Understanding A Passage in the Sifri

On the verse,1 “Give ear, O heavens and I will speak; listen, O earth to the words of my mouth,” the Sifri offers several interpretations, concluding as follows:

Another interpretation: “Give ear, O heavens.” This is stated because the Torah was given from the heavens, as it is written:2 “You saw that I spoke to you from the heavens.”

“Listen O earth to the words of my mouth.” [The earth is mentioned, because] the Jews stood upon it when they said:3 “We will do and we will listen to all that G‑d has spoken.”

Another interpretation: “Give ear, O heavens”; this is stated because they did not observe the mitzvos given them involving the heavens. The mitzvos given them involving the heavens are establishing leap years and determining the new months, as it is written:4 “They5 will serve you as a sign for the festivals, the days and the years.”

“Listen O earth”; this is stated because they did not observe the mitzvos given them involving the earth: leket,6 shichachah7 , peah,8 terumos,9 tithes, the Sabbatical year, and the Jubilee year.”

Another interpretation: “Give ear, O heavens”; this is stated because they did not observe all the mitzvos given them involving the heavens, nor did they observe all the mitzvos given them involving the earth.

Moshe called two witnesses for the Jewish people that will exist forever. He told [the Jewish people]: “I am a mortal. Tomorrow, I will die. If someone will come and say ‘We did not accept the Torah,’ who will deny the claim? Therefore, I am calling as witnesses two witnesses who will exist forever.”

According to this version of the text, the final statement, that Moshe called the heavens and the earth as witnesses against the Jewish people, appears not as a new interpretation (for it is not prefaced with those words), but rather as a summation of the entire passage. The previous interpretations are not conflicting. Instead, each one reflects a different approach to Divine service, underscoring a perspective that is not highlighted by the other. Then after mentioning all these interpretations, the Sifri concludes by stating that Moshe called the heavens and the earth as witnesses.

For this reason, in his commentary on the Torah, Rashi — and it is well known the extent to which the Rebbeim lauded Rashi’scommentary, for it brings out the Torah’s inner dimensions — quotes only the final concept, which summarizes and includes all the other interpretations.


Differences in Interpretation

There are several difficulties with the above passage. Firstly, what is the difference between the second and third interpretations cited above? There are some who claim that the inclusion of the third interpretation is a textual error.10 But the fact that it is included in ancient manuscripts and early printings of the Sifri does not support that contention.

There are slight textual differences between the two interpretations. In the second, the various mitzvos that involve the heavens and the earth are singled out. This is not the case in the third interpretation. Moreover, the third interpretation mentions “all the mitzvos... involving the heavens,” and “all the mitzvos... involving the earth.” Implied is that all the mitzvos have a connection to the heavens and the earth.

To understand the passage correctly, it is necessary to appreciate the implications for our Divine service contained within each of the interpretations. According to the second interpretation: What is the implication of the fact that some mitzvos are associated with the heavens and others with the earth? And according to the third interpretation: What is the implication of the concept that all the mitzvos share a connection to both the heavens and the earth?

There is another difficulty. According to the second interpretation — that “Hear O heavens” refers to the mitzvos involving the heavens, and “Listen O earth” refers to the mitzvos involving the earth — it would appear that for these mitzvos, there is only one witness — either heaven or earth. This is problematic, for Torah law requires two witnesses.

There is, moreover, a difficulty common to all three interpretations. The Torah and its mitzvos were given by G‑d, who is incomparably higher than the heavens and the earth. Therefore, when attempting to inspire Jews to observance, it would seemingly have been more appropriate to emphasize that the Torah and its mitzvos were given by Him. Indeed, this concept is emphasized in the blessing recited before Torah study, which praises G‑d “who gave us His Torah,” and the blessing recited before the performance of a mitzvah, which praises G‑d “who gave us His mitzvos.” These blessings do not mention the fact that the Torah was given from the heavens, or that it was given to the Jews on the earth.

It is true that the verse “Give ear, O heavens... listen O earth...” also implies11 that if the Jewish people observe the Torah and its mitzvos, G‑d will employ the heavens and the earth to reward them. Is this, however, the appropriate means of encouraging observance?

This question is reinforced by the fact that Parshas Haazinu is always read in the Ten Days of Teshuvah, or in the days between Yom Kippur and Sukkos. During this time of year, when a Jew’s Divine service should emanate from the inner dimensions of his soul, surely he should be concerned with matters above reward.


Of Heaven and Of Earth

As mentioned on several occasions,12 the Divine service a Jew is asked to perform involves the fusion of two opposites. We must serve G‑d with simple faith and kabbalas ol, which stem from the essence of the soul and transcend our understanding. But our Divine service must also involve our conscious powers of intellect and emotion. They too must perceive G‑dliness.

The bond which the essence of the soul shares with G‑d must be extended into the realm of the conscious powers, so that we will serve G‑d with more than simple faith. We will also be able to understand G‑dliness, love Him, and hold Him in awe.

