The Torah reading for this Shabbat, Haazinu, is the song with which Moses ends his final instructions to the Jewish people. This portion, Deuteronomy chapter 32, is read either on Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, or as is the case this year, on the Sabbath following Yom Kippur. Haazinu is an unusual Hebrew term for the command “Listen!” which is usually expressed by the word Sh’ma. In the King James Bible, Haazinu is translated as “Give me your ear,” which Shakespeare appropriated in his play Julius Caesar. Both the biblical term Haazinu and Shakespeare’s usage of it are literary ways to call upon the reader and listener to pay special attention to what is to follow.
The song in Deuteronomy 32 itself is a reminder to Israel of God’s sovereignty and of the blessings that God has bestowed upon us. Most of us think about Yom Kippur as a day of kvetching and pleading; of asking for and granting forgiveness. Haazinu reminds us that our Day of Atonement is also a day of at-one-ment; a day for us to pause from our daily lives and give thanks to God and to our family and community for the blessings of life.
One of the central prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is Avinu Malkeynu. Over these past two weeks we have acknowledged God as both Avinu, our parent, and Malkeynu, our Sovereign. We have pleaded for mercy and asked God to answer our petitions, while acknowledging our unworthiness. Our confessional prayers on Yom Kippur are all phrased in the plural. Each of us may not be guilty of the transgressions we recite, but all of us are responsible.
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, Judaism teaches that our prayers can be the vehicle by which we Venmo a first payment to God for granting each of us continued life. However, it only through a commitment to be God’s voice and hands in the world through performance of mitzvot that we can truly make payments on the debt we owe God for sealing us in The Book of Life. This year, as I recited the Shehecheyanu prayer on Rosh Hashanah as I will again next week on Sukkot, I am truly filled with gratitude for being alive. Expressing true gratitude personally and communally requires each human being – to continue the metaphor of debt – to commit to “a repayment plan” on our debt to God by becoming better caretakers of both the earth which God has given us as a home and to all too many of God’s children who are hungry and homeless.
As the psalmist stated in Psalm 115, which is liturgically part of the Hallel recited on festival days, “The dead cannot praise God, but we (the living) can bless God now and always.”
At the dawn of the new year 5782, we find ourselves continuing to live with limitations on life caused by the pandemic of covid-19 and the devastating impacts of weather events from the hurricanes and droughts that plague our nation. The call of Moses to Haazinu, to pay attention and give ear, is to me a call to every one of us to act affirmatively on behalf of the widow, orphan, and stranger; and to be better custodians of the earth which God has given us to live upon and care for.
As we prepare to celebrate Sukkot, our Festival of Thanksgiving, under the cloud of the continuing pandemic which will limit the number of people whom you and I can invite into our Sukkot; and as we witness the pain and suffering of the victims of the latest hurricanes and wildfires which are both natural disasters and events for which we the people are equally responsible, I invite all of you to join me in making an unbreakable vow of “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 which 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 hearken to the call of another prophet, Micah, who taught that what God asks of each of us is both simple and profound: Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.