Voeschanan: Listen Up! ~ Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

“Listen O heavens, and I will speak, and the earth shall hear the words of my mouth…” (Deut. 32:1). These are the opening words of a poetic song uttered by Moshe shortly before his demise. In this passage the word for “listen” is ha’azinu, while the word for “hear” is tishma. A form of the latter word is more famously used in the formula “Hear (Shema) O Israel, Hashem our G-d — Hashem is one” (Deut. 6:4). While some Tosafists actually write that the two words are used interchangeably for poetic effect, most commentators reject the concept of synonyms in the Holy Language, and must therefore explain the words thusly. So, what is the difference between the word shema and ha’azinu? Furthermore, while Moshe uses ha’azinu for the heavens and shema for the earth, the prophet Yishaya uses the exact opposite formulation: “Hear O heavens, and listen O earth, for G-d has spoken” (Isa. 1:2). In this context, Yishaya uses ha’azinu for the earth, and shema for the heavens. Why does Yishaya deviate from the norm already established by Moshe?

The Midrash (Sifri to Parshat Ha’azinu) explains that these two terms reflect two types of listening. One type of listening refers to hearing something from afar, while the other type of listening refers to hearing something nearby. When one listens to something from a distance he must be especially attentive to the sound in order to properly concentrate, hear what should be heard, and focus on its meaning. According to the Midrash, shema refers to listening from a distance, while ha’azinu refers to listening from close-range. (Other commentators, such as Chizkuni, Abarbanel, and Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, disagree with the Midrash and actually define the terms in the opposite way, and explain the difference between Moshe and Yishaya accordingly.)

Based on this, the Midrash explains that Moshe was closer to the heavens, so he used ha’azinu to refer to the heavens listening to him, while he was farther from the earth, so he used shema when referring to the earth listening to him. Conversely, Yishaya was closer to the earth, so he used ha’azinu for the earth, and only used shema for the heavens.

However, this explanation begs the question: Since both Moshe and Yishaya were prophets of G-d, then why is Moshe considered “closer to the heavens” and Yishaya considered “closer to the earth”? The commentators offer several ways of differentiating between Moshe and Yishaya in this context. The first answer argues that because Moshe pronounced his epic song in the days before his death, he was considered “closer to the heavens” simply because his death was approaching and he already had “one foot” in the heavens; whereas the passage from Yishaya was at the start of his prophetic career, well before his death.

The second answer explains that although Moshe and Yishaya were two of the most important prophets, the importance of Moshe infinitely exceeds that of Yishaya. Moshe was the “father of all prophets”, and attained a level of clarity in his prophecy unrivaled by any other prophet. As G-d Himself said of Moshe, “Mouth to mouth I speak to him, in a clear vision, and not in riddles…” (Num. 12:8). While Yishaya’s prophecies served to uphold the Torah, only Moshe’s prophecies became the Torah itself. For this reason Moshe’s elevated spiritual existence rendered him closer to the heavens than to the earth. In contrast, Yishaya, for all that he continuously rebuked the Jewish People to keep the Torah, remained closer to the earth like an ordinary human being. Similarly, a third answer suggests that since Moshe was accustomed to ascending to the heavens, as he ascended Mount Sinai multiple times for long stretches, he is considered “closer to the heavens” than anyone else.

Other sources point to another distinction between the words ha’azinu and shema. The word ha’azinu is derived from the Hebrew word ozen, which means ear. As such, the verb of listening expressed by the word ha’azinu refers simply to the physiological function of the ear: hearing sound waves and relaying them to the brain. On the other hand, explains the Malbim, the word shema does not refer simply to the physical act of listening; rather it also denotes a certain degree of intellectual or emotional understanding of that which is being heard.

Rokeach explains that the word shema refers to hearkening in response to another’s call, while ha’azinu simplyrefers to any type of listening. However, these explanations fail to account for the change in phraseology between the introduction of Moshe’s song and Yishaya’s opening prophecy. Elsewhere, Rokeach writes that shema refers to listening to something which was stated explicitly, while ha’azinu refers to listening and inferring to something only said implicitly.

Vaeschanan: A Bridge Over Troubled Waters ~ Tzvi Abrahams

Parshas וָאֶתְחַנַן

A Bridge Over Troubled Waters

עָבַר: past

עִבְרִי: Hebrew (person)

מַעַבַר: bridge, crossing

עַבֵירָה: sin, a breach

עוּבַּר: fetus/embryo

 בַּעַבוּר: because of

אֶעְבְּרָה נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַטּוֹבָה אֲשֶׁר בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן הָהָר הַטּוֹב הַזֶּה וְהַלְּבָנוֹן
I will cross over please, and I will see the good land which is across the Jordan, this good mountain the Lebanon.

