Rabbi Benji Levy
Dean of Moriah College, Sydney
Ideals and reality
Two strands of one thread
Parshat Ha’azinu begins, “Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak; and may the earth hear the words of my mouth.” According to Rashi, when he was warning Israel, Moshe needed two witnesses, similar to any testimony. He therefore appointed the heavens and earth, two entities which are eternal and thus will bear testimony as long as the Jewish people live. Moshe begins by addressing the heavens, “Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak;” and then the earth, “and may the earth hear the words of my mouth.” Similarly when reprimanding the Jewish people, Isaiah, one of the later prophets, recalls the same two witnesses, “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth…”
When analysing these seemingly identical verses, Midrash Tanchuma picks up on a subtle difference: though both the heavens and earth are called on as witnesses, the order of Isaiah’s prophecy is inverted. The Midrash quotes Rabbi Akiva’s simple yet astute explanation. Moshe dwelled in the perfect and ideal world, the heavens. He ascended twice for forty days and forty nights to the heavens, not needing any physical sustenance, drawing nourishment and learning Torah directly from G-d, in a sort of extended Yom Kippur. So too, when the Torah says that Moshe saw G-d’s face, it is depicting Moshe’s untainted view and pure connection to the Torah, which transcends an earthly knowledge and is likened only to that of the heavens. Thus Moshe addressed the heavens first since his relationship towards the heavens was like that of a close friend whereas his relationship to the earth was far more distant. The direct opposite to this can be learnt about Isaiah. Isaiah lived during an epoch of rebellion and though he did attain a spiritual level of prophecy, which comes from the heavens, this was somewhat distant to him as his main knowledge of experience was acquired in the world that he toiled day and night, the world of physical existence – earth.
The innovative premise of this Midrash is that when talking about something close, the phrase “haazinu” is used, whereas when referring to something distant “tishma” is applied as established through both Moshe and Isaiah. Moshe had a closer connection to the heavens yet Isaiah had a closer connection to earth. Shamayim (heaven) is by definition a flawless world and is thus indicative of ideals, whereas aretz (earth) is the day to day world that we live in and is thus symptomatic of reality. Any Jewish person that has capitalised upon the opportunity of the Torah has to act in each sphere. We all need ideals, yet we cannot use these ideals as escapism from reality and everyone has to instill an integration of the two.
Though each individual’s personality often leans towards either idealism or realism it is imperative to maintain equilibrium. There are few days in the year which warrant the opportunity for a dwelling in the ideal world. Two of these days are Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, where we are able to devote our entire day towards lofty pursuits. The days in-between however, seem to be normal working days. And it is no co-incidence that this parsha, parshat Ha’azinu, falls in between these two festivals. Many people act upon a “Moshe”/ Yom Kippur approach, ignoring certain necessities; however the danger is that they become detached from, and lose track of reality. At the same time, many situations dictate a necessity to make minor concessions in the ideal world, in order to live in reality.
A life of Torah does not by any means detract from a professional life, whether doctor, lawyer or engineer, however the realist must still realize that his monetary pursuits are not an end in and of themselves. One should always be weary of a reality where yesterday’s concessions become tomorrow’s !standards and that is why a balance between ideals and reality – that which both Moshe and Isaiah sought, is absolutely essential. May this New Year bring an ideal reality.
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