A D’var Torah on Ha’azinu: La, la, la, la, I’M NOT LISTENING! –by Cathy Harris

A D’var Torah on Ha’azinu: La, la, la, la, I’M NOT LISTENING!
Cathy Harris

Forty long years in the desert. In all those years, we hurt each other, shouted out to God, laughed and loved, delivered babies, grew old, grew up, grew wiser. We learned a lot, yet we yearned for more.

Slowly, over all the years, we sloughed off and shed our enslavement. We became a free people destined for a new life. A life in the promised land, in Israel.

And now here we stand. So close! The water flowing by, glinting in the sun. Shielding our eyes, looking across to the other side of the Jordan.

And there is our leader Moses with his “Ha’azinu!” Listen! And he is so close! so close! to the Promised Land. But he will never step into the cool water. His foot will never touch the Promised Land.

And so he shouts, pleads, threatens and chastises. One last time, he WILL make his mark, bang his walking stick, shout and threaten, beg and implore. For we are his own dear people – and we are NOT listening.

Because it’s hard to listen. In the milling crowd, men and women, eager children, crying babies, the people trying to attend. Shifting from one foot to another, anxious and eager to cross the Jordan. And many are thinking, “Come on already! We know what you’re gonna say before you say it. Because you’ve said it all before. Let’s go!”

But Moses isn’t finished. He knows that he won’t be there to step in and speak to God, appease God’s anger when his people wander. And he knows that his people are NOT good listeners. And so, he keeps shouting, threatening, hammering home his points.

We all try to listen to our scriptures, right? We try to hear what God is telling us. We try to absorb and understand the lessons of our holy writings, our epic history. We try. But it’s hard.

And we listen to each other, right? We listen to the rabbi’s sermon, right? We listen to our friends’ problems. We listen to the words of the news media. Even when we’re annoyed, upset or bored by what we hear – which is pretty often, because, frankly, we’re tired of hearing people spout words that make no sense, and we know that we know better, that we are, in fact, RIGHT. There are a lot of fools and agitators out there, right? Why listen? They’ve got nothing to say to me.

Ha’azinu is a wonderful word. It means “to listen”, not, as with “shama”, “to hear.” When we hear, we receive or become conscious of a sound that is being transmitted. But, when we listen, we give attention to someone or something for the PURPOSE of hearing them. So, “haazinu” implies a focused effort to lean into the words, attending to and absorbing the message.

Haazinu starts out with these lovely lines:
“1 Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;
Let the earth hear the words I utter!
2 May my discourse come down as the rain,
My speech distill as the dew,
Like showers on young growth,
Like droplets on the grass.”

In other words, may my words SOAK IN. So lyrical with its dew, droplets and showers. So gentle. But the crowd isn’t really listening. So Moses ratchets up his message:

25 The sword shall deal death without,
As shall the terror within,
To youth and maiden alike,
The suckling as well as the aged…
28 For they are a folk void of sense, lacking in all discernment…
“Take to heart all the words with which I have warned you this day…
47 For this is not a trifling thing for you:
it is your very life; through it you shall long endure
on the land that you are to possess upon crossing the Jordan.”

Moses understands that, to grow strong roots and broad branches, we must always be attuned and attentive to the lessons of our sacred writings. And to each other. Listening is a key element in a strong, free community. Listening to God and to each other makes a community more than just a group of people living in the same place. It makes us whole. It makes us strong. And it makes us fair and ethical, if we practice what we’ve been taught.

The Talmud ,via the Rabbis of the Tosefa period, clearly states that ”the righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come.” (1)

And our Torah demands, “The stranger, you should not mistreat, nor should you oppress him as you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (2)

So, it is how we attend to others and how we behave that defines who we are and allows us the privilege of living in the Promised Land. It is neither our history nor our victories that entitles us to take possession of the Promised Land. No, not at all. To righteously take possession, we are obligated to give ear to all of the righteous who live among us of every faith. And, in fact, sometimes, we are obligated to listen as well to the unrighteous – if we are to create a peaceful world for all those who are suffering. We do this not in acquiescence to terrorists, lunatics and haters but in reverence and respect for the suffering of all the people with whom we share our Promised Land. For our ethical history and our Chosen status.

The story goes that we wiped out everyone in Canaan, wiped the slate clean and started from scratch with just our tribe. But this story is thought to be hyperbole. It didn’t happen then, and it’s not happening now. In fact, in our Promised Land, we didn’t annihilate everyone, and so we live among them still, all the faiths and cultures of a thriving modern Israel. Our Promised Land.

