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Torah Studies: Words of Closeness and Distance

Torah Studies: Words of Closeness and Distance

Ha-azinu

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The Sidra of Ha-azinu begins with Moses’ great oration, “Give ear, ye heavens… and let the earth hear.” The Midrash, with its usual sensitivity to the nuances of language, notes that Moses seems to be talking in terms of intimacy towards the heavens, and of distance towards the earth. There is an almost exactly opposite verse in Isaiah, “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth,” in which Isaiah expresses closeness to earth and distance from heaven. Which path is the Jew to follow? Is he to strive towards heaven and keep himself aloof from worldly events? Or is he, like Isaiah, to find his spiritual home in the things of the earth? And what bearing does this dilemma have on the time in which the Sidra is usually read, the Ten Days of Repentance, and the days immediately following Yom Kippur, the supreme moments of self-examination in the Jewish year?

1. Words of Closeness and Distance

The Midrash1 tells us that Moses was “close to heaven” and “far from the earth,” and this is why he said, “Give ear, ye heavens, and I will speak; and let the earth hear the wordsof my mouth.” “Give ear” speaks in the tone of closeness, “let the earth hear” bears the accent of distance.

In the same way, the Midrash says that Isaiah was “far from the heavens… and close to the earth,” for he said, in exact opposition to Moses, “Hear O heavens, and give ear, O earth.”2

But this opposition is a surprising one. “Torah” means “teaching,” and all its words are words of instruction for every Jew.3 When Moses said, “Give ear, ye heavens… and let the earth hear” the implication was that every Jew should strive to be close to heaven, and to liberate himself from the constraints of earth. If Isaiah, the greatest of the prophets,4 could not reach this, how then can the Torah demand it of every Jew? And, if closeness to heaven is, in fact, within the reach of every Jew through the inspiration of Moses which is “within” every Jew,5 why had Isaiah failed to reach this level?

The matter is all the more strange since—as the Midrash6 says—Isaiah’s words were spoken as a continuation of Moses’ address. Speaking as he was under the direct inspiration of Moses, it should have been all the easier for Isaiah to rise to his heights.

We are forced to conclude, then, that Isaiah was not outlining a lower level, but an even higher one, than that of which Moses had spoken. It was in this sense that he was continuing where Moses left off. Reaching upwards to Moses’ heights, “close to heaven,” he was able to strain to a yet greater achievement, of being “close to earth.” And since Isaiah’s words, too, are part of the Torah, they form a universal message to the Jew.

We must also realize that, since every teaching of the Torah has a special relevance to the time of the year when it is read,7 these words of Moses and their continuation in Isaiah are of particular significance to the time between Rosh Hashanah and Succot, during which they are always read.

2. Days of Weeping

Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the Ari, said,8 “Whoever does not shed tears during the Ten Days of Repentance—his soul is imperfect.” The simple meaning of this is that during these days G‑d is close to every Jew9 with, in the Chassidic phrase,10 “the closeness of the luminary to the spark.”

If, even in such a time of grace, a Jew is not moved to the tears of repentance, there is an imperfection in his soul. Nothing wakes it to return to its source. It has moved far indeed from its destiny.

But the Ari suggests, by saying “Whoever does not shed tears,” that this applies to every Jew, even to the perfectly righteous. And yet repentance, certainly when accompanied by tears, is about sin, transgression, wrongdoing, of which the righteous man is innocent. How can we expect that he repent, and so much so that there must be some imperfection in his soul if he is not moved to penitential tears?

We could understand the Ari’s remark if it referred to the “benoni,” the Jew who has never sinned, even in thought, but who has not yet removed the desire to do wrong, even though it is kept in continual suppression.11 For in him there is always the possibility of sin, and this alone is enough for tears in these supreme days of self-examination.

But the completely righteous, whose nature is unstirred by even the trace of misguided desire, would seem to have no need, no cause for tears.

Humility may lead him to them. Even the great Rabban Jochanan ben Zakkai wept and said, “When there are two ways before me, one leading to Paradise, and the other to Gehinnom, and I do not know by which I shall be taken, shall I not weep?”12 In their fervor, the righteous may mistakenly think themselves unworthy. But why should the Ari suggest not that they can sometimes weep, but that they should? For self-knowledge is a virtue, and it is no duty to think oneself worse than one is.

3. Tears of Joy and Bitterness

The Alter Rebbe explained13 that the tears of which the Ari spoke were not tears of bitterness and self-recrimination, but tears like those which Rabbi Akiva shed when he penetrated the secret mysteries of the Torah14—tears of intense joy.

But these cannot be the only tears which the righteous shed, or it would transpire that the Ari using one word to denote two opposites—the joyous tears of the righteous and the bitter tears of other Jews. The first would express a closeness to G‑d, the second a sense of distance.

