Parashat Haazinu: “Great is this Song”

On Rosh Hashana, we want Hashem’s heavenly kingship to be revealed in our world, and on Yom Kippur, to elevate our world toward heaven. Thoughts on the connection between Shirat Haazinu and the High Holy Days

Yael Tawil is the Principal of Ohr Torah Stone’s Jennie Sapristein Junior High School for Girls in Ramot, Jerusalem

“Great is this song, which contains that of the present, the past, and the future, and contains both that of this world and the World to Come” (Sifri commentary on Haazinu, chapter 43)

Shirat Haazinu is a testament to the eternal covenant between the nation and its Creator, and to the individual and his or her Maker. The song contains a description of all that befell the Jewish people in the past, and a description of the punishment of expulsion from the Land of Israel, the long diaspora, and finally, the promise of complete redemption. Moshe calls on the heavens and the Earth to be witnesses to the tochecha, the rebuke, and to the challenges and the vision of redemption.

We read the verses of Shirat Haazinu at the beginning of a new year, following a month of prayer and repentance. It is a time when each of us strives to return to ourselves and to our God, when we wish to make amends and act more righteously so that together, we can tread down a new and better path.

“Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; Let the earth hear the words I utter!” (Deuteronomy 32:1)

When we received the Torah on Mount Sinai, we learned the divergent approaches to speech and how the words of the Torah are to be conveyed.

“Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel:” (Numbers 19:3)

There are 70 faces to the Torah, and it needs to have different access routes so that its voice can be heard. There are different types of people in the world, and different facets to each of us. We are Children of Israel as well as Children of Jacob. There is heaven, Earth, and everything in between, and the Torah speaks to all of these. One must be spoken to sternly, and another must be approached more delicately.

Our sages offered various commentaries on the differences between hearing and listening.  One of the commentaries relates to the different types of people that appear in this verse. The Baal Hasulam explains that listening, which implies a physical and philosophical proximity, is more suitable to anshei hashamayim, the “people of heaven”, who naturally deal with more spiritual matters, while hearing, which occurs when there is some distance between the two sides, is more appropriate for anshei haaretz, or those who deal with more mundane affairs.

According to the translators Onkelos and Yonatan ben Uziel, presumably, listening means complying, while hearing means understanding. As our sages tell us, “Hear – in any language that you can hear”.

Rabbi Nahman of Breslev explained that these were to approaches to the worship of Hashem. The first is the approach of the servant, a person who is required to obey his master’s orders, and the second is the approach of the son, one with privilege and proximity that gives him access to his father, so that he can understand the motives and rationales behind the orders he was given.

“Whether as children… or as servants, our eyes are fixed on You.”

Parashat Haazinu is always read immediately before Yom Kippur. Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin suggests an idea that analyzes the connection between the opening verse of shirat haazinu and the holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Which of the holidays is heaven, and which is Earth?

In one sense, Rosh Hashana is heaven, and Yom Kippur is Earth. Most of the prayers during Rosh Hashana are about the kingship of heaven, about crowning Hashem in the malchuyot (kingships), zichronot (remembrances) and shofrot (shofars) sections of the Musaf amida. No confession service occurs, and sins are not mentioned. Yet during Yom Kippur, we deal with more mundane matters, and in the ten confessions we make, we mention anything that is prohibited, any confessions our mouths can pronounce.

In another sense, Yom Kippur is heaven, and Rosh Hashana is the Earth. On Yom Kippur, we are like the angels engaged in prayer before the Creator of the World. We don’t eat or drink, or attend to our other bodily needs. On Rosh Hashana, however, we are commanded as follows: “Go, eat choice foods and drink sweet drinks… for the day is holy to Hashem” (Nehemiah 8:10)

Rabbi Zevin sheds some light on the matter, explaining that both versions are correct. Both on Rosh Hashana and on Yom Kippur, we have haazina hashamayim (“hear, O heaven”) and vatishma haaretz (and the land shall hear). On Rosh Hashana, we bring heaven down to Earth, asking for the kingship of heaven to be revealed in our world: “rule over the entire world, with Your glory“. On Yom Kippur, we elevate our world to heaven and through our acts of repentance, “intentional sins are counted as merits” (Tractate Yoma, 86:2)

This view has a personal dimension as well. The heaven and Earth reside within each and every one of us. Thoughts and logic are associated with heaven, while the acts we perform with our bodies are associated with the Earth. The connection between thought and deed must occur on two levels: from heaven to Earth (Rosh Hashana), and from the Earth to heaven (Yom Kippur). We mustn’t suffice with just good thoughts and profound intentions, if they don’t lead to any concrete action, and we mustn’t simply rejoice and strive to take action without any forethought.

During this month, we are quite naturally engaged in ongoing introspection, and we desire and hope for change. Quite often, people tend to occupy themselves with matters that are close to heart – the things that keep us up at night. Naturally, people tend to be less attentive to things that far removed from them, both physically and historically. Here, Moses teaches us that in every generation, we must hear and heed the words of this song. Only through the covenant of fate, one connected to the events of the past, can we truly ensure a covenant of purpose and our redemption.

Shirat Haazinu may also be alluding to the challenge of finding the right balance, on different levels: a balance between what will be heard and what will be said, a balance and connection between thoughts and actions, and a balance between the spiritual and the material, and heaven and Earth.

At the outset of this New Year, let us pray that it will be Hashem’s will that we will be able to connect heaven and Earth – to connect the spiritual and the material, the distant and the proximal, and our thoughts and heart-felt emotions with the deeds we perform.

May the year and its curses end; and may the new year begin, along with its blessings.


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