Listen and Hear: Heaven and Earth

September 5, 2010

9 min read


Ha'azinu (Deuteronomy 32 )

In Parshat Ha'azinu, Moshe speaks in song. In what may sound like no more than a poetic turn of phrase, Moshe addresses heaven and earth:

Listen, O heavens, and I will speak; and let the earth hear the words of my mouth. (Devarim 32:1)

Rashi's understanding is that Moshe calls upon heaven and earth to bear witness to his words; he recognizes that his death is imminent, and he therefore calls upon the most permanent fixtures of the universe to be eternal witnesses.(1) However, when Moshe address heaven and earth, he uses different words: He invites the heavens to listen while he asks the earth to "hear". These opening words may reveal much about the author, Moshe.

The Targum (Pseudo) Yonatan adds an interesting title to Moshe's name, one that is actually quite obvious, but nevertheless seldom used:

When the time came for Moshe the Prophet to be gathered from the world... (Targum Pseudo Yonatan Devarim 32:1)

Moshe is described as a prophet, which is obvious: Moshe was the greatest prophet who ever lived. Nonetheless, Moshe's words are rarely introduced by a label of this sort. This leads us to believe that there may be something prophetic about this particular section, or, alternatively, that this section may yield certain insights into the nature of Moshe's prophecy.(2)

The Sifri compares Moshe's words with those of the prophet Yishayahu, who also spoke of heaven and earth:

Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth, for God has spoken: Children I have reared, and brought up, and they have rebelled against Me. (Yishayahu 1:2)

'Listen, O heavens:' since Moshe was close to heaven he said "listen heavens" and since he was distant from earth he said "let the earth hear the words of my mouth." Yishayahu came and spoke similarly: "Hear, O heavens" for he was distant from heaven, "listen earth" for he was close to earth". (Sifri Devarim ,Parshat Haazinu section 306)

While one may be tempted to explain that the time spent on Sinai rendered Moshe "closer" to heaven, the Sifri is most likely not referring to physical proximity, rather to spiritual proximity. Moshe was closer to heaven than Yishayahu.(3)

Rav Yosef Soloveitchik(4) placed this problem in the context of a teaching of the Mechilta:

You find that there are three sons; one was concerned for the honor of both the Father and the son. One was concerned for the honor of the Father, and not the honor of the son. The third was concerned with the honor of the son, but not the honor of the Father. Yirmiyahu was concerned for the honor of the Father and the honor of the son, as it is written. "We have sinned and rebelled, You did not forgive" [Eichah 3:42]. For this reason his prophecy was compounded, as it is written, "And to this, more was added.' [Yirmiyahu 36:32] Eliyahu was concerned for the honor of the Father and not the honor of the son, as it is written, "I have been jealous for the Almighty God of Hosts, etc." [I Melachim 19:10]. And what is written there? "And God said to him, 'Anoint Elisha the son of Shafat to prophesy in your stead.'" [ibid.] There is no other way to understand the words "in your stead" other than "it is impossible for you to be a prophet." Yonah was concerned for the honor of the son and not for the honor of the Father [as it is written, 'And Yonah rose up to flee, etc." And why does it say "And the Word of God came to Yonah a second time" [Yonah 3:1]? He spoke to him a second time, but not a third time. (Mechilta Parshat Bo Mesechta D'Pischa, 1)

The three sons described in the Mechilta are three prophets: Yirmiyahu, Eliyahu and Yona. Yirmiyahu honored both Father and son, Eliyahu honored the Father but not the son, while Yonah honored the son but not the Father. This may be most easily understood in the case of Yonah who is best known from the eponymous book, in which he runs from his prophetic mission. In fact, Yonah did fulfill another prophetic mission with which he was charged:

In the fifteenth year of Amaziah the son of Yoash king of Yehudah, Jerovam the son of Yoash, King of Israel began to reign in Shomron, and reigned forty-one years. And he did that which was evil in the sight of God; he did not turn away from all the sins of Jerovam the son of Nevat, who caused Israel to sin. He restored the border of Israel from the entrance of Hamat unto the sea of the Aravah, according to the word of the Almighty, the God of Israel, which He spoke by the hand of His servant Yonah the son of Amittai, the prophet from Gat-Hefer. (II Melachim, 14:25)

The prophecy that called for the expansion of Israel's borders was successfully conveyed by Yonah, but he was unwilling to deliver God's message to the heathen sinners of Ninveh who desecrated God's name with their behavior. He had no interest in trying to redeem a nation that would prove to be one of Israel's most bitter enemies. If Yonah was a reluctant prophet, his reluctance stemmed from his concern for the Jewish People: He was more concerned with the honor of the "son". He was, in the words of the Mechilta, closer to earth and relatively estranged from heaven.