עָבַר: Past

עָבַר and “over” in English cross over the language barrier in having the same connotation in both languages. What has passed is over, and what is over is in the past.

In this week’s parshah, Moshe implores Hashem with the words אֶעְבְּרָה נָּא/please let me cross over the Jordan River into the Promised Land.

In essence, we are all trying to cross over to the other side.

עִבְרִי : Hebrew

The first one to cross over to the other side was Avraham Avinu. He was the prototype, the trendsetter for the essence of what a Jew is, which is this deep-seated concept of movement, of needing to get somewhere. Avraham was called an Ivri because while the whole ideology of the world in his time was to serve idols, he was able to see though the masquerade and recognize the source of everything — that there is nothing but Hashem, אֵין עוֹד מִלְבַדוֹ. Avraham crossed over the so-called river of reality, leaving the rest of the world to its illusionary beliefs. Being Avraham’s decedents, we have inherited this Hebrew ideology in that just like the Hebrew language crosses both worlds, so too our very nature, as an individual and as a nation, is to bridge different worlds. 

מַעַבַר: Bridge, Crossing

All of the world is a very narrow bridge…a very narrow bridge…a very narrow bridge. But the essential thing to know is there is nothing to fear at all.

Chazal compare life to a long sea voyage, where in order to reach our destination, we first have to combat the sometimes very hazardous waters of the high seas. The sea, by its very nature, is a very unsettling place, and since we are open to all the elements, our boat is constantly being tossed around. Hashem gives us the Torah, the navigation tool, which helps us chart the waters safely and steer our way through the ups and downs of life. In essence, the Torah is our bridge over troubled waters, and without it, we would truly be lost at sea.

עַבֵירָה: Sin, A Breach

Hashem has given us clear guidelines on how best to traverse life, how to steer safely across the sometimes very narrow bridge without falling off into the endless depths of the nether world. An עַבֵירָה is when we step over the mark, when we have not paid sufficient attention to the guidelines that have been carefully set for us, and we are in danger of falling. The period of Elul, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur is designed to help us repair the breaches in our bridges so that they will be strong enough, when the time comes, to carry us over and give us safe passage.

עוּבַּר: Fetus/Embryo

The fetus is from the same root because its whole existence is to be given birth to, to cross over from one world to the next.

The Ohr HaChaim in Parshas Mishpatim discusses the idea of the עֶבֶד עִבְרִי/the Hebrew slave who works for six years and goes free in the seventh, as being a mashal to life, where עִבְרִי signifies עוּבַּר/embryo, in that we serve as an עֶבֶד in this world for six years (where each year represents a decade), and in the seventh year, when we approach our seventies, we go out free. We have in effect served our time and we are now free from the confines of this world.

Mashal of the Twins

Twins in the womb are having an argument as to whether there is an afterlife. One of the twins is a staunch atheist, who does not entertain the slightest notion of there being anything other than life in the womb. The other twin is always trying to convince the him that there is more to life than just floating around in space, albeit a narrow, restricted space. One day, as they are in the heat of one of their debates, there is suddenly a tremendous movement like a magnitutde ten earthquake. Everything turns upside down. To the atheist twin, it is most definitely the end. He sees his twin brother disappear in a whirlwind tempest, when all of a sudden he hears the elated voices at the other end shouting, “Mazal Tov!

The nimshal is that just like Avraham, the עִבְרִי, stood alone and recognized that this world is powered by one G-d, so too the words עוּבַּר and מַעַבַר teach us that life is a bridge, an opportunity to cross over to a much higher reality, whereas the atheist only sees what he sees, a life devoid of Hashem without any future existence.

בַּעַבוּר: Because Of

אֲרוּרָה הָאֲדָמָה בַּעֲבוּרֶךָ בְּעִצָּבוֹן תֹּאכֲלֶנָּה כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ
Cursed is the earth because of you, with hardship you will eat all the days of your life.

“Because of you,” because of something you have done in the past. The earth was cursed because of man. If man had listened to Hashem’s command not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of good and bad, then we would then have entered straight into Shabbos and we would have anyway been permitted to eat from the tree. But because of the עַבֵירָה of man choosing to pass over Hashem’s command, we now have to do a tikkun so that we can get back on track. Contrary to conventional thinking, the curse of the earth and the hardship that man has to toil in it was not a punishment but a correction procedure, all for our benefit.