This concept applies not only to the Divine service mandated by the Torah and its mitzvos at large, but also to our endeavors to turn to G‑d in teshuvah. Teshuvah comes from the inner dimensions of our being. It must, however, permeate our conscious powers as well. This is the implication of the Ten Days of Teshuvah — that teshuvah must permeate all 10 powers of our soul.13

The microcosm is reflected in the macrocosm. Just as a person draws down the essence of his soul into his 10 conscious powers of intellect and emotion, so too G‑d’s essence must be drawn down into His revealed levels, which are associated with the Torah and its mitzvos.

This concept is alluded to in the Ten Commandments, which begin14 :15 Anochi Havayah[1] E-lohecha (“I am G‑d, your L‑rd”). Anochi refers to G‑d’s essence, “which cannot be confined to a name, nor can it be alluded to by a letter or even by the point of a letter.”16 The essence of a Jew is bound to the level of Anochi.

Havayah is one of the names of G‑d, and yet it is a name which reflects His essence, and which is at one with that essence. Mankind relates to this level through the conscious powers of intellect and emotion.

E-lohecha is a form of the name E-lohim, which indicates how G‑d contracts Himself and limits His manifestation according to the structure of creation. Mankind relates to this level through deeds of observance.

Similarly, in the world at large, the level of Havayah relates to the heavens, while the level of E-lohim relates to the earth.

On this basis, we can understand why Moshe wanted to inspire the Jews to the observance of the Torah and its mitzvos by calling to the heavens and the earth. By calling to the heavens, Moshe wanted to spur the Jews to serve G‑d with their “heavenly powers” of intellect and thought, and by calling to the earth, he sought to evoke Divine service on the level of speech and deed.17


Three Different Approaches

The three levels of soul mentioned above: the essence, “the heavens,” and “the earth,” are reflected in three different modes of observance. “The earth” is given expression in the actual deeds of the mitzvos, “the heavens,” in the study of Torah, and the essence of the soul in the thrust to teshuvah. (Because these three modes of observance are expressions of holiness, however, each one includes the others.)

On this basis, we can comprehend the passage from the Sifri cited at the outset. Each of the three interpretations in the Sifri refers to one of these paths. The first interpretation, stating that the Torah was given from the heavens, reflects primarily the importance of “the heavens,” our intellectual comprehension18 of G‑dliness. Nevertheless, the Torah also has an element that relates to deed — the study of Torah in speech, as reflected in the mention of “the earth.” Similarly, it also relates to the commitment of simple faith and kabbalas ol, as reflected in the mention of the Jews’ commitment “We will do and we will listen.”

The second interpretation focuses on the mitzvos, for “deed is most essential.”19 Nevertheless, the mitzvos also include an element which relates to “the heavens,”20 as reflected in the mitzvos of calculating leap years21 and the like.

Moreover, in each mitzvah there is an aspect of “heaven” (the intent of the mitzvos) and an aspect of “earth” (the actual deed).22 Needless to say, the influence of the soul’s essence is also present, for all mitzvos must be fulfilled with kabbalas ol.

Thus the two witnesses, the heavens and the earth, are present with regard to every mitzvah, for the performance of every mitzvah involves both “the heavens,” the intent motivating the mitzvah, and “the earth,” the actual deed. Moreover, the two are not divorced from each other, or there would be only one witness for each. Instead, within the deed is the intent, and the intent is deeply felt, so that it will surely be expressed in deed.

The third interpretation emphasizes the thrust of teshuvah. For that reason, it speaks about “not observing all the mitzvos” that involve the heavens and the earth — a lack in both intent (“the heavens”) and deed (“the earth”). Teshuvah, which stems from the inner dimensions of the soul, expresses the inherent virtue of the Jewish people — a quality that stands above the Torah and its mitzvos.23 For this reason, teshuvah has the power to wipe away all blemishes caused by lack of observance.

Although teshuvah primarily involves the inner dimension of the soul, it also relates to “the heavens and the earth,” the lower aspects of our spiritual makeup. Nevertheless, in this motif, the “the heavens and the earth” are not seen as distinct entities, for through teshuvah, the essence of the soul shines, and on that level, all the soul’s powers are as one.


Drawing Down G‑d’s Influence

By making the heavens and the earth witnesses for the Jewish people, Moshe prevented them from sinning (as Rabbi Yochanan teaches:24 A person will never sin when he knows that someone is watching). Moreover, it encourages all three thrusts: Torah study, the observance of mitzvos, and teshuvah.

The month of Tishrei gives us the strength for our Divine service in the year to come. Since all influence is conveyed through the Torah, it is in this month that we read Parshas Haazinu, which draws down25 this spiritual influence. And this in turn assures us of G‑d’s blessings as conveyed by the heavens and the earth throughout the year.


(Adapted from Sichos Shabbos Parshas Haazinu, 5723)