By Baruch Sienna (14 Sep 04) Kolel


Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;
Let the earth hear the words I utter!
May my discourse come down as the rain,
My speech distill as the dew,
Like showers on young growth,
Like droplets on the grass."  (Deut. 32:1,2)

Rabbi Akiva: Give ear, O heavens. This teaches that when Moses spoke the Torah, he was in heaven, but Isaiah who was on land began by saying 'Hear O heaven' as it was far from him.


And so we reach the penultimate portion of the Torah, parashat Ha'azinu. This is actually the last portion of the Torah read on Shabbat as part of the regular annual cycle of Torah readings. (The final reading V'zot Habracha is read on Simchat Torah before we turn back to the beginning and start the cycle anew, and until then, the next few weeks are interrupted with special holiday readings for Yom Kippur and Hol HaMo'ed Sukkot.) As we 'wrap up' this cycle of reading, this week we explore the nature of Torah itself. There are many ways to look at Torah: as a historical document, a book of laws or insructions, a diary of the Jewish people, or a love letter from God. What we consider the Torah to be, impacts on how we read it.

This week's parasha has the distinction of being the shortest: only one chapter long! The chapter is a poem recited by Moses describing the consequences of Israel's stubbornness and rebellion against God. The Torah refers to this passage as shirah, the Hebrew word for poem (some translations render it as 'song'). Because it is a poem, our text is even written distinctively in the Torah scroll, in two narrow columns; you can easily notice this when the Torah is raised in the synagogue this Shabbat. The poem is full of natural imagery, and typical of biblical poetry, each verse repeats the same idea in different words. The verses are classical biblical poetry: "Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;
Let the earth hear the words I utter!

This connection between Torah and poetry is further hinted at in the last chapter of the previous week's parasha: The last verse introduces and refers to the poem of our parasha: "Moses spoke the words of this poem to the very end, in the hearing of the whole congregation of Israel" (31:30). But this verse echoes the earlier verse: "Moses finished writing the words of this Instruction (Torah) in a scroll to the very end" (31:24). The word 'Torah' (literally, instruction) here is understood by most modern scholars to refer to the book of Deuteronomy and the word shirah to refer to the poem of Chapter 32, but classical commentators understand both to refer to the entire Torah. The proof text is verse 19: "Write down for yourself this song (i.e. the Torah)... to be a witness..." (31:19). This verse is traditionally understood to refer to the mitzvah of 'writing a Sefer Torah.' This verse makes the connection between Torah and shirah almost explicit. But is the entire Torah in fact a poem?

The Netziv (known by the Hebrew initials of his name: Naftali Tvzi Yehudah Berlin, 1817-1893) suggests it is! Not that the Torah all rhymes, or doesn't include legal, historical or genealogical content. According to the Netziv, the Torah is a poem, but since the Torah only includes a few, brief passages that we would actually call poetry, it must be that the Torah possesses the essential character of poetry.

Everyone knows that there is a distinction between poetry and prose. In poetry, the subject matter is not plainly set forth as in prose. Additional explanations are necessary in order to indicate the allusions condensed into each expression Such is the nature of the Torah. Its story is not elaborated on and it is plainly explained, but it requires additional explanations in order to appreciate its allusions.
HaEmek Davar


If the whole of Torah is poetry, how are we to read it? For the Netziv, the essential quality of poetry is its compressed nature and its allusiveness. He understood that poetry is symbolic language. Implicit meaning is at the heart of poetry; the so-called hidden meaning of the Biblical text is its real meaning!


Another idea is that Torah/poetry has multiple layers of meaning. Rav Yechiel Michal Epstein was a great Lithuanian Halakhist of the 19th century who thought the multiple meanings of Torah create a wonderful kind of symphony of notes all needing to be brought into harmony. At the beginning of his classic Halakhic work, Aruch Hashulkhan, on the Choshen Mishpat section, he writes:


All disputes between the Tannaim, the Amoraim, the Geonim and the Poskim, if fully understood, are the words of the Living God, and all find expression in the Halakha. To the contrary, this is the splendor of our holy and pure Torah; the entire Torah is called shira, and the splendor of a song occurs when it contains different voices.


Biblical poetry doesn't use rhyming words; instead it repeats each verse with parallel language:  (For out of Zion shall come forth Torah, and the word of Adonai from Jerusalem; where Zion is another word for Jerusalem, and Torah equals the word of Adonai). The rabbinic approach to Torah considers nothing superfluous, so the doubling couplets are fertile material for midrashic interpretation. The poem's rich imagery and poetic language lends itself to being scrutinized microscopically by the rabbis and every phrase's nuance is paid attention to: What is the difference between 'ha'azinu' (listen/literally, give ear) and 'tishma' (hear). Why are the earth and heaven called to be witnesses? What is the significance of 'Listen heaven' before 'and I will speak'? Is there a difference between 'rain' and 'dew'? Is rain a symbol of Torah? I could go on and on. And that's just the first verse!


To read Torah we have to stop and read carefully. We have here a classic example of what contemporary Jewish educator Joel Grishaver (and others) call: 'close-reading.' These questions should make us pause; maybe we should call it 'slow reading!' Today we're so inundated with information that it's often hard to slow down when we read; we usually want to read faster so we can skim material and just get the main idea. Companies advertise 'speed reading'; Jews could open 'slow reading' courses. "Guaranteed to make you read slower or your money back!" (Now there's a catchy slogan and money making idea...) It is hard to slow down, but like poetry, when we read Torah, we have to stop and pay attention to not only what the Torah is saying, but how it says it!


Compare, for example, our text's first words with the similar beginning in Isaiah: "Hear O heavens, and Give ear O earth" (1:2).  Rabbi Akiva, who believed every letter had significance saw that Isaiah reversed the verbs. Understanding that 'hear' you can do from afar, but 'Give ear' is more intimate, like for a whisper, Akiva reasoned that Isaiah had to call out to Heaven to 'Hear', but could ask the earth (where he was closer) to just 'give ear'. Moses, on the other hand, was closer to heaven. So Akiva finds a lesson on the level of prophecy of Moses and Isaiah in this very subtle difference between our two texts. On the other hand, the medieval commentator ibn Ezra would probably agree with T.S. Eliot:  "Now there is no distinction between 'hear' and 'give-ear' according to the Pshat method".


Whether you agree with Akiva, or the more unromantic ibn Ezra, the Torah text definitely has more than 'meets the eye.' Exploring the meaning of the Torah's poetry is what we will be doing in the coming year.