There is a Talmudic tractate of Brachot (3) in which a High Priest recalls a startling personal exchange that he had with God. Within the this drash, our teachers pose this question: “Is there a blessing for God? What is the blessing we would wish to bestow on the One who blesses us?” The tractate continues:

“Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, one of the last High Priests of the Second Temple, would regularly enter the Holy of Holies once a year on Yom Kippur to offer the incense offering. Said the Rabbi, “Once, I entered the Holy of Holies to burn incense, when I saw God sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, who said to me, ‘Ishmael, my son, bless me’.

I answered, ‘May it please you to make your compassion prevail over your anger; may it be revealed above your other attributes; may you deal with your children according to it, and not according to the strict measure of judgment.’

Says Rabbi Yishmael, “It seemed to me that God bowed His head, as though to answer Amen to my blessing.’”

It would seem that God is telling us that His Compassion should prevail and not the strict measure of His judgment. And, if this is true for God, how much more so for all of us with each other. Are we truly listening?

Listening can be so hard that we feel it is impossible. How can we withhold judgment and condemnation and open our hearts with compassion when we have suffered lies, bloodshed and murderous hatred in our historic homeland? In the land that Jews have worked to make so beautiful, rich, vibrant, blessed and creative? But, the thing is, what else can we do? The years of violence have not brought peace, solace or joy.

We are full of our own convictions, and it is hard to listen to others. Hard to listen to those that we KNOW are wrong-headed, wrong in their demands, wrong in their behaviors, wrong to even exist in the Promised Land. And yet there are innocent people living in the Promised Land. They are living not just in the West Bank and Gaza but right in our Promised Land – because we did not eradicate them. And these civilians are not Jewish, are not in control of events that harm them. They are not terrorists. They are people whose families worry when they need to cross over at checkpoints to make a living, who fear the expansion of settlements encroaching where their families have worked the land for generations, who fear Hamas, who crouch in terror in Gaza, who want peace for their people – peace and prosperity for their families. These people also are angry, in pain, fearful. They want a way out of war. Just like our Jewish brothers and sisters in Israel.

In his poem The Place Where We are Right (4) , Yehuda Amichai reflects:
From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the Spring.
The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.
But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.

With equal passion, Shimon Peres, past President of Israel, twice Prime Minister and member of twelve Israeli cabinets, is quoted as saying:
“Israel is not just a territorial homeland; it is a permanent moral commitment. The Jewish people have never sought to dominate another people. Because of the dynamics of conquest, a nation that forces itself on another loses the will to abstain from oppression. Great empires that once dominated the Jewish people have disappeared from history; yet we survive. What force has sustained us? We have placed morality above physical might. The key to Israel’s permanence remains the moral judgment of its leaders, for that is the highest degree of wisdom.” (5)
I suggest that we explore the notion that it is not Israel the land that matters but Israel the people. Our people is our legacy. Israel the righteous. Israel the democratic, fair and equitable. Israel the compassionate, listening for wisdom from our sacred texts and sharing our wisdom with each other and with OTHERS.

Israel’s biblical borders are somewhat unclear – there are at least three different sets described in Torah – but how we live in the Promised Land is right in front of us in our sacred texts. We crossed the Jordan – that was the was the easy part. And Moses knew it. Governing our Promised Land with righteousness, equality and compassion is difficult work. A balancing act between compassion and fear. And, even when we are being attacked, even when we are fearful and filled with hate, we are required to maintain our code of ethics and to pursue justice.

Are we listening? In our Promised Land, we are forever putting out fires and building walls to create a sense of security, but – are we listening? Are we earning the trust of everyone in our land, building relationships to create a stronger, safer, more inclusive Promised Land? Are we listening to what others have to say? Or are we writing them off, as wrong, as violent, as enemies? In attacking our aggressors, are we also turning away from those who cry for justice?

Eventually, I believe, we will lower our guards enough to listen to each other, all of us, including our struggling brothers and sisters of all faiths in our holy land. And, giving ear to all honorable efforts to seek peace, we will loose the plough on the hard earth. We will lower our guard enough to pay heed to the whisper of the other and we will find our way to peace, based on the moral high ground of Torah, in a truly blessed Promised Land.
Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah.

1. http://rabbiarthursegal.blogspot.com/2008/06/rabbi-arthur-segalrighteous-of-all.html

2. http://blogs.rj.org/rac/2009/02/04/strangers_in_a_familiar_land/

3. http://www.drash.org/Blessing.pdf

4. http://www.onbeing.org/blog/the-place-where-we-are-right/6630

5. http://www.reformjudaism.org/blog/2014/08/22/shimon-peres-futility-war