Marshall Hershberg

Ha-azinu ha-shamayim v’adabera; v’tishma ha-aretz imrei phi

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

This sublime oratory of Moshe Rabbeinu really grabs our attention, just as it is meant to.  We will mention more about the message of Ha-azinu, the sedrah for this year’s Shabbat Shuva in a bit, but this sedrah and its two predecessors, Nitzavim and Vayelech, are really a group.  Moshe knows he is about to leave his cherished people, and he wants to end his service by reminding them of why they are a people - G-d’s people - and what they can, and must do, to keep that unique status.  In Nitzavim, as they all stand united - atem nitzavim ha-yom kul’chem - he reintroduces the covenant that G-d has established with them - for Israel to be a people unto him, and for Him to be their G-d.  And it’s not really just with them.  It preceded them, for G-d struck it with their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and it has eternal promise if they are worthy of that promise.

“Neither with you only do I proclaim this covenant and this oath; but with him that stands here with us this day before the L-rd, our G-d, and also with him that is not here with us this day.”

Just as all the Children of Israel were together at Sinai, so are they - and we - all together as we are reminded of the Covenant.  But it may seem virtually impossible to live up to our part of the bargain.  The Torah is full of rules and burdens, and throughout, especially in these two sedrahs and their predecessor, Ki Tavo, we are told of terrors to befall us if we transgress.  But that is not the message we are to take from all this.  Nitzavim mentions, and as we recite many times on Yom Kippur:  Ha-nistarot la-shem elokenu, v’ha-niglot lanu u’l'vanenu -

“The secret things belong to the L-rd, our G-d, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this Law.”

We undoubtedly will suffer tragedy and heartbreak - and we all have - we will be scattered among the peoples of the earth - and we have been - but if we hearken to G-d’s voice and spirit in the Covenant - v’shamarta b’kolo - as Moshe has laid out - then G-d will return us from our captivity and dispersion, and He will do us good, and we will multiply and prosper.

And hearkeining to that voice and spirit is certainly achievable.  This commandment is not beyond our capability:

Lo nifleith ha-shem mim’cha,, v’lo rachokah hi

“It is not too hard for you; it is not far off.”

It’s not in the heavens nor across the sea.

“But the thing is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.”

All these admonitions come in Nitzavim, and there’s more in Vayelech.  If they’re in prose in these two sidroth, they are in rich poetry in Ha-azinu.  It is a reiteration of the tragedies that will occur if Israel fails to hearken, but also, at the end, of the promise of redemption if we do hearken.

Moshe knows he is about to leave his people - G-d’s people - forever, and he knows how tough they’ve been during his long life with them.  So, he is not surprised that they will mess up when he’s gone.  But, faithful servant to G-d and to the people until the very end, he calls them together, so he can, in the words of another song, “call out danger, call out warning.”  Well. . . if we want to heed the warning and avoid the danger, if it is within our power, if it is nearby and not across the sea, and lo davar reik - not a vain or empty thing for us to do, how do we do it?

These 10 days are given us to try.  There is a lovely tale from the Talmud (Avoth d’Rabbi Natan), quoted by Chaim Schauss in his Guide to the Jewish Holy Days:

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, together with his pupil, Rabbi Joshua, once stood gazing at the ruins of the Temple.  And Rabbi Joshua said, “Woe to us that the place where the Jews were forgiven for their sins is destroyed.”  To which Rabbi Yochanan replied:  “My son, regret it not.  We have another medium, just as good, for the forgiveness of sin.  It is:  Do good to mankind.  For it is written: I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”

Our calendar and our customs explicitly give us these 10 days to recognize our human frailty and shortcomings.  And in these 10 days, we can try diligently to exercise that other part of our human nature - the ability to make good choices.  We can strive to choose the blessing and not the curse, to choose the Life of seeking and staying on G-d’s path and not the spiritual Death that confronts those who have turned away from it.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, of blessed memory, points out that Teruah and Teshuvah; Slicha; Kapparah and Teharah; Emunah and Simcha - trembling and repentance; forgiveness; atonement and purity; trust and joy - form what he calls “the cord of seven colors which the New Year herald brings a Tishrei to every Jewish home, to every Jewish breast, purifying and consecrating, strengthening and inspiring.”

Of the various blasts of the shofar, it is the Teruah - Allen and Guthrie certainly let us hear it! - the one which, when sounded in ancient Israel, was a signal for striking tents and preparing to fight.  It is the Teruah blasts that R. Hirsch calls the basic note of Tishrei.  It is the one to which we must urgently respond - nitzavim - standing upright and alert.

“The trumpet call of the Teruah,” R. Hirsch says, “must dispel the dream, the illusion and deception with which the senses lull us in their arms. . . it must awaken and summon us to the G-d who awaits us.  And the days of Teshuvah teach us to find again the way that leads us back into the arms of our Father and conducts us to Yom Ha-kippurim.

If we respond appropriately to the Teruah call by undertaking meaningful Teshuvah and Kapparah - return and atonement; if we forgive the transgressions of others, Selichah, even as we ask forgiveness for our own transgressions; if we strive hereafter for Teharah - purity and integrity in our actions; then we might have the trust and faith - Emunah - that we will ultimately experience the joy - the Simchah - of the upcoming Feast of Succoth, z’man simchateinu.

We are given, R. Hirsch says, “a new and virgin soil on which we are able, on the Festival of Succoth, to erect calmly and confidently, cheerfully and joyfully, the tabernacle of our lives.”

This, then, is my sense of the Asseret Y’mei Teshuvah.  You will certainly note that our most explicitly penitential prayers - ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu. . ., & al cheit she’chatanu l’fanecha - are all stated in plural form.  We are thus given individually and collectively the admonition to reexamine our deeds in the light of truth.

I would like to offer this final suggestion as we do so:  we should not neglect the good deeds we have also managed to accomplish during the year.

R. Yochanan said, “Do good to mankind.”  We should therefore look at the whole record, as dispassionately as possible, during these Yamim Nora’im:

Shuva Yisrael ad ha-shem elokecha, ki kashalta ba’avonecha.

“Return, O Israel, unto the L-rd thy G-d; for thou hast stumbled in thine iniquity.”

Where there have been errors of omission and of commission, we must acknowledge these sincerely and commit, with a clear head and repentant heart, to repair the damage done, and learn from the experience not to repeat those errors.  But - where there have also been tzedek & g’milut chasadim, if we are lucky enough to truly find some, then we should be pleased to recognize them and build upon them.

If we each succeed to at least some degree in the opportunity to accomplish our own Teshuvah, and to help our brethren in accomplishing theirs, then we may feel some confidence and hope during N’ilah when we beseech G-d, reciting in His own words, as voiced by the Prophet Ezekiel:

Ki lo echpotz ha-meith, n’um Ha-shem elokecha, v’hashivu v’chiyu.

“Have I, says the L-rd, any desire for the death of the wicked?  If he turns from his evil ways, he shall live.”

And the Prohpet Joel, in today’s haftarah, also inspires us:

Vi’yidatem ki b’kerev Yisrael ani - v’ani ha-shem elokeichem, v’ein od; v’lo yeivoshu ami l’olam.

“And ye shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the L-rd your G-d, and there is none else; and My people shall never be ashamed.”

May we all be sealed in the Book of Life for a year of good health, good sustenance, happiness, and peace.

Shabbat Shalom - gimru chatimoth tovoth.