Eliyahu was closer to heaven, as he himself attests:

And he said: 'I have been very jealous for God, the Lord of Hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, destroyed Your altars, and slain Your prophets by the sword; and I alone am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.' (II Melachim, 19:14)

Eliyahu feels God's "pain," as it were; he is jealous, and seeks vengeance in God's name. He honors the "Father" but not the "son." God, though, has different thoughts on the matter, and informs Eliyahu that he is "fired":

And God said to him: 'Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; and when you arrive, anoint Hazael to be king over Aram; and Yehu the son of Nimshi anoint to be king over Israel; and Elisha the son of Shafat of Avel-Meholah anoint to be prophet in your stead. (II Melachim 19:15-16)

The Mechilta stresses that Eliyahu was "dismissed" for this attitude.

...It is impossible for you to be a prophet. (Mechilta Parshat Bo Masechta d'Pischa chapter 1)

Eliyahu was so close to heaven that he ended up being taken directly to heaven on in a fiery chariot.(5) Yonah was so close to earth, he was plunged into the depths of the sea(6) until he was willing to honor heaven as well.

The third type of prophet is one who is concerned with both heaven and earth. According to the Mechilta the one who excelled at this task was Yirmiyahu. Rabbi Soloveitchik saw our present parsha in this context, and suggested that both Moshe and Yishayahu were aware of the critical balance between being a prophet of God and a leader of the Jewish people, of being concerned with the honor of the "Father" and the honor of "son". They were both concerned with heaven and earth, although Moshe felt closer to heaven while Yishayahu felt closer to earth.

When the Jews sin with the Golden Calf, the argument the Moshe put forth was concerned with honor of heaven and earth:

And Moshe besought the Almighty his God, and said: 'God, why unleash Your wrath against Your people, whom You brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should Egypt be able to say: He took them out with evil intentions, to kill them in the mountains, and to wipe them from the face of the earth? Turn away from Your fierce wrath, and refrain from doing evil to Your people. Remember Your servants Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yisrael, to whom You swore by Your very essence, and declared that You would make their descendents as numerous as the stars of heaven, giving their descendents the land You promised, so that they would be able to occupy it forever.' And God refrained from doing the evil that He had planned for His people. (Shmot 32:11-14)

Moshe begins his prayer with concerns of the honor of heaven; only then does he introduce the honor of the patriarchs - the Jewish People. Although he was concerned for both, he was just a little closer with heaven.

Moshe, who visited heaven and had the secrets of heaven revealed to him, felt close with heaven. It would be understandable if he was only concerned with the honor of the "Father". But Moshe was constantly aware that he was both an emissary of God and, at the same time, an emissary of the People of Israel. As he delivers his penultimate speech, Moshe reveals a bit of his inner world - the proximity that he felt to heaven, and the fact that this did not cause him to lose his concern for those below on earth.



1. Rashi Devarim 32:1.

2. The term "Moshe the Prophet" is used by the Targum Pseudo Yonatan a number of times in the commentary, especially in the section of VeZot HaBracha, when Moshe gives his prophetic blessings.

3. See the Chizkuni, who considers Moshe's physical proximity to heaven, only to reject it as a factor at the time of this speech. He then explains the words 'listen' and 'hear' in two contradictory ways.

4. B'shem Omram, edited and compiled Dr. Zvi Harris Guedalia and Rabbi Efraim Hadad, based on the notes of Rabbi Nathan Goldstein of the lectures of Rabbi Yosef Dov Solovietchik. Keren Gimmel, 2000.

5. See II Melachim 2:11. "And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, which parted them both asunder; and Eliyahu went up by a whirlwind into heaven."

6. Yonah 1:15: "So they took up Yonah, and cast him forth into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging."

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