By eating from the Tree of Knowledge of good and bad, the dichotomy of good — which is living with Hashem — and bad — which is living without Hashem — entered into us. In order for us to get back on track, we have to be able to choose between good and bad. In order to facilitate that choice, the earth was cursed, giving man the perfect opportunity to be involved in working for a living. Instead of bread growing on trees, man has to till, sow, and harvest the earth, and is continually involved in all of the processes that finally produce his daily bread. Now man has the perfect choice to look back over the עָבַר/past and recognize that he couldn’t have done it without Hashem, or he could choose to live without Hashem and believe it was all “because of me” and כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי/the strength of my hand.

אֶעְבְּרָה נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַטּוֹבָה אֲשֶׁר בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן הָהָר הַטּוֹב הַזֶּה וְהַלְּבָנוֹן
I will cross over please, and I will see the good land which is across the Jordan, this good mountain the Lebanon.

Torah is our bridge over troubled waters, it helps us see life differently and is the medium that enables us to cross over to the other side of the river, בְּעֵבֶר הַיַרְדֵן, and into the Promised Land. Then, like Avraham Avinu, we will each merit to be an עִבְרִי/Hebrew. We will merit being attached to the good,הָאָרֶץ הַטּוֹבָה /the good land, andהָהָר הַטּוֹב הַזֶּה וְהַלְּבָנוֹן /this good mountain, the Lebanon, which stands for the Beis HaMikdash and is called לְּבָנוֹן because מְלַבֵּן הָאָדָם מִן הַעַבֵירוֹת/ it whitens man from his transgressions.

1 Ibid.,3:25.

2 Likkutei Moharan 2:48.

3 Bereishis 3:17.

4 Devarim 3:25.

Vaetchanan: Beware of Different Kinds of Guarding – Yehoshua Steinberg

Only beware  (הִשָּׁמֶר) for yourself and greatly beware  (וּשְׁמֹר) for your soul, lest you forget the things that your eyes have beheld  (Deut. 4:9).

The verse contains two words —  הִשָּׁמֶר and שְׁמֹר — which are both derived from the root ‘שמר’, yet their Aramaic translations are entirely different, with Onkelos using ‘אסתמר’  and ‘טר’, respectively. This is no mere coincidence. Throughout Scripture, if the root  ‘שמר’  appears in the נִפְעַל  (simple passive) tense, the Aramaic translations of Onkelos or Yonatan use it with the Aramaic root ‘סמר’; if it appears in the קַל  (simple active) tense, they translate it with the root ‘נטר’. For example, when Abraham told his servant Eliezer, “Beware(הִשָּׁמֶר)  not to return my son there”  (Gen. 24:6), or when Moses was told to warn the people at Mount Sinai, “Beware (הִשָּׁמְרוּ)  of ascending the mountain” (Ex. 19:12), the verbs are simple passive (i.e., it merely entails preventing something from happening, rather than any proactive act); hence, Onkelos translates them as אסתמר  and אסתמרו, respectively. By contrast, in the verses, “Because he commands his children that they shall observe (וְשָׁמְרוּ)  the way of God, doing charity and justice” (Gen. 18:19), and, Safeguard (שָׁמוֹר)  the Sabbath day to sanctify it  (Deut. 5:12), the root ‘שמר’  appears in the simple active tense (קל – i.e., he must actively fulfill these commandments); hence, their Aramaic translations are ויטרון  and טר, respectively. R’ Eliyahu Bachur, the author of Meturgamon (entry נטר), already noted this duality in the Aramaic translations of the Scriptural root ‘שמר’. He then closes by referring the reader to the entry ‘סמר’.

However, in addition to appearing as the Aramaic translation of all the passive instances of ‘שמר’, the root’סמר’  also appears in Scriptural Hebrew — both in the noun form of מַסְמֵר  (nail) [e.g., and he would strengthen it with nails (בְמַסְמְרִים)  so that it should not loosen (Isaiah 41:7); with nails (בְּמַסְמְרוֹת)  and with hammers he fastens them (Jer. 10:4)], and the verb form of ‘סמר’  (bristle) [bring up the horse, as the bristling (סָמָר)  locust (Jer. 51:27 with Rashi); A spirit brushed my face, causing to stand on end  (תְּסַמֵּר)  the hair on my face (Job 4:15)]. As noted by Metz. Tzion (to Jer. 51:27, citing Job 4:15), the verb form is derived from the noun, as the hair bristles or stands on end because it became hard and erect like a nail. [Likewise, the Mishnah (Niddah 9:8) states that just before the onset of menstruation, a woman may be seized by צְמַרְמוֹרֶת  (usually translated as shudder/chills). R’ Obadiah of Bertenura (hinting to the phonetic connection between the Rabbinic term  צמרצורת and the Biblical סמר), explains that this term is derived from the verse, My flesh shuddered (סָמַר)  from dread of You (Psalms 119:120). Maimonides’ allusion (Hilchos Isurei Bi’ah 8:2) is even clearer, explaining that צמרצורת refers specifically to the bristling of hair.

