Parashat Ha-azinu/Shabbat Shuva

Parashat Ha’azinu/Shabbat Shuva
Susan Elkodsi

Shabbat Shuva carries with it an air of redemption, for ourselves as individuals, and for the Jewish people as a whole. Parashat Ha’azinu, which we read on Shabbat Shuva this year, carries that message from God, through Moses, to the Israelites perched on the banks of the Jordan ready to cross into the Promised Land. Ha’azinu is Moses’ final discourse, his instructions to the people, but it isn’t a “rah rah go get ’em” commencement type of speech. Yes, it’s a message of hope for the future, but before we get there, we have to listen to a lot of scolding and admonition regarding the sins of the previous generations.

This could explain why the parashah begins, Ha’azinu hashamayim v’adabeira, v’tishma ha-aretz imrei-fi. “Give ear, heavens, and I will speak, the earth will hear my speech.” (Deut. 32:1) If this is a message for the people, why is Moses calling on the heavens and the earth to listen? We know from reciting and studying the Shema that shin-mem-ayin doesn’t just
mean “to hear.” It suggests action: listen… pay attention… hear what I have to say, as opposed to “sit back and relax.” Do we take this verse literally, suggesting that the coming words are directed at the stars and the moon, the trees and the rocks, as well as the people? Or is it metaphorical?

Bringing heaven and earth into the equation suggests that there is a greater community that’s celestial and spiritual, yet earthly and basic. There is a synergy in nature that we human beings are part of, and that concept is reinforced in the next verse, Ya’aroph kamatar likhi, tizal katal imrati, kise’irim alei desheh, vekhirvivim alei esev. “May my discourse come down as the rain, My speech distill as the dew, like showers on young growth, like droplets on the grass.” (Deut. 32:2) Even though at the time it was probably assumed that both rain and dew came down to earth from heaven, the two forms of precipitation behave differently and have different purposes.

The commentary in the Hertz Chumash suggests that the tender grass requires the gentleness of the dew, while the hardier herbs, can withstand the force of the rain or the shower. Perhaps Moses’ words were like dew for the younger people hearing him, the words gently settling over them as dew settles on the grass. The adults, who were closer to the previous generation, needed to be hit with a more forceful rain shower.

The Etz Chaim Chumash (p. 1185) quotes the Hatam Sofer, one of Europe’s leading rabbis in the early part of the 19th century, as saying that the words are directed to “you spiritual people whose thoughts are in heaven, and also you down-to-earth people whose concerns are more material. This message is meant for all of you.” We can guess at what R. Sofer meant by the spiritual and down-to-earth people, but his comment suggests that it’s human nature to think that a message such as this isn’t meant for us, it’s meant for “them.” It could also mean that the “spiritual” person is a leader as opposed to a common person; all must heed the words. Including heaven and earth, further support this idea of inclusiveness. Rashi said that the heavens and earth would stand as witnesses to God’s words to the people, witnesses that would endure long after Moses was gone. After all, what is there to prevent Israel from insisting it didn’t enter into a covenant with God at Mt. Sinai if there are no witnesses?

How often do we as parents or children have arguments over what was or wasn’t said or promised? It’s human nature to have selective hearing and selective memories. The Israelites who would inhabit the land weren’t the ones witnessing the revelation at Sinai. They weren’t the ones creating the Golden Calf, grumbling about manna, stirring up dissent or worshipping other gods. And with the change in leadership from Moses to Joshua, what was there to prevent the people from deciding that what their parents had accepted and embraced didn’t work for them in their new lives as free people settled in the land?

In discussing this parashah, it was pointed out to me that the root for ha’azinu, namely, alef, zayin, nun, not only means “listen,” but also carries the connotation of “balance.” The heavens and the earth balance each other to provide a stable world for people and all creatures, and the harsh words of the poem are balanced with a message of comfort and redemption at the end, where we are told that God would avenge the Israelites, and cleanse the land. It’s an historical, yet prophetic message, similar to those of Jeremiah and other prophets who followed Moses. Together with Joshua, Moses reminds the Israelites that they need to absorb these words, they need to make them part of themselves and they need to teach them to their children, because Israel’s survival as a nation depends on it.

Anyone who has ever had an ear infection know how ears and balance are intertwined, which adds another dimension to the parashah… that we need to hear, to listen, and to pay attention to what is around us in order have balance in our lives.

We are created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image, but we are not perfect. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, we will make mistakes. We will sin. We may even turn away from God or others. The message of Parashat Ha’azinu and of Shabbat Shuva reminds us that all is not lost. We have the opportunity to remember the past and to use that knowledge and experience to create a better future, for ourselves, for our communities, and for the world.


Susan Elkodsi is a rabbinical student at AJR and part-time clergy at Temple Beth El in Troy, New York.