September 23, 2009
Heaven and Earth
Parashat Ha’azinu (Deuteronomy 32:1-32:52)
“April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rains.”
— “Wasteland,” by T.S. Eliot
Maybe it is the unforgettable image of Charlton Heston as Moshe in “The Ten Commandments,” coming down from Mount Sinai with the Tablets of the Law. Or maybe it is the image of God as a harsh, demanding and vengeful deity, and Moshe as His representative, which causes many of us to cast him as a fierce, unyielding drill sergeant. We don’t consider him as an artist, capable of creating magnificent works.
That’s probably one of the sins we forgot on Rosh Hashanah, and one we should make up for on Yom Kippur, because Moshe’s career as the ultimate leader of B’nai Israel, unifier and redeemer, dreamer and fighter, starts and ends with an outburst of creativity — two beautiful and powerful poems, or shirot. His life oscillates between the joy and jubilation of Shirat HaYam, the song of praise following the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, and the gloom and doom of Shirat Ha’azinu, his spiritual legacy delivered shortly before his death. These two poems are the frame to the rich tapestry of Moshe’s prophecy and they resonate perfectly not only with his life, but with all human struggles throughout life.
Moshe is a well-protected but desperately abandoned baby, growing up as a prince among his oppressors and shunned by his brethren when trying to save them. He is frowned upon by his brother and sister, and denied entrance to the Promised Land by the Master he had served so faithfully. He overcomes all challenges, experiences personal crises and emerges as the greatest prophet humanity has known. It is the eternal tension between the heavenly and the mundane, the Divine and the human that his life represents.
The human being, formed from the dust of the earth but blessed with the Divine breath of life blown into his nostrils, is torn between heaven and earth. When Elton John sings, “and it seems to me that you lived your life like a candle in the wind,” he is echoing the words of our sages, following the Bible, which describes the human soul as God’s candle. Just as a candle is physically connected to the physical, palpable world, so are we rooted here, fighting for survival, winning our daily bread, trying to secure peace and harmony for our little corner of the world for completely selfish reasons. And just as the flame keeps reaching upward to heaven — abstract and beautiful, caressing and threatening, multicolored and never the same — our soul, our spiritual essence, seeks the good in the world and in us, searching for greater causes and the meaning of life, settling sometimes for reality, and eventually flickers and disappears, leaving only a memory and the smiles of those who benefited from it while still here.
“Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; Let the earth hear the words I utter” (Deuteronomy 32:1).
Moshe invokes the ancient heavens and earth of creation, the fabric of human soul and body. And he goes on to analogize his prophecy to rain and dew, “like showers on young growth, like droplets on the grass” (Deuteronomy 32:2) and yet the dichotomy remains. The rain — powerful and abundant, loving and kind — can turn into a destructive force and is sorely missed in times of drought. Meanwhile, dew is considered an eternal blessing, never failing nor faltering. In one breath, Moshe uses the ineffable Name, representing mercy and lovingkindness, and Elokim, which stands for strict and unforgiving judgment.
It is the story of Moshe’s life, the story of our lives and Eliot’s observation in the opening verses of “Wasteland”; the unavoidable clash of positive and negative, uplifting and depressing, sublime and ordinary. These heavens and earth finally appear in another beautiful poem that presents not only the problem but the solution as well:
“Where can I escape from Your spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, You are there;
If I descend to Sheol, You are there too.” (Psalms 139:7-8)
We can never escape from the Divine, because it is in us; it is what makes us feel and see evil and good, what pushes our flame above and beyond physical boundaries; it is the power which, when fully embraced, allows us to find, even at cruelest time, the essence of life that gives us hope and determination to turn this physical, mundane world into a better world for all.