Parashat Ha'azinu

The Heavens & Earth Bear Witness

Nature can tell us a lot about our ethical and spiritual situation.

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"Give ear, O Heavens, and I will speak,

and may the Earth hear the words of my mouth (Deut 32:1)."

The Heavens do not know how to listen, and the Earth cannot hear that which the Creator has spoken. So how are we to understand Moses' call to the cosmos, "Give ear, O Heavens, and I will speak, and may the Earth hear the words of my mouth" at the beginning of the Torah portion Ha'azinu?

Some commentaries interpret the call to Heaven and Earth as a call to become tools of the Creator for the realization of His intentions (eg, Rashi). Other commentators explain that Heaven and Earth bear witness simply by virtue of their eternal existence. They need not make any active effort in order to listen, since their actual existence is in fact their means of hearing (eg, Nahmanides).

The profound and constantly increasing awareness of environmental issues and of the awesome responsibility we bear towards the Earth and its atmosphere afford us a special opportunity to contemplate the testimony given by Heaven and Earth.

Consumerism Gone Wild

Heaven and Earth bear witness, in fact, to the character--in the general sense--of the society we are building, since they constitute the basic structure of the universe. The Earth testifies to how we live our lives. An appropriate attitude towards the Earth begins with a great sense of humility in the face of reality.

While we were commanded to "be fruitful and multiply, and fill the land and subdue it (Genesis 1:28)," this conquest does not mean sucking the Earth dry and exhausting nature's treasures. It refers rather to a control and mastery of the world that is guided by knowledge of our responsibility to use it to realize the full potential of everything and everyone that exists in our world.

The failure to protect the environment serves as a very powerful testimony to a number of extremely basic issues. First, it exposes a society driven by consumerism and greed, one which knows no fulfillment, and does not know how to restrain itself from exhausting the pleasures of this world. This can be seen as the root of the verse found later in our parashah, "Jeshurun became grew fat and kicked (Deut. 32:15)."

The obesity spoken of here is a result of unbridled consumption and of intensive gorging on everything the world makes available to us. Not only this, but the abused Earth also testifies to the fact that our massive consumption has been done without any mechanisms put in place for its protection.

What this points to is a society that is not at all afraid of decline and is not open-minded enough to allow for constructive criticism. The destruction of the environment is thus a testimony to the spiritual level of society.

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Rabbi Yuval Cherlow

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Hesder Petach Tikva, is a graduate of Yeshivat Har Etzion and a retired major in the IDF. Rabbi Cherlow was amongst the founders of the Tzohar Foundation, a central Modern Orthodox foundation which works to build bridges between the religious and secular worlds.