Ha’azinu: Between Heaven and Earth

Why did Moshe address the earth as well as the heavens? And why did Yeshayahu address the heavens as well as the earth? Why did they not confine themselves to speaking to the realm closest to them?

The answer to these questions depends on a fundamental tenet of Judaism: we must relate to both earth and heaven. For material and spiritual reality are meant to be connected, instead of being left as skew lines. Judaism involves drawing down spiritual reality until it meshes with worldly experience (Moshe’s contribution), while elevating worldly experience until a bond with the spiritual is established (Yeshayahu’s contribution). (see Rambam, Commentary to the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 10:1), the seventh and eighth of the Thirteen Principles of Faith)

Indeed, the two initiatives can be seen as phases in a sequence. By revealing the Torah, Moshe endowed every individual with the potential to become “close to the heavens.” Yeshayahu developed the connection further, making it possible for a person to experience being “close to heavens” while “close to the earth” involved in the mundane details of material life.

-Rabbi Eli Touger
“Close To The Heavens”
From the “In the Garden of Torah” series
Commentary on Torah Portion Ha’azinu

This is something like what I’ve been trying to say in my Jesus, Halakhah, and the Evolution of Judaism series. There is a dynamic tension in Judaism between Heaven and earth; between God and man, between the Spiritual ideal and the practicality of performing the mitzvot in the secular world. Heaven never changes, but the world in which we live in changes all the time. As we see from Rabbi Touger’s commentary on this week’s Torah portion, we might very well say that a Jew has one foot anchored in Heaven and the other planted firmly on earth.

The Master said it this way:

But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. –John 17:13-19 (ESV)

Just as Jesus was, at that time, in the world but not of the world, this is how he characterized his disciples, who were set apart; sanctified for holy service to God. This is also a good understanding of what I see in Rabbi Touger’s commentary on what the Song of Moses was and is trying to teach the descendents of Jacob and the children of Israel.

And as Christians, this is a lesson we must learn as well.

But it isn’t easy. There’s a very delicate balance going on here. It would be very simple to slip too far one way or the other. If we go too far into the spiritual realm, we might have to leave the world altogether. More often than not though, we would probably just lose our way, walking off of the true path and into realms that involve excessive, arcane spiritual and mystic philosophies that are often mistaken for “mysterious truths” by people who are never satisfied with what God has given them. To go too far in the opposite direction (and this is the mistake most of us make) is to become too much of the world, bending our theologies and philosophies to the demands of a politically correct western culture, and believing that God has not prepared for us His enduring principles and values.

But how do you know if you’re biased too far in one direction or another? How can you tell if you’ve struck the right balance between adhering to eternal truths and adapting your religious practice to the needs of the current generation?

You almost never can tell until you, or someone around you, has gone to one extreme or the other, and then it becomes all too obvious.

How do you steady yourself on the path? That’s not easy, either. But it’s done by surrounding yourself with stable companions in the faith; men and women who are “grounded in the Word” and who have spent much time with God, men and women of prayer, grace, compassion, and acts of charity and kindness. Think of them as there to assist you in the occasional “course correction” that must be made during your journey between birth and God.

Unfortunately, there are always wrong communities that will support and encourage problems:

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. –2 Timothy 4:3-5 (ESV)

This is a well used and well-abused set of verses because almost everyone in every type of Christian denomination, sect, and variant believes their group is the only one that possesses “sound teaching” and that everyone else who differs from them have “itching ears.” Indeed, the Messianic Jewish and Gentile Hebrew Roots movements are often characterized in the latter category by the mainstream Christian churches, since the focus on Hebraic and Jewish thought is contrary to what most churches teach.

So what do you do? How can you be so sure of yourself?

The scary answer is that, if you are at all honest with yourself and with God, you can’t be too sure. In fact, a little self-doubt is probably healthy. Taking other people’s criticisms to heart, at least temporarily, lets you look at yourself from a different point of view and ask the question, “what if I’m wrong?” I spent about a year on a different blog asking myself that question in many different ways, and my current perspective on this blog is the result. Just two weeks ago, I admitted I was wrong in response to a critic’s complaint, and I started a journey to investigate what the Bible really says about a Christian’s covenant connection to God.

If you assume that you’re never wrong, then you are almost certain to be walking away from God. I’ve met people like that, both in the blogosphere and face-to-face and believe me, they’re scary.

But what can we do when information overload hits, when the words and the texts and the spiritual pronouncements get to be too much? What do you do when you feel like you are about to fall off the tightrope, or that you are running on the edge of a razor blade, in imminent danger of being sliced to ribbons? As the saying goes, you need to “get back to basics.”

My soul thirsts for You; my flesh pines for You.