Now, at first glance, there does not appear to be any connection between ‘סמר’  (the root of מַסְמֵר/nail) and ‘שמר’  (the root of ‘שְׁמִירָה’, protecting/observing/safeguarding).  However, we find in Ecclesiastes (12:11), The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails (וּכְמַשְׂמְרוֹת)  well-driven are the masters of collections of sayings. Although the word וּכְמַשְׂמְרוֹת  is spelled with a שׂ, the plain understanding is that this is simply one of many examples in which Scripture uses the similar-sounding שׂ  and ס  interchangeably. However, the Sages (Midrash Tanchuma [Buber] Beha’aloscha 25) expound וּכְמַשְׂמְרוֹת  as if it is spelled with aשׁ  in order to also allude to the root ‘שׁמר’, stating: “If you fastened them like a nail, they are preserved (מִשְׁתַּמְרִין)  [in your memory], and they protect (מְשַׁמְרִין)  you.” Thus, there are two aspects of protecting alluded to in the root’סמר’ — that one must guard the valuable words of Torah wisdom, so that they will protect you as well [See also Rashi to the verse in Ecclesiastes, who cites a slightly different homiletic interpretation].

It seems to me that, by interpreting the word as if written with a שׁ  rather than a שׂ, the Sages have hinted to a vital link between the roots ‘סמר’  and ‘שמר’, or more specifically, between the word מַסְמֵר  and the verb ‘שׁמר’. For a nail is capable of serving several purposes, e.g.: 1) the attachment and reinforcement of loose parts; 2) the enclosure and sealing of valuable items in a protected location, such as in a container; 3) protection from any sort of damage, such as we find in Menachot (107a) that if one vows to donate iron to the Temple, he must donate enough to cover a square cubit of the Sanctuary roof with protruding nails to prevent the ravens from sitting on it. Thus, in all three cases, the nails serve to protect from some form of external damage: 1) a loose piece of furniture may collapse and cause damage to itself or someone oblivious to its weak status; 2) one nailing shut a container with valuables seeks to protect them from being stolen; 3) the installation of protruding nails is an attempt to prevent an undesired use, such as the ravens in the Sanctuary.

The example of locking up an item in a container that is nailed shut brings us to a fundamental difference between the various types of protection that are used for different intended purposes. If a person wishes to protect a gold chain from theft, he will lock it up in such a sealed container, and may also bury the container — all in an effort to protect the item of value from the potential threat. By contrast, if his goal is to protect the contents of a bag of milk, such an approach will be to no avail. For these actions may indeed guarantee that the bag of milk is not stolen, but in the meantime, the milk itself will spoil. In other words, in contrast to the gold jewelry, the immediate threat to the milk is not an external one, but rather an internal enemy, namely, bacteria. Therefore, the goal of its protection must not be from theft, but rather to preserve its freshness through refrigeration etc.

In our essay on Parshas Tetzaveh, we cited the view of Machberes Menachem,  who treats the verb נְטִירָה  as one of the subdivisions of the root ‘טר’, which also includes the word תִטֹּר  in the verse, You shall not take revenge and you shall not תִטֹּר  (bear a grudge – Lev. 19:18). Another subdivision is devoted to the word ‘טרי’. In the verse, He found a jawbone טְרִיָּה   of a donkey (Jud. 15:15), Metz.Tzion defines the word טְרִיָּה  as moist. Likewise, in the verse, only injury, bruise, and a wound טְרִיָּה  (Isaiah 1:6), Rashi quotes Menachem’s definition of a moist wound that releases puss. Herein lies the hidden link between these seemingly unrelated words תִטֹּר  and טְרִיָּה. For the moisture of a wound that is ‘טרי’  (fresh, or festering) eventually dries up and disappears naturally as the wound heals. Likewise, when two people have a disagreement or feud over some slight or grudge, the resulting resentment and hatred between them would dissipate naturally over time, until it completely disappears in due course. Thus, לִטֹּר/תִטֹּר  (bear a grudge) is to take a proactive step to preserve (נוֹטֵר)  the freshness of the initial hatred by counteracting the natural tendency of time and forgetfulness to sooth and dissipate this animosity.