4. The Spirit Shall Return

The explanation is that teshuvah is not merely repentance, something which comes only where there was sin. It means the return of the soul to its source.15 “And the spirit shall return to G‑d who gave it.”16

Even the righteous man who serves G‑d with love and fear and the totality of his being has not yet reached that stage of complete closeness to Him, which the soul experienced before birth.17 Earthly existence creates a distance between the soul and G‑d which not even righteousness can wholly bridge, and this is the grief of the righteous and the source of his tears. He senses, even in the highest human life, a descent of the soul from its heavenly enthronement. His tears, like those of the ordinary Jew, are born of a consciousness of distance from G‑d.

5. Tears of Effacement

But even this answer will not suffice. For the righteous would then be grieving over the inevitable: The fact that bodily existence sets a distance between G‑d and the soul. This is a fact that man cannot change. And what man cannot alter, he cannot blame himself for.

If the righteous man were thinking about his own spiritual satisfaction he might feel embittered that birth was a loss to the soul. He might, without feeling guilty, feel aggrieved. But the righteous do not think of themselves. They think instead of the Divine will,18 which is that their soul should live within the world’s narrow boundaries. Why, then, should they weep over their situation?

Perhaps it might be that the righteous weep because they have not (yet) fulfilled their mission. For the descent of the soul is not an end in itself; it is a means to a yet greater ascent, a complete self-effacement as the soul recognizes its nothingness and the all-embracing reality of G‑d. And since the righteous man has some reality in his own eyes,19 he is not yet at his journey’s end. He still has cause for tears.

And yet, if even the greatest man cannot reach this stage, how can we say he ought to? We cannot demand the impossible.

The truth is that the Jew is a part of G‑d. He can rise above the ordinary spiritual possibilities of the world. And he sheds tears at his human limitations, because this is the way to overcome them.

“From my confinement I called upon the L-rd: The L-rd answered me with enlargement.”20 It is the sense that after all the achievements of a righteous life one is still in a “confinement,” that brings about the “enlargement” which is the loss of man’s self-consciousness and his assimilation into the Divine.

6. Oneness With G‑d Within the World

This is the significance of the Ten Days of Teshuvah, the time when G‑d is at His closest to man, although teshuvah is always important.21 For these days not only accord it special favor; they elevate it to a new degree. It becomes more than repentance for sin; it becomes the returning of the soul to G‑d, the end of spiritual alienation. This sudden possibility allows man to see his human limitations as no longer inevitable. They can be transcended. And therefore they can be wept over—by every Jew.

When man achieves this self-transcendence, he has made a break-through which is possible only to the soul in its earthly existence. He has become one with the Infinite in the very midst of the finite. He thus reveals that the soul’s union with G‑d has no limitations whatsoever, for he has reached union with G‑d without forsaking the world. “From my confinement I called upon the L-rd,” and within this body, this narrow world, “the L-rd answered me with enlargement.”

7. The Shofar

This explains the meaning of the shofar blown on Rosh Hashanah. Through the shofar (whose physical shape indicates “confinement” at one end and “enlargement” at the other) we evoke the kingship of G‑d. And as the Talmud22 reports, that G‑d says, “Recite before Me on Rosh Hashanah verses of kingship, remembrance and the shofar. Kingship—so that you may make Me king over you… and through what? Through the shofar.”

The statement is puzzling, because the natural order would be first to proclaim G‑d as our king, and then to obey His decrees.23 How can we evoke G‑d’s desire to be our king through performing one of His decrees, which assumes that He is already our King?

The explanation lies in our prayer before the Shofar is blown: “From my confinement I called upon the L-rd….” Our “confinement” is not simply our sins, but our very existence as beings-in-ourselves, as people who feel that we are separate from G‑d, and as long as this is true, we have not admitted G‑d as our king. But when we stand in this “confinement” and yet “call upon the L-rd” we reach the very Essence of G‑dliness, and bring G‑d’s “enlargement” into the heart of human life. This is the making of G‑d’s kingship. He is king within the world, not above it.

8.The Confines of the World
and its Enlargement

The relation between the Sidra of Ha-azinu—of Moses’ call and Isaiah’s completion of it—and the Ten Days of Teshuvah (as well as the four days following Yom Kippur24), is now clear.

Throughout the year our religious life is concerned with things of the “earth,” the study of the Torah and the practical performance of the commandments. Even the “duties of the heart” belong to our human personality, our intellect, our temperament.

But during the Ten Days, “the spirit shall return to G‑d who gave it.” Every Jew must become aware of the “confinement” which the world represents: Aware to the point of tears. He must “call upon the L-rd,” with a thrust and desire to become one with G‑d.

A man is where his will is.25 And by this very act of shedding tears over his “confinement,” he takes himself beyond it. He becomes “close to heaven” and “far from earth.” His overpowering desire is to be “close to heaven”: And that is where he is.

