Listening versus hearing: Look to the future

By Rabbi Brian Zimmerman
Parashat Ha’azinu

The Torah portion Ha’azinu, which is read in congregations this upcoming Shabbat, begins the final discourse but is really a song from Moses to the assembled people. As one year ends for us and a one new begins, so too our cycle of Torah readings nears its conclusion with these final moments of Moses’ life.

In this week’s portion, Moses shares his hopes and dreams in a poem to the Israelites even as God instructs him to prepare for his death and change in leadership. Moses’ voice is the only one these wandering masses have ever known. 

“Give ear O Heavens,” he cries out. “Give ear” is the Hebrew word ha’azinu, quickly to be followed by the word sh’ma, “listen, all those on the earth.” Biblical commentators find a variety of interpretations to this seeming repetition. How is offering an ear different from listening?

Jacob Ben Issac, known as Bekhor Schor, a 12th-century French commentator, suggests that “give ear” is usually reserved for those far away while sh’ma is for those close within range. The commentators then have a spirited debate about God, angels, the Israelites and Moses’ relationship to his people.

As Moses’ tone of voice and words are considered, many seem to suggest that he is not really addressing those in front of him but future generations.

Having seen the failings of the current Israelites, he is speaking to the present generation with the hope that they will carry these words into the future where later generations can heed the lessons of the past.

Ha’azinu and perhaps the whole retelling of Devarim is a postcard to the future, a message in a time capsule that all can read but only those who are ready will be able to truly unlock and understand.

How appropriate that this portion is also read as we prepare to enter the holiday of Sukkot, one of the most important Jewish observances of the year. Sukkot asks us to dwell outdoors unprotected, open to rain and the elements, while we collect our harvest. In these modern, less agrarian times we reflect on all of our blessings as well as the fragility of our lives, a harvest of the land and the soul.

In addition to eating, drinking and, for some, sleeping in the sukkah, there is also the mystical custom of Ushpizin. These are the guests that we invite into the sukkah to sit with us. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah and Moses are just a few of those biblical guests we welcome. Of course, most of us don’t literally think they come to sit with us, but we embrace the idea that at our most fragile and exposed moment we are surrounded by the wisdom and comforting presence of past mothers and fathers, teachers and prophets of our faith.

As Moses begins yet another speech, challenging the people in front of him, berating them for past mistakes, warning them of consequences if they do not heed God’s plan, we wonder what he hopes to accomplish with this motley group who seem to wander through the desert without him. Perhaps Moses was not speaking to them at all but sending a message to us. 

To all who dwell in the sukkah, to all who are lost and seeking direction, to every parent who has passed the Torah to a child through the generations and was not really sure why but knew that it mattered, Moses is telling us, you may not yet know what to do with these words, but keep going, stay the course. Even at your moments of greatest doubt keep passing, because one day someone will know and he or she will thank you for passing that sacred time capsule along. 

Brian Zimmerman is senior rabbi of Beth-El Congregation in Fort Worth.

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