribes three songs to Moses, of which two are in the Torah: One delivered after Israel’s rescue from the Reed Sea, at the beginning of the desert wanderings (Exodus 15), and the other here, at the end. These two poems may therefore be seen to frame the wilderness experience, and though on the surface they appear to serve different purposes–the first a thanksgiving hymn, the second a poem of the future–they both deal with Israel’s survival. At the sea, the physical existence of the nation was assured, but the forty years that followed put its spiritual future in doubt. Now at the borders of the Promised Land, Moses celebrates the eventual realization of G-d’s will for His people. He sings a hymn of hope to an Israel that will prevail in spirit as well as in body.

Gunther Plaut further describes the essence of the Haazinu message as follows:

The poem warns; it instructs; it gives hope. Israel’s past history has amply demonstrated G-d’s love and care, and these will not be found wanting in the future. Rebellion against His law may put Israel in dire straits, but in the end G-d will be shown not to have forgotten the people He had created. At the close of the recital, Moses is bidden to ascend Mount Nebo and prepare for death.

Notwithstanding the extreme drama of the moment–-the last day of Moses’ life–and despite being the longtime leader of Israel, the burning question remains: How does Moses, the mortal disciple, dare to attempt to sum up the past, present and future of Jewish life? How does this audacious man, who is called by the Torah, Numbers 12:3, “the meekest man on earth,” and who once described himself as, Exodus 4:10, כְבַד פֶּה וּכְבַד לָשׁוֹן, אָנֹכִי, unable to speak, a stammerer, a stutterer, suddenly feel so confident as G-d’s representative, revealing no compunction about predicting Israel’s future. Added to this, this bold former shepherd audaciously calls upon heaven and earth, to enlist their services as witnesses to the words that he is about to speak. Deuteronomy 32:1 reads: הַאֲזִינוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם, וַאֲדַבֵּרָה, וְתִשְׁמַע הָאָרֶץ, אִמְרֵי פִי, Give ear, O Heavens, and I will speak; may the earth hear the words of my mouth. Who is this man, who as a child was found in the little ark in the bulrushes, and who now presumes to speak for G-d, shamelessly invoking heaven and earth?

The commentators explain Moses’ presumptuousness by referring to the very next verse, Deuteronomy 32:3, כִּי שֵׁם השׁם אֶקְרָא,  הָבוּ גֹדֶל לֵאלקינוּ, When I call out the name of the L-rd, ascribe greatness to our G-d. Everything that Moses does is not at all for his own self-aggrandizement, but to honor G-d. The only reason that Moses calls on heaven and earth to testify is to enhance the glory of the Al-mighty.

The Peninim on the Torah tells the story of the famous Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman (1874-1941), who was murdered at the hands of the Nazis and who once ascended to the lectern in his community of Baranovich, Poland, and began to speak, like Moses, invoking the heavens and the earth. Who was the Rosh Yeshiva of Baranovich, who had the audacity to invoke heaven and earth in G-d’s name? Rabbi Wasserman too was not seeking glory for himself, but rather was seeking to bring greater honor to G-d.

In his brief speech, Reb Elchanan explained:

A similar idea applies to each and every one of us, as we stand, once again, at this time of year, entreating Hashem for yet another year of life, of health, happiness and prosperity. We have to ask ourselves: ‘Why are we asking? In what merit are we asking? What right do we have to ask? Are we that deserving?’

If we ask for כְּבוֹד שָׁמַיִם, to glorify heaven, to give honor to Hashem, however, that is a different story. If we ask to live so that we can provide our children with Torah true חִנּוּך (education); if we are asking for health, so that we can serve Him better; if we ask for prosperity so that we have the ability to help others; if we ask for the ability to study more Torah, in order to perform more mitzvot with greater enthusiasm–then, we have a right to ask. Indeed, under such circumstances, we are empowered to ask.

Moses’ final message is hardly bold or audacious. Rather, it is an empowering message, transferring the authority to speak in G-d’s name from one generation to the next, to ensure that the new transmitters will be loyal and faithful to the Al-mighty, as the old ones were.

During these fateful days of judgment, let us embrace this responsibility, resolving to transmit G-d’s message, a message that will serve as a vital link in the chain of continuity of Jewish life. We, too, can become contemporary prophets, bringing G-d’s words to the world, enlightening humankind with His transcendent message of goodness and grace.

May you be blessed.

Wishing you a שָׁנָה טוֹבָה Shana Tovah, a very Happy and Healthy New Year.

Rosh Hashanah 5775 is observed this year on Wednesday evening and all day Thursday and Friday, September 24th, 25th and 26th, 2014.

The Fast of Gedaliah will be observed on Sunday, September 28th from dawn until nightfall.