October 13, 2005
Parshat Ha'azinu (Deuteronomy 32-1:32:52)
Your child comes home and says she wants to be a doctor someday. Your spouse or serious beau tells you he or she dreams of being something greater. And you douse the dream with a comment: "You aren't smart enough," "You don't have the skills needed to do that" or "No one will take you seriously."
Or that same person, rather than dreaming of embarking on a career or changing one, dreams of intensifying her relationship with God or his Jewish religious practice, from lighting Shabbat candles to going to shul more regularly.
Again, the aspiration for something greater than mediocrity is doused: "But you are not really a religious person," "You travel on Shabbat" or "Stop being a hypocrite, and just go to the beach on Saturday with the family."
So much of life consists of dreams and hopes, aspirations for something greater that get stanched and vanquished by those close by. They might be family or well-intentioned friends. They think they know you and what's best for you.
And, as you dream of sailing the stars in the skies, they remind you that you have never done it before, that no one in your family has done it before and that you should just stay home, crack open a beer or call some old friends.
In Ha'azinu, Moses delivers an epic poem to the Jewish people on the eve of his passing. He begins with the words: "Listen, O Heaven, and I will speak. And hear [from] me, O Earth, the utterances of my lips" (Deuteronomy 32:1).
On their surface, the words are not unusual in their repetition. Ancient Mideast poetry consisted of reciting phrases in couplets of symmetry and repetition. Archaeologists have found ancient Ugaritic poetry, for example, written in the same way.
But there is one nuance in that opening verse that stands out profoundly, despite its subtlety. "Listen -- Heaven. Hear me -- Earth." The nuance is underscored by the prophecy of Isaiah that we read on the Shabbat leading into Tisha B'Av, where he tells the Jewish nation: "Hear [me], O Heaven, and listen [to me], O Earth" (Isaiah 1:2). Interesting difference: "Listen -- Earth. Hear me -- Heaven."
A person asks someone else to "listen," when the second person is close by. A person asks whether someone can "hear" him when he is separated by some distance. "Can you hear me back there?" "Moses, would you please listen more carefully?" We instinctively know when to use the words, having learned our language well. It is the same in Hebrew.
Moses was at the end of a lofty life and career spent in extraordinary communion with God. No one ever saw God as Moses did, and there never again has arisen a prophet among us of the elevated level that Moses possessed. So when Moses spoke to the heavens, he asked them to listen. They were proximate. And, as his moments in this world slowly ticked to the end, he reflected his growing distance by asking the earth to "hear" him, too.
By contrast, the prophet Isaiah was one of us, a more regular person, albeit of extraordinary holiness and sanctity, meriting his choice for the historic roles that God demanded of him in prophecy. But, despite that saintliness, when Isaiah addressed the earth, he asked it to "listen." He asked the heavens to "hear" him.
Moses and Isaiah used words that reflected in the most natural way how they saw themselves. Moses saw himself, in all modesty, as closer to heaven; Isaiah to earth. As they saw themselves, they used the verbs that matter-of-factly conveyed that perception.
The way we see ourselves can affect how we speak, how we think, how we act. If we see ourselves as holier, we often move in that direction. Not always. No, not always. But we have a chance to grow to something greater.
When people around us douse those perceptions, particularly when the self-vision emanates not from hubris but from a humble dream to be greater, to grow and to take on something never tried before, those "well-wishers" are doing no service of friendship. They are dousing dreams.
It takes a great deal to dream. It takes even more to actualize dreams when so many friends and family are on hand to remind us that our dreams are foolish, hypocritical, ridiculous. Yes, we need a foot in reality. But it also is OK to dream and to strive for something greater. To set sail for the stars in the sky. If only they can hear us.
Rabbi Dov Fischer, a member of the Rabbinical Council of California, is rav of Beth Jacob Congregation of Irvine and an adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School.