Ha’azinu – Listen to Your Neighbors and the Next Generation

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A Dvar Torah from Rabbi Aaron Bisno

As we mark the first Shabbat of 5781, our Torah portion is Ha’azinu. The Torah’s penultimate portion contains Moses’ final oration to the Israelites and derives its name from the opening word of that valedictory:  

Ha’azinu! Listen!   

Poetically, Moses addresses his words to “heaven and earth,” but, of course, his sermon was intended for the entire Jewish people to hear and harken to. Indeed, Moses was speaking to both those in the Wilderness generation who built the first sanctuary, as well as to hose of us, here and now, who are responsible for congregational Jewry as it exists today, to say nothing of whether it will exist in future generations.

So, do I address this first-of-the-year dvar torah, to local congregations’ loyalists and leaders, everywhere, as well as to the future generations of Jews who will, in time, call our communities their own.

My friends, as we take our first tentative steps into this new year, we are aware of how much of the-year-now-ended was erased; and we know well how much of our future is uncertain, if not upended.  

Indeed, a great many of the initiatives – for budgets and buildings, for schooling and staffing, and for the future of our respective congregations – that our country’s communities’ leaders imagined only a few years ago; that were, at the local level, confidently set in motion 8-18 months ago; and that we have all been counting on ever since … All these are now in dire need of a radical re-evaluation.  

After all, since March 2020, the coronavirus has exposed our weaknesses and has accelerated our disruption and decline, such that everything is now different across our landscape, and none of our prior expectations are any longer fully intact.  

But amidst so much crisis and uncertainty within congregations everywhere, one thing has not changed.  At least not yet.

By and large, every congregation in North America still seeks to solve its own challenges … (wait for it) … solo!  And this in spite of the fact that congregations, their boards and rabbis and memberships, entire, share the vast majority of these present challenges in common.

Why would so many otherwise inclusive congregations pursue isolationist policy? Fear, I suspect.

Namely our fear that we are the only one who is hurt & frightened, and, ironically, because we dare not admit our fear and pain, we therein exacerbate both.  

But, imagine what could happen if, in our respective communities, we were to heed Moses’ exhortation. What might it mean were we to engage a listening campaign among all those who love and lead our neighboring congregations?

Yes, imagine what could happen if our community were to answer Moses’ call Ha’azinu by being curious enough about our neighbors to sincerely listen, to seek to learn, and to love our neighbor such that we understand what hurts our friends, what together we fear, and what we desire for the future in common.

Imagine what could happen if members of one congregation were truly to listen to members of a neighboring congregation, so all might better appreciate and achieve their shared hopes and dreams for the future of their entire Jewish community.  

Above all else Ha’azinu teaches …  We must listen with a heart open to all people.  We must listen with a mind open to those who feel and think differently.  And we must listen with imaginations unfettered, such that we are in dialogue, as was Moses, both with those who are with us now, and, too, with the generations who will follow us, who are depending upon us, and who will, in time, lend their voices to the conversation we are enjoined to engage.  

May our community be blessed in 5781 by our listening.   

Shanah Tovah.  

Rabbi Aaron Benjamin Bisno holds the Frances F & David R Levin Senior Rabbinic Pulpit at Rodef Shalom Congregation, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.