The Heavens, Front and Center by Natan Lehman

(2017/5778)

Parashat Ha’azinu, consisting mostly of a poem composed by Moshe and Yehoshu’a, takes a look at the past and then foreshadows the future of Bnei Yisrael. The very first Pasuk of the Shirah (Devarim 31:1) states, “Ha’azinu HaShamayim VaAdabeirah, VeTishma HaAretz Imrei Phi,” “Listen, heavens, and I will speak, and let the earth hear the words of my mouth!” In this Pasuk, Moshe Rabbeinu is calling both the Heavens and the Earth to testify to the words he’s about to speak. Suprisingly, multiple questions emerge from the very first Pasuk. Firstly, we notice that the phrases “Ha’azinu HaShamayim” and “Tishma HaAretz” are repeated in reverse by Yeshayahu (Yeshayahu 1:2); he utters “Shim’u Shamayim VeHa’azini Eretz.” Why does Yeshayahu Hanavi say “Shim’u” when referring to the Heavens and “Ha’azini” when referring to the Earth, when Moshe previously does the opposite? Secondly, why does Moshe call up the Heavens and the Earth to be witnesses to this poem in the first place? 
        In an attempt to answer the first question, the Da’at Zekeinim explains the word “Ha’azinu” as coming from shoresh “Azen,” meaning “give ear” or “pay attention,” while the word “Shim’u” is defined as listening, a more intimate connection than merely “giving ear.” The reason Yeshayahu reverses the order of Moshe is that Yeshayahu feels a closer connection with the physical Earth than the spiritual Heavens. Since Yeshayahu has a weaker connection to the Heavens than to the Earth, he proclaims “Hear, Heavens, and give ear, Earth,” to make sure the Heavens are listening. However, he does not need to do so for the Earth, since he already has a strong connection to it and is confident that the Earth is already listening. This reasoning can be compared to a public speaker asking whether the people in the back of a room can hear him—he asks only the back of the room and not the front because he is confident that they already hear him. Unlike Yeshayahu, Moshe is on such a high spiritual level that he feels he has the Heavens already listening to him in the “front of the room,” so he appeals to the Earth in the “back of the room.”
        The Midrash Tanchuma (Devarim 32:1) offers an answer to the question of why Moshe Rabbeinu calls upon the Heavens and Earth as witnesses. Moshe recites this song right before his inevitable death and Bnei Yisrael’s entrance into Eretz Yisrael, and the song focuses on the future of Am Yisrael. Moshe needs both the Heavens and the Earth to be witnesses because he will no longer be able to lead or daven for the sake of Bnei Yisrael once they enter Eretz Yisrael. Both the Heavens and the Earth were around for the birth of Bnei Yisrael and will around be for their future. Therefore, even after Moshe passes away and will not be able to save or daven on behalf of Bnei Yisrael, the Heavens and the Earth will not forget the sacrifices Moshe and Bnei Yisrael have made. 
        In addition, the Kli Yakar offers his own opinion to explain why Moshe calls down the Heavens and the Earth as witnesses. He quotes Masechet Shabbat 88a, which states that had Bnei Yisrael not accepted the Torah, the world would have returned to “Tohu VaVohu,” “nothing and emptiness.” If not for Bnei Yisrael’s acceptance of the Torah, even the first Creations of this world, Shamayim VaAretz (which are juxtaposed to “Tohu VaVohu” in BeReishit 1:1 and 1:2), would not exist. Since the objective of Moshe’s song is to motivate Bnei Yisrael to keep the Torah, Shamayim VaAretz are perfect witnesses, as they owe their existence to Bnei Yisrael’s observance of the Torah. Just as our acceptance of the Torah filled up the empty world with Shamayim VaAretz, we too must follow the Torah to fill our personal voids with meaning and purpose.
         Moshe Rabbeinu’s addressing of his poem to the Heavens and Earth to benefit Bnei Yisrael right before his death expresses his tremendous love for all of Bnei Yisrael. Just as Moshe filled his personal void with love for Bnei Yisrael and the Torah and was therefore able to reach such a high level that he had the Heavens in the “front of his room,” we too should try to learn from this Moshe’s marvelous attributes and try to improve ourselves.

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