Psalms 63:2

One Yom Kippur, after the Maariv (evening) services that ended the 25-hour fast, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berdichev exclaimed, “I am thirsty! I am thirsty!” Quickly someone brought him water, but the Rabbi said, “No! I am thirsty!” Hastily they boiled water and brought him coffee, but again he said, “No! No! I am thirsty!” His attendant then asked, “Just what is it you desire?”

“A tractate Succah (the volume of the Talmud dealing with the laws of the festival of Succos).” They brought the desired volume, and the Rabbi began to study the Talmud with great enthusiasm, ignoring the food and drink that were placed before him.

Only after several hours of intense study did the Rabbi breathe a sigh of relief and break his fast. The approaching festival of Succos with its many commandments – only five days after Yom Kippur – had aroused so intense a craving that it obscured the hunger and thirst of the fast.

It is also related that at the end of Succos and Pesach, festivals during which one does not put on tefillin, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok sat at the window, waiting for the first glimmer of dawn which would allow him to fulfill the mitzvah of tefillin after a respite of eight or nine days.

Today I shall…

try to realize that Torah and mitzvos are the nutrients of my life, so that I crave them just as I do food and water when I am hungry or thirsty.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Tishrei 11”

The “Torah and mitzvos;” Heaven and earth are the nutrients of life. We crave them like food and water. To extend the metaphor, we need a “balanced diet” to stay healthy. I adopted the name and philosophy for my blog from something written by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman that was based on the letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson:

When you get up in the morning, let the world wait. Defy it a little. First learn something to inspire you. Take a few moments to meditate upon it. And then you may plunge ahead into the darkness, full of light with which to illuminate it.

When you find yourself poised between Heaven and earth, try to balance yourself as much as possible, and then pick up a Bible or perhaps some text produced by a learned sage. Learn one thing that inspires you, that fills you with energy, and prompts you to seize the day…meditate upon it, question it, question your own understanding of it and of yourself for a time. Then start walking forward on your path toward the dawn and let yourself be the light that provides illumination.

I am gratified that this lesson has extended outward a little from my humble blog.

Good Shabbos.

8 thoughts on “Ha’azinu: Between Heaven and Earth”

  1. Hey James,

    Thought provoking piece, to be sure. I think every one of us can easily get “caught” in this dilemma. It’s hard, as you said, to remain in the balance, receiving the best of both worlds, so to speak.

    The important thing to remember, for me, is that Jesus didn’t come into this world offering us a means by which to escape; but rather, a means through which to be fulfilled, in this life, in this age, in this world (with all of its hate, sickness, sin, and loss).

    He prayed for G-d’s will to be done, on earth, as it is in Heaven. When He spoke of “eternal life,” He wasn’t referring (solely) to a peaceful hereafter, but rather, more importantly, to having life now, in all of it’s fullness. Heaven is the perfect representation of how live should be, how it was, and how, through G-d’s grace, it will be again.

    Sometimes I hear my peers talk about the earth as if it’s not important; “Heaven is our true home,” they say, “this is just a pit stop on the road to eternity.”

    It befuddles me to think in such a way; “what scripture are they reading?” I ask myself.

    Whatever happened to G-d coming back to Jerusalem, to live once again in harmony in his temple of creation? What about Jesus working miracles to show exactly that very thing, the in-breaking of G-d’s kingdom, on earth, as it is in Heaven? What about feeding the hungry? Clothing the naked? Comforting those who are sick?

    For me, what keeps me focused, is knowing that G-d isn’t casting off this old home we call earth, but rather, He is redeeming it. Heaven is a reality, yes, but what Jesus showed us was that this reality, is meant to be joined, not separated, with our earthly one. Heaven and earth are meant to be together; as they were in Eden, and so they will be again, in G-d’s god time.

    It’s this that gives me clarity on the issue.

    Whenever I get too caught up in the Heavenly, I’m reminded that it is our imperative to bring the Heavenly, to earth. Whenever I get too caught up in the world, I’m reminded that the world, though beautiful and good, is broken, and needs Heaven yet.

    Anyways, thanks for the post, enjoyed reading it!

    Shalom friend!

  2. I’m glad you liked it. I agree and indeed, we know at the end of all things, we don’t go up to Heaven, Heaven comes down to us and Paradise is re-established right here on Earth, as God originally intended.


  3. Reading this a day or more later…..well said, both blogger and commenter…..Thank you both…

    How else can anything other than what you wrote, make any sense Biblically otherwise? And then there is our response to the life we are given, the works of all creation, the reality of love and kindness, even our response to pain and our hatred of evil; the undeniable cry of the human heart for love and meaning, and awareness of the human mind that there really IS MORE.

    “Thy will (WILL) be done on earth as it is in heaven…” that prayer of our Saviour HIMSELF who paid the price for this to (in His time) become reality. “Occupy until I come…” a little salt here, and some light there….

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