In contrast to נְטִירָה, which requires an active intervention, all the aforementioned uses of a מַסְמֵר  merely protect the object in a passive manner from some external threat. [While a nail may also serve as a weapon — as in the incident cited in the Talmud (B.K. 83b), “he singed him with a skewer or a nail” — that is clearly not its primary purpose]. Thus, the argument can be made that the Aramaic translation equates the Hebrew term ‘שמר’  with the Hebrew root ‘סמר’, which denotes a passive protection, like that of the מַסְמֵר. This passivity is recognizable in the root ‘שמר’  itself, in the context of the word שְׁמָרִים  (lees), the sediment from fermenting wine that sinks to the bottom of the cup on its own, as long as nothing is done to actively prevent this from happening, as Metz. Tzion notes in his comments to the word שְׁמָרֶיהָ  in Psalms 75:9. For this reason, שְׁמָרִים  are an ideal symbol of quiet and indifference, as stated in Jer. 48:11, Moab was complacent from its youth, tranquil on its lees. Metz. David explains that “ever since becoming a nation, [Moab] had sat in tranquility, quietly remaining in his place like the wine that rests on its lees.” He also equates it with the expression הִשָּׁמֵר וְהַשְׁקֵט (Isaiah 7:4), which Rashi and Radak interpret to mean, Be calm and still (sinceהִשָּׁמֵר  means to be like the שְׁמָרִים  of wine that are calm), whereas Targum Yonatan translates it as ‘אסתמר’. According to our view above, the common aspect of both of these interpretations is “passivity,” since ‘אסתמר’  is a passive form of guarding. Hence, the Targum, in using this translation, also means to impart a sense of calming, for that is the plain import of the portion there, as Isaiah was commanded by God to relax the Judean King Ahaz, in the face of the threats against him from Rezin, King of Aram.

In light of all the above, we can now understand the verse with which we began this essay — Only beware (הִשָּׁמֶר)  for yourself and greatly beware (וּשְׁמֹר)  for your soul, lest you forget the things that your eyes have beheld  (Deut. 4:9) — and Onkelos’ usage of two very different terms, ‘אסתמר’  and ‘טר’, to translate the seemingly similar words הִשָּׁמֶר  and שְׁמֹר, respectively. For the Torah is commanding us to guard (לִנְטוֹר)  in our hearts the exalted sights that our eyes had seen, lest they abate and fade from memory. This guarding requires a highly active intervention in order to sustain and invigorate –refresh– the memories, and make it possible to pass them on to our descendants.

As for Onkelos’ translation of the expression “הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ”  as “אִסְתַּמַּר לָךְ”, we refer to Abrabanael, who explains [in his comments to the verse, But you shall greatly beware for your souls (Deut.  4:15)] that since the people had been issued a severe warning not to forget the awesome sights that they had witnessed on the day they received the Torah at Mount Sinai, Moses feared that they might be inclined to make some sort of form that would help them remember what they saw. Rabbeinu Bachya suggests that the need to exhort them against making any form, statue or carved image stemmed from the foreign influences of the surrounding nations, some of whom were accustomed to worshipping various animals and beasts.

Consequently, they had to be issued two warnings: a) They were reminded to stand guard and protect themselves against the infiltration of these foreign influences into their souls. This is the intent of the first expression, הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ, which is therefore translated by Onkelos with the passive  אִסְתַּמַּר לָךְ. b) But, like milk locked up and buried, passive protection of such memories would be for naught unless a mechanism for their constant renewal be implemented. Consequently, they were warned to actively guard and preserve the memory of the awe-inspiring visions that they had seen at Sinaiso that they would be like new revelations on each ensuing day. This is the meaning of the second expression, וּשְׁמֹר נַפְשְׁךָ, which Onkelos therefore translates as וְטַר נַפְשָׁךְ, “and actively protect your soul” by keeping the visions therein fresh – טריים.


Closing Prayer: May it be the will of God that we shall remember and observe (נִשְׁמֹר)  Your decrees, and that we shall install them like a nail (מַסְמֵר)  opposite our eyes, that we never forsake them. May their merit protect us  (יִשְׁמְרֵנוּ) from every affliction and disease, and from all dire straits, Amen.