The Meeting Between Heaven and Earth

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley






The Meeting Between Heaven and Earth


By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley



The parasha that we will read this Shabbat, Parashat Haazinu, is a majestic piece of poetry, overflowing with vibrant imagery and profound ideas.  On the one hand, Haazinu must be considered a poem in the modern, literary sense, due to its use of imagery.  In addition, the Ramban points out (commentary to 31:19) that it is known as a shira, a song, because “the Jewish people always say it with singing and music.  It is written as a song [in the Torah] because a song has breaks which indicate when one pauses in the melody.”  The Ramban refers to the Talmudic statement that the Levites in the Beit Ha-Mikdash would sing part of Shirat Haazinu to accompany the musaf offering on Shabbat (Rosh Hashana 31). 


However, concentrating on the technical aspects of the poetry tends to distract us from the important messages that Shirat Haazinu conveys.  Haazinu describes nothing less than the panorama of the story of the Jewish People, from the distant past to the turbulent present and to the triumphant future.  To study this section properly, the reader should first read it through once, noting the major topics that it includes.  Through this survey, the reader can easily ascertain the larger structure of the song.  Then, the song should be reread, this time concentrating on its detail, so that all its figures of speech and metaphors can be carefully scrutinized.


This week, we will concentrate on the beginning verses of the shira:


1 Give ear, heavens, and I will speak; and let the earth hear the words of my mouth.

2 My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew; as the small rain upon the tender grass, and as the showers upon the herb.

3 For I will proclaim the name of the LORD; ascribe ye greatness unto our God. 

4 The Rock, His work is perfect, for all His ways are justice; a God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and right is He. 

5 Is corruption His? No; His children's is the blemish; a generation crooked and perverse.


At first glance, the meaning of these words are clear – Moshe turns to the world of nature, unchanging as the day it was formed, to take the Jewish People to account for their loyalty to the unchanging laws of the Torah.  Just as in the world of nature, God provides dew and moisture to enable the renewal of life on the earth, so too will the words of Torah act as nutrients for the parched people.  Then, Moshe turns from God’s teaching to God Himself, in all His eternal, fixed glory, and from there he begins the discussion of the people’s behavior. 


In a series of articles in Beit Ha-Mikra (5727-5728), Dov Rafel notes several stylistic details found in these opening verses and the lessons that they convey:


The poem opens with hints about the creation of the world.  In the description of the creation, nothing is said about the purpose of the creation or the roles of the universe.  Our poem answers the questions and states: “Ascribe greatness to our God”! Our God is also the God of the heavens and the God of the earth.  Man was created in order to exalt God and to tell of His honor (Yeshayahu 43:7,21).  Nature, too, tells of God’s honor (Tehillim 19:2), be it by the essence of its existence (Ibid.  148:5), be it by its everlasting and fixed motion (ibid.  6), be it by obeying His commandments (ibid.  8), be it only by its beauty (ibid.  19:6).


In verse 4, the character of the Creator is emphasized as a statute that applies to all of history.  In the entire verse, there is no verb; it is static.  Being expropriated of any dependency on time, it is equally valid on everything that occurs in time, not as an imperical conclusion but as an a priori principle.


Contrary to this, verse 5, which describes the transgression, opens with a verb in the past tense.  The transgression and the man who transgresses are not a condition of the reality; they are incidental.  Regarding an incident, one may speak in certainty only in the past tense, after it has transpired.


However, not every commentator felt that Moshe was directly referring to the natural bodies at the song’s beginning.  Here are the words of the Abrabanel at the beginning of this week’s parasha:


The first five verses, which are a part of the introduction to the song, may be explained in two ways: The first way is that heavens and earth are a parable and that his meaning was the ministers and officers of the people, who are on a high level and are perfect and are similar in their nature to the eternal heavens that influence those under them.  The meaning of the word “earth” is the multitude of people, who are similar to it in their lowliness and by their receiving the abundance from the heavens above them, which [is symbolized by] those who lead them.


This proverbial statement has already been found in the words of Yeshayahu the prophet of blessed memory (chapter 13), in his book.  [Yeshayahu mentions] the cutting off of Nevukhadnetzar and the giving of his kingdom to another.  He states (13:13), “Therefore will I shake the heavens, and the earth shall remove out of her place, by the wrath of the Lord of hosts, and on the day of his fierce anger.” Herein there is a comparison between the removal of the kings and their loss to the anger of heaven, and the removal of the nation and its destruction to the removal of the earth, as explained by our Rabbi the Teacher [Maimonides] in chapter 29 part B. 


With this example, our Master Moshe said, “Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak” in front of the elders of the nation and its officers who were before him, as he said above (31:28), “Gather to me all the elders of your tribes and your officers that I may speak these words in their ears.” It is as if he requested that they pay heed to his words, and he said that when they, the more respected [people] of the nation, paid heed to his words, there is no doubt that the multitude and that nation would also listen to them.  Therefore he said, “And hear, O earth, the words of my mouth.” It is as if he said: For this reason, to you [the] chief-men will I call first to heed my words, so that the rest of the multitude will hear [them] of its own accord.


