This week’s parsha begins with Moshe’s poetic plea, “Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak; and may the earth hear the words of my mouth” (Devorim 32:1). The verb tense differs dramatically from the beginning of the sentence to the end. Normally a plea is said in the active tense. It is uttered as a command. “Give ear O heavens.” “Listen my people.” “Lend me your ear.” When it comes to the heavens, Moshe expresses his appeal in an active manner. When it comes to the earth however, the expression becomes passive: “May the earth hear.” It is almost as if he is not commanding but submissively acquiescing. “I cannot command the earth to pay attention, rather, may it overhear my pleas.”The Ohr HaChaim points out this anomaly and wonders why Moshe tells the heavens to listen, but he does not include the earth in that directive. Instead Moshe says that the earth shall hear, almost as if the proverbial earth is listening in the background to the prophecy he directed toward their heavenly counterparts.
Rabbi Yissachar Frand, Magid Shiur in Yeshiva Ner Israel, Baltimore, and noted author and lecturer, tells a story that he heard from a Rabbi in Dallas, Texas.
One day a man walked into the office of his orthodox shul in Dallas. The man was obviously not an observant Jew. In fact, the Rabbi never saw him in the synagogue before.
“Rabbi,” he said, “I’d like to make a contribution.” . He proceeded to hand over a check for ten thousand dollars.
The rabbi was flabbergasted. He did not know this man, nor had the man ever seen the Rabbi. Yet, he just handed over a tremendous gift to the synagogue. “Please, ” said the rabbi. “There must be a reason. After all, you are giving this donation to a rabbi whom you do not know and to a shul in which you do not participate. Please tell me the reason.”
“The man answered very simply. “Not long ago I was in Israel. I went to the Wall. There I saw a man. He was obviously a very observant Jew. He was praying with such fervor, with unparalleled enthusiasm and feeling. I just stood there and listened. I heard his pleas and supplications, I saw him sway with all his might, I saw his outpouring of faith, love, and devotion all harmoniously blending as an offering to G-d. From the day I saw that man pray, I could not get him out of my mind. If this is Judaism, I want to be part of it. I want to help perpetuate it.” Perhaps Moshe is teaching us the significance of an active, forceful, message and its passive ramifications. Effective influence may not only come when talking to a particular individual, rather it may also come when others hear.
My grandfather, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky of blessed memory, explains that the word for influence in the Hebrew language, hashpa’ah, comes from the same root as the word slant or incline, shipuah. There are two ways to water a garden; one is to douse the vegetation directly. That takes effort and constant wetting. A better way that is more practical is to build a slated roof from which the steady flow of rain will irrigate the vegetation. Moshe teaches us that to the heavens we may have to shout. But we don’t have to shout at the earth. Because when we speak to the heavens with fervor and enthusiasm, the earth listens as well.