Listening to the Unheard Voice 1
The voice is there, even when you think you cannot hear it.
G-d speaks to Man constantly. He speaks at all times and under all circumstances. He speaks to the whole person, and to each of his parts. Part of our responsibility as Jews is to listen carefully to that voice, and to detect what it is telling us.
A famous mashal illustrates why it must be so. A king sends his beloved son to a distant part of the realm, a place frequented by the king’s mortal enemies. The king understands all too well the danger his son faces – the struggles and obstacles with which he must deal. The son occupies a prominent place in the king’s mind. He thinks of him always, and makes it his business to remain in constant touch.
The Jewish neshamah stands in place of the son. It is sent on a mission to a hostile and dangerous place. A Jew must realize that the King insists on keeping open lines of communication, and speaks with us constantly. Even when the message is not so much to our liking, we must understand that it comes from our dearest Friend, our compassionate Father. Nothing can be worse for a Jew than to feel that Hashem has turned from him and cast him aside. He must believe instead that Hashem cares deeply about him in all situations and circumstances, and reaches out to speak with him.
The Besht pointed out one example of the effects of Divine speech. Chazal2 tell us of a Heavenly voice that each day proclaims, “Woe to people for the shame of the Torah!” None of us, however, seem to have ever heard such a voice. And if no human hears it, why bother having it speak in the first place? The Besht explained that the bas kol’s proclamation is no soliloquy. If it were not heard, it would not speak. In fact, the bas kolis very much in hearing range. We are often seized by spontaneous thoughts of teshuvah. Those thought are our response to the bas kol that we sense on some level. The voice is there, and we hear it – even when we are not aware of it.
The opening pasuk of our parshah can be read in this vein. “Listen well, O heavens, and I will speak. Let the earth hear the words of my mouth.” 3Heaven and earth coexist within each of us. Parts of us mimic the angelic; other parts are more animal-like. The pasuk tells us that both our heavenly selves – our minds and hearts – and our more earthly selves – the parts that pull us in the direction of lower desires and mundane activities – should pay careful attention to the words that come from Above. The messages are finely tuned to suit the different components, because no common language will serve both. (It is quite possible that a person should soar with his more elevated self, while remaining quite degraded in his lower being.)
The Torah differentiates between the two messages by employing dibur in connection with the Heavens, and switching to amirah in regard to earth. Hashem calls to us with very different approaches. The Yesod Ha-Avodah found an intriguing allusion in the words of Mishlei 4 “Mussar b’ni al tim’as.”5 It could be read as follows: “The best mussar is to recognize that you are my son! Therefore, do not make yourself despicable. Do not act in a way that will bring disgrace to a prince, the son of the King!” This high-minded appeal can only resonate with our higher, more noble selves.
By contrast, our lower selves require very different treatment. They need to hear of Judge and judgment, of reward for our good deeds and consequences for our misdeeds.
The Heavens are mentioned first, because in most cases the body is drawn after the head. As the Besht pointed out, neither keeping in mind the certainty of our appointments with death, nor consciousness of Divine retribution will inspire our hearts to His service. 6 Only a deep longing to attach ourselves to G-d awakens us to His service. The pasuk thus suggests that when our more elevated selves respond to the lofty call to devekus, the call to experience a form of joy unparalleled in any other human endeavor, our lower selves follow along, and are also moved to His service.
Dibur and amirah have specific connotations. Chazal tell us that dibur is often harsh, while amirah is usually softer and gentler. Our higher selves need to hear the unvarnished truth. At times, this means dwelling on harsher aspects of Hashem’s relationship with us. Because our minds and hearts are more elevated, more is expected of them. On the other hand, our coarser selves sometimes have to be lulled into cooperation with pleasantness. This parallels the offering of the Torah to Bais Yaakov (i.e. the women) in a gentler tone than to the men.
The Heaven-earth dichotomy suggests other important distinctions in our lives. Most of us will inhabit both the Heavenly and earthly realms in the course of our lives. We will enjoy periods of heavenly clarity, expansiveness and light in which we sense HKBH in all His Being. We will also endure times when we feel low, confined and limited as if trapped in a narrow place whose contours hem us in on all sides. In all of these times, Hashem speaks to us, albeit in different ways.
Some of these times are fixed into the calendar itself. Hashem guarantees us times of Heavenly elevation, making it easy for us to feel His immediacy and closeness. Shabbos allows us a time each week to feel the power of His Divinity, to return to our Source and rejuvenate ourselves as new beings. The Yamim Nora’im afford us an opportunity to purify ourselves. At both of these times, we hear a message very different from what we hear at times of relative concealment. At such times, we find ourselves estranged and discontented. But it is crucial to remember at such times that His voice is still calling out to us, albeit with a different message.
We ought to be especially attentive to the Divine voice at this time of year. The Shalah HaKadosh pointed to a verse in Amos. “A lion has roared! Who will not fear?”7 The word for lion – aryeh – can be taken as an acronym for Elul, Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Hoshanah Rabbah. Those days roar to us, stirring us from our slumber.
The two great lights 8 among all days are Shabbos and Yom Kippur. “You will proclaim Shabbos a delight, and the holy [day] of Hashem honored.” 9 The Zohar 10 understands the holy day as Yom Kippur. Between Shabbos and Yom Kippur, a Jew finds the source of kedushah to illuminate his entire year. Through both of these, he learns that all earthly delights pale by comparison to a sense of closeness to Hashem.
The verse continues with, “Then – az – you will delight in Hashem.” Az can be expanded into alef, or the day that occurs but once a year on Yom Kippur, and zayin, the day that comes once every seven. Now Shabbos we readily understand to be a day of delight. Yom Kippur, however, is a time of overwhelming awe and reverence. In what sense is it a time of delight?
We find the answer in a verse in Tehilim. “My soul is sated as if with fat and abundance when my mouth gives praise with joyous language.” 11 We deny ourselves five pleasures on Yom Kippur; they are matched by the five tefilos of the day, instead of the usual three. This is no coincidence. Yom Kippur allows us to experience even yirah as pleasurable! Our stomachs may be empty, but we gorge ourselves on yirah, and find it satisfying as fat and abundance – a pure delight!
When a Jew puts these special days of Shabbos and Yom Kippur to good use, the power of these most Heavenly of all days transfigures the earthly, allowing all the ordinary, earth-bound days of the rest of the year to speak eloquently the words of Hashem.
1 Based on Nesivos Shalom pgs. 216-218
2Shemos Rabbah 41:7
3 Devarim 32:1
5Literally, “My child, do not despise My discipline.”
6 I..e.although Chazal in fact advise us to keep both of those in mind, their utility is limited to preventing us to succumb to temptation. They are not effective in moving us to a better general form of His service
8 An allusion to Genesis 1:16
9 Yeshaya 58:13
10 Zohar 2:47A
11 Tehilim 63:6
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and Torah.org