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.

Ethical & Spiritual Concerns

Second, a society that destroys the environment is one that lacks any sensitivity towards future generations. Of itself, it espouses the philosophy 'eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die,' while abandoning its children to an unknown future.

It should be emphasized, however: it is not inherent that a society that takes pains to protect its environment will expand these efforts to its spiritual vision as well. On the contrary, it is possible to envisage a situation in which a society becomes addicted on a broad scale to the protection of its resources and environment, specifically out of a fear of, and an escape from, spiritual visions and a connection with the Divine. Protection of the environment may turn into a modern form of idolatry, precisely because of its focus on the real and tangible world, and its disconnect from a holy and pure life of faith.

That said, it is nonetheless true that the spiritual and moral stance that regards itself as responsible for the image of the world and the protection of the Earth is an appropriate foundation for the building of a truly spiritual world. The opposite is also true: we may find a moral and just society that does not see the need to protect the quality of its environmental life. There is usually, however, a connection between the character of society and its attitude towards its surroundings.

Testimony of the Heavens

We have dealt until now with the Earth, but these sentiments are also true with regard to the Heavens. When attempting to discern the character of a society by looking to its skies, several issues are of relevance. Of these we will mention three.

First and foremost: the ever-widening hole in the ozone layer, which testifies more than anything else to the character of Western society. Production methods and unbridled consumerism are today infecting the awakening giant--China, as well as its neighbor, India, and the world in which we live is entering an insane, materialistic rat race. The destruction of the atmosphere bears very real testimony to what is currently happening, as well as testimony to the character of the society in which we live and through which we develop.

The second issue is rainfall, which is heavily influenced by humans' actions on the Earth, such as deforestation and global warming. Drought, too, has a new facet--it is now also a consequence of human action, and can be avoided in part by adopting a better relationship towards the universe. The connection between man's ethical lifestyle, and rainfall, is truly a fascinating topic; not as a supernatural miracle, but as the direct and straightforward connection between over-consumption and scarcity of rainfall.

Thirdly, in a place farther away from us, but still one that is beginning to bear significance with regard to our destiny, the seeds of another catastrophe are being sown: the chaos taking place today in outer space. Experts claim that space is filling up with filth: satellite parts, waste, etc. This stuff, known as orbital debris or space junk, is becoming an integral part of space, with the Heavens once again bearing witness to the faulty character of humankind's activity in our world.

Achieving Harmony

Our awareness of the environment reveals to us, then, an additional layer of significance to the testimony of Heaven and Earth. It is a direct testimony--not miraculous, but one whose source lies in the structure of the natural world that lies before us. The world itself bears witness to the character of the society that inhabits it.

A spiritual response must therefore be directed not only to the Heavens above, but also to the Earth below, and must be expressed not only in keeping the mitzvot and remaining loyal to the Divine covenant, but also in remaining loyal to the world designed by the Creator.

By so doing, we will be fulfilling a twofold objective. We will protect the world designed by the Creator, and will fulfill His commandment from the beginning of Creation to take responsibility for the world's character and to ensure that it can fulfill its own purpose.

The second objective is the harmony that will be created between our spiritual world and the real world in which we live. This harmony is what will allow us to build a world whose external framework and internal content both express exactly the same idea. It is then that Heaven and Earth will bear witness to the deep process of teshuvah and tikkun--repentance and repair--that we are engaged in, while serving as a barometer that reflects our spiritual and moral character.

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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.