Our Torah reading this Shabbat is Ha’azinu, a song through which Moses gives his final instructions to the Jewish people.
This portion, Deuteronomy Chapter 32, is read either on Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as is the case this year, or on the Shabbat following Yom Kippur.
Haazinu is an unusual Hebrew term for the command Listen, which usually is expressed by the word shma. In the King James Bible, Haazinu is translated as “Give me your ear,” which Shakespeare, writing decades before the publication of this earliest English translation of the Bible, already had appropriated in his play “Julius Caesar.” Both the biblical word haazinu and Shakespeare’s use of it are literary ways to call upon the reader and listener to pay special attention to what is to follow.
Samson Raphael Hirsch, the great 19th-century German Jewish Torah scholar, suggests that the word haazinu expresses a greater readiness to listen and pay attention than does the word sh’ma. Sh’ma, Rabbi Hirsch suggests in his commentary on our parsha, does not require the listener’s active response, while haazinu is a direct call for the listener to engage.
During the month of Elul this year, as I prepared myself spiritually for these days of awe, reflection, and introspection, I found myself thinking about whether there is a meaningful difference for me between these two biblical synonyms. Living in an age of media overload, we literally hear so many opinions that claim to be the truth that it has become harder and harder to differentiate between fact and fiction, truth and deceit, information and propaganda. I often find myself unable to pay attention to everything I am hearing.
One of the central prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is Avinu Malkeynu. Through this prayer we can acknowledge God as both avinu, our parent, and malkeynu, our sovereign. Our confessional prayers on Yom Kippur will all be phrased in the plural. Each of us may not be guilty of all the transgressions we recite, but all of us are responsible to haazinu, pay attention, to the brokenness of our world, both the physical planet upon which we live, and the human society in which we live.
Here in Haazinu, this powerful poetic conclusion to the Torah, Moses pleads for us to really pay attention, to give ear, to both what the prophet Elijah described in I Kings 19:13 as “kol d’m’ma daka,” “the still small voice of God within us” as well as the cries of God’s children, our fellow human beings all around us. To put it in 21st-century terms, this majestic poem in Deuteronomy 32, which tradition has assigned to be read, to be heard — and hopefully to be internalized and actualized — is a comforting call to each of us and all of us. It is a call that our prayers can be the vehicle by which we Venmo a first payment to God for granting each of us continued life.
I suggest to you on this first Shabbat of 5784 that it is only through a commitment to be God’s voice and hands in the world, through the performance of mitzvot, that we can truly make payments on the debt we owe God for sealing us in the Book of Life for the year.
I hear, in the words of this poem called Haazinu, an invitation to each of us to pay attention and give ear to our opportunity and responsibility to become better caretakers of the earth and better caregivers to all in need, as the repetitive command in Deuteronomy, to care for the widow, orphan, and stranger, has retaught us in these weeks as we go from the depth of despair of Tisha B’Av, when we began to read Deuteronomy, to the height of joyful thanksgiving that is the theme of Sukkot, our forthcoming Festival of Thanksgiving.
I invite all of you to join me in making an unbreakable vow to haazinu; to be better listeners to the cries of those in need, to be better listeners to our family and friends, and to be better listeners to the still small voice of God that resides within each of us.
May the year ahead be a better year for each of us and for all of us. May each of us truly hear the call of Moses to haazinu. Give ear and truly harken to the call of another prophet, called Micah, who taught that what God asks of each of us is both simple and profound: to act justly; love mercy; and walk humbly with God.
Shabbat Shalom and g’ mar chatima tovah. May we all be inscribed and sealed in God’s Book of Life.