Closeness and distance, heavens and earth

By Rabbi Dan Lewin
Parashat Haazinu

Long before Shakespeare’s famous line “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,” Moses put forth, in Hebraic efficiency, a similar expression — only he was speaking not to his countrymen, but to the heavens and the earth. His famous oration begins “Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak! And let the earth hear the words of my mouth.”

In the opening verse of this great song in the Torah, two different expressions are used for what seems to be a similar summons: The first, “haazinu,” addressed to the heavens, is sometimes translated as “listen” — literally to “give ear” — and carries a tone of closeness. The phrase addressing earth also conveys listening (from the root shema) but suggests a more distant perception. Sensitive to the nuances of the Holy Tongue, the commentaries explain that Moses was talking from a standpoint of intimacy with the heavens, and of distance with the earth.

There is an almost exactly opposite usage of these terms in Isaiah, the man to whom fell the prophecy of the future redemption: “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth.” And along the same lines, this verse expresses his closeness to earth and distance from heaven.

Comparing these two metaphors and vantage points, being closer to the heavens would appear to signal a higher status. After all, a prophet is distinguished by his or her ability to apprehend a deeper dimension, transcend the mask of the material and engage the heavens more directly.

Being closer to the earth, in contrast, seems to convey a more ordinary or limited human consciousness.

Yet, the commentaries explain that Isaiah’s words were spoken as a continuation of Moses’ address, picking up where Moses had left off. In this sense, Isaiah built on the previous accomplishment — reaching upward, being “close to heaven” — and conveyed a new and greater spiritual achievement: being “close to earth.” To be sure, there is a metaphorical closeness to earth that is a result of deficiency, like someone engrossed in the material world. But the discussion here relates to a closeness to Earth that comes after moving toward the heavens. And this is also the universal message.

Days of teardrops

The portion of Haazinu is always read around the Ten Days of Repentance and the days immediately following Yom Kippur, the supreme moments of self-examination in the Jewish year. To better understand the above poetic expressions and their application to the time, let’s examine a well-known statement by Rabbi Yitzchak Luria: “Whoever does not shed tears during the Ten Days of Repentance — his soul is imperfect.”

The simple meaning of this statement is that during these days, G-d is more attentive to our prayers. As the mystical works express it, “the luminary comes close to the spark (the soul).” It is also a unique opportunity for resolutions, new beginnings and growth. So if, even during such a time of grace, one is not stirred, there must be some inner blemish that demands greater attention. While sadness is a predominantly an undesirable or destructive state, there are times where tears signify life while indifference indicates insensitivity or disconnection from the source.

The deeper explanation is that only through grappling with the constraints of life in this world — feeling close to earth — can the soul reach the ultimate union with its source.

The nature of a human being is to stumble, learn and rise higher. Few, if any of us, are reaching our potential. When one is able to reflect, in a calm and healthy state of mind, there will inevitably arise some bitterness over past mistakes. This highlights one of the distinctive themes in Judaism: Teshuvah is not simply “repentance” but an ongoing process of “returning” — a healing of the soul that got wounded through missteps.

Perhaps the most comprehensive idea of teshuvah is reuniting with the spiritual reality amidst a demanding material existence: reestablishing a connection with the Creator of all life. In an ever-changing world, there is but one constant. The way we are programmed and influenced, it is easier, more natural, to become disconnected and distracted. As such, it takes mindfulness and focus to mentally reach beyond the here and now. That moment of awakening can hit hard or late in the game. But this sanctified time each year in the calendar realigns one along the clean and illuminated road of Torah and mitzvahs.

During this time, one does not need to be a prophet or mystic to sense our true distance. Awe is in the air. A celestial wind drifts into the walls of the sanctuary as we seek to move “closer to the heavens.” But initially we feel stuck, squeezed by the constraints of the earthly existence, and must work to reach a higher level of perception. But this bitter feeling itself, the awareness of being confined, is what opens the door that propels us beyond confinement.

The hidden pattern

Interestingly, the shofar itself symbolizes this process of expansion. The physical shape indicates “confinement” at one end and “enlargement” at the other. With our breath and toil, we travel from the tight narrow space into a broader atmosphere. Applied to the soul’s journey, it is only once we genuinely experience the yearning to “come close to the heavens” — beginning with the cry culminating in the elevation on Yom Kippur — that we can possess the power of return and “come closer to the earth.” As with Isaiah following Moses, we draw the inspiration into the world and accomplish our unique task in perfecting it.

This idea is particularly relevant these days in light of many of the popular healing methods. To soothe the soul from the pressures and pain of the daily grind, there has been renewed interest in mindfulness meditation, drugs that induce spiritual trips and “elevations” to heal psychological wounds or trauma, hisboddedut (solitude) in nature to separate from the world and bond with G-d and more.

The obvious goal in these pursuits is to step away from the trappings of society and find a haven, entering a higher state of mind where everything seems secure and love reigns supreme. But the test of truth is when you “come down” —  go back and interact with people. Can what you saw or felt transfer, or is that spiritual experience restricted to the ideal environment? Do the insight and love manifest themselves in relationships and fruitful actions?

As we emerge from Yom Kippur and move into the most colorful physical festivities of Sukkot, we are reminded that the soul did not come down to find an escape from the material — even through holy means — but to engage the world. The positive effects of any elevated experiences must always carry over and endure or they are, at best, incomplete.

Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit

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