G‑d’s response is to “answer me with enlargement,” that is with His presence within the earth, which reveals the true Essence of G‑d, as above. The Infinite enters his human habitation. And then he finds G‑d “close to the earth” and “far from heaven.”

9. The Lesson of Isaiah

This is true throughout a Jew’s life.

“Heaven” is the Torah, the word of G‑d. “Earth” is the commandments, the actions of man.26 Through learning Torah a Jew draws close to G‑d.27 Through the commandments, he draws G‑d into the world.28

At first, he must be “close to heaven.” Though he must keep the commandments, his heart must be in the study of Torah.

But this is only the first stage. He must come in time to know that “not learning but doing is the essential thing,”29 for the real task of man is to change the world, to make it G‑d’s dwelling.

It needed Isaiah to give us this second stage. For the Torah was received by Moses. But to Isaiah fell the prophecy of the future redemption,30 the time when the world will be G‑d’s dwelling-place, when “every form shall know that You have formed it.”31 When the form of the world will be fused with the Infinity of G‑d.

(Source. Likkutei Sichot, Vol. IX pp. 204-214)

Footnotes
1.
Sifri, beginning of Ha-azinu. Cf. Zohar, Ha-azinu, 286b.
3.
Zohar, Part III, 53b.
4.
Yalkut, Isaiah, Remez 385.
5.
Tanya, Part I, ch. 42.
6.
Sifri; Yalkut, Ha-azinu, Remez 942.
7.
Cf. Shaloh, beg. Vayeshev. Or Hatorah, beg. Nitzavim.
8.
Pri Etz Chaim, Shaar Hashofar, ch. 5.
9.
Rosh Hashanah, 18a (explaining Isaiah 56:6). Rambam, Hilchot Teshuvah, 2:6.
10.
Derech Chayim, 13d; 21b; 91a.
11.
Tanya, Part I, chs. 12, 13, etc.
12.
Berachot, 28b.
13.
Likkutei Torah, Tetze 37d.
14.
Midrash Haneelam, Vayera, 98b.
15.
Likkutei Torah, beg. Ha-azinu.
17.
Tanya, Part I, ch. 37.
18.
Ibid., ch. 10.
19.
Ibid., ch. 35.
21.
Rambam, Hilchot Teshuvah, 2:6.
22.
Rosh Hashanah, 16a, 34b.
23.
Cf. Mechilta and Yalkut Shimoni, Yitro 20:3.
24.
Cf. Preface of the Lubavitcher Rebbe to Kuntres 97, in Sefer Hamaamarim, 5709.
25.
Cf. Likkutei Sichot, Vol. VI, p. 24, note 29.
26.
Torah Or, beg. Bereishit; Likkutei Torah, Ha-azinu, 74b.
27.
Tanya, Part I, ch. 23. Cf. Ibid., ch. 5.
28.
Ibid., ch. 37.
29.
Pirkei Avot, 1:17.
30.
Cf. Baba Batra, 14b.
31.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers.
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Rasha Gad Ayad Mekhail USA September 3, 2013

The Mysteries of God reveal He is Wonderful I found this reading especially beautiful. I fell in love with the God of Jacob, from examples of faithful friends like Moses. Moses was very advanced in compassion and heart. Most credit him with supreme humilility, yet that does not speak loud enough about how big his heart was. In face, Moses gave us a stamp or key that if we had followed it a long time ago, our earthly exile would have been shortened. Moses taught Israel to feel as a nation. He boldly asked God to blot him out of the Book of Life, if the sin of the golden calf was not forgiven by Him. We need to go the extra step. Speak as one for all creation, ask God to forgive us all, even our enemies. This is the key to the Heavens. It speaks of PURE WHITE LOVE. I have made it my mission this High Holidays to pray like Moses, with the addition of adding everyone ever created to be forgiven so we may enter His Eternal Day of Rest. Reply

Mordi wisc September 28, 2011

R Sacks II

Part 1. "Torah " means " teaching. " This is standard. However, it is only half right. The " Oral Torah " means " learning " ( R. Tzvi ). Having instructions is fine, but only from learning can you implement/act the mitzvot.

Part 4. " Tshuva is not merely repentance. "
In fact your commentary of yesterday ( 3 paths to Rosh Hashana ) defined repentance as Charatah. Tshuva is Return which i round out as to one's self and/or Hashem.

These clarifications are not tendered as corrections. Two lessons i have learned in Judaism: differences of opinion are often due to context. Arguments, unlike discussions, have only losers.

Part 9- Sentences with footnotes 26, 27 and 28 are powerful and clear. Another jackpot for my Chumash cover.

i am left with one piece of puzzle though. Heaven is Torah; Earth is mitzvot. The third pillar is prayer/bakashah. If we use Tefillah, the question still remains.

Rabbi, like R Tzvi and R M. Posner, you are upping my Torah learning minutes. Thanks ! Reply

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