According to the Abrabanel’s interpretation, the opening of the poem refers to the people’s leaders and important members.  If they are shown to be subservient to Hashem’s will, then the rest of the nation will surely follow.  Support for this view can be found in the different forms of the word “to hear” in the opening verse.  The leaders are told to “give ear,” which is active listening, while the common people are told to “hear,” which is passive listening.  Noting this lack of parallelism in the verse, Abarbanel interprets the wording “and hear, O earth,” as “that the multitude itself shall listen” - passively.


But the idea that Moshe would address words spoken on his final day to a select few not only seems illogical, but against the simple meaning of the text in last week’s parasha, which described how the people were gathered.  The verse expressly states, “And Moshe spoke in the ears of all the congregation of Israel” (31:30), and states, “I call heaven and earth to witness this day against you” (30:19) – again referring to the entire people.  Therefore, the Ibn Ezra brings a different interpretation of calling the heavens and earth to witness:


Give ear: …I have already informed you that the Gaon [R. Sa’adia Gaon] said that the meaning of “O heavens” is the angels.  The meaning of “O earth” is the people of the land.  Or the proof of the rain which comes down from the heavens and the ground will yield its crop.  The correct [explanation] in my eyes is that the main point is their standing forever.  So too (Mikha 6:2), “Hear, O mountains,” as well as the stone of Joshua.  There it is written (Yehoshua 24:27), “For it has heard all the words of the Lord.”

I have already hinted that the soul of man is the midpoint between the high and the low beings.  It compares everything to its palace [the palace of the soul of man is the body].  Even more so the understanding of the dweller of palace; the lower beings therefore will be raised and the raised will be lowered.


After explaining the symbolism of the words “heavens” and “earth,” the Ibn Ezra alludes to the reason that we use personification for the world above us and did not invent special expressions for the upper and lower worlds.  According to the Ibn Ezra, this is the most effective manner for people to communicate and understand each other, by using terms that are common to them.  He develops this idea, describing the “lower” and “upper” beings, referring to inanimate objects and plants in expressions taken from the body of man (heart of the ocean, and the earth opened its mouth, “and the stone heard” [Yehoshua 24:27], as if it has an ear), and the angels.  In both cases, we use expressions taken from the body of man: “The eyes of God are throughout the earth;” “For the mouth of God speaks”.[i]


What is the lesson of the beginning of our parasha according to the Ibn Ezra? Simply put, by describing the “upper” and “lower” worlds that surround them, he is demonstrating to the Jewish People where they appear on the celestial hierarchy.  They not only occupy the central rung of the ladder; through their observance of the Torah and the commandments within that connect heaven and earth, they form the bridge between the two realms.  As Moshe has stated so many times previously, no longer will the two realms function independently of each other.  Rain will no longer fall from heaven irrespective of the acts of the denizens who inhabit the lands below.  In the Land of Israel especially, upon whose threshold the people await to enter, the laws of nature have become irrevocably intertwined with the moral behavior and level of the people who dwell within its boundaries.  This is the role of the Jewish People - to serve to bridge and ultimately reconnect heaven and earth, spiritual and physical together.

[i] In his commentary to Shemot 19:20, the Ibn Ezra expands upon this idea further:

And the Lord came down: I will now say a rule that your heart may rely upon, until I reach, God willing, the portion Ki Tissah, for therein I will explain thoroughly to you deep matters.  Know that the soul of man is supreme and respected and it is from the middle world.  The body is from the low [world] and there is no speaking [being] in the lower world, only man himself.  Also, a listener is man, since he wants to understand what is in the heart of the one who is speaking to him.  An intellectual can only innovate terminology [from] that which is known, which is there.  All of the languages are built on a standard that is in the image of man.  It is comprised of the soul, which is not a body, and a body that is comprised of four elements [fire, wind, water and earth].


When a man speaks to another in man’s terms, in a language that he knows, he will understand his words and their images according to their standard.  If he wishes to speak about things lower than man, he will raise their level to the level of the image of man so that the listener will understand.  Therefore, a “head” [the highest part of the land] is given to the earth, and a “head” to the dust of the world (Mishlei 8:26).  A “mouth” is given to the earth, as in “and the earth opened her mouth” (Bamidbar 16:32).  Also a “thigh” [“yerekh” = thigh, side]: “From the thighs [sides] of the earth” (Yirmiyahu 6:23).  Also it states, “The hand of the Jordan” (Bamidbar 13:29); “In the heart of the ocean” (Shemot 15:8) and many such others.


All of this is proverbial because the ocean does not have a heart.  Furthermore, bodily organs are used as an image of an entire body, and it is stated (Mishlei 18:21), “Death and life are in the hand [“yad” = hand, power] of the tongue,” and many such others. 


When a person desires to speak about those more honorable than himself that are in a higher world, he lowers their level until it appears to man as if they are the image of man, so that the listener will understand.  It is stated (Daniel 9:21): “And the man Gabriel,” and his arms and his feet, “and the sound of his words like the voice of a multitude” (Daniel 10:6).  This way was applied also to God.  It said “And a helmet of salvation upon his head (Yeshayahu 59:17); ““For the mouth of the Lord spoke” (ibid 1:20); “The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous and His ears are open to their cry” (Tehillim 34:16-17); “The face of the L-rd is against those who do evil”…


In this way, [it states], “And the Lord came down,” “And God went up” (Bereishit 17:22), because everything is filled with His honor….