Thursday, October 3, 2019

Ha'azinu (Farewell Transmission)

“There’s a lot of difference between hearing and listening.”
                                                -G.K. Chesterton

“Hear, O heavens, and I will speak.
Let the earth listen to the words I utter.”
                                                -Deuteronomy 32:1, opening of portion Ha’azinu

As G.K. Chesterton notes, there is a significant difference between hearing and listening.  Hearing is a passive, automatic action for most of us.  Listening, by contrast, is a skill—which seems increasingly difficult in our world of digital distraction and information overload.  Listening is hearing—plus the critical elements of focus and attention.  And so our portion for this week, Ha’azinu, opens with the easy part—hearing—but immediately shifts to listening, which is the challenging heart of the matter.

We are in the middle of a season full of hearing.  During the Days of Awe, there is a lot to hear: prayers and petitions, songs and sermons, exchanged expressions of apology and forgiveness, given and received.  And, of course, the sound of the shofar, which calls us to wakefulness, remembrance, and action.  Our challenge is to move beyond mere hearing and really listen to these words and sounds—to reflect on them and use them as a springboard for true teshuvah and personal and communal transformation.

It is no accident that this portion falls on Shabbat Shuvah, just before Yom Kippur.  Yom Kippur is all about experiencing our mortality—about encountering death as a path to a better, more intentional and compassionate life.  We strip away the background noise—the constant distractions—so that we can hear and take to heart what really matters.  Moses delivers his speech in Ha’azinu just before he dies; we listen to it on the Shabbat just before we rehearse our deaths.  In both cases, the harkening clears the way to the Promised Land.

For a powerful expression of this journey in song, consider Jason Molina’s masterpiece “Farewell Transmission” from his Songs: Ohia album Magnolia Electric Co. 

The song begins with strong intimations of mortality:

The whole place is dark
Every light on this side of the town
Suddenly it all went down
Now we'll all be brothers of the fossil fire of the sun
Now we will all be sisters of the fossil blood of the moon
In the sirens and the silences now

As the song unfolds, anchored in Molina’s beautifully jagged guitar, the darkness continues to descend, and with it, a sense of our imperfection and fragility:
I will try and know whatever I try,
I will be gone but not forever
The real truth about it is
no one gets it right
The real truth about it is
we're all supposed to try

In a metaphorical sense, we are all in the same shoes as Moses: We make the long journey toward the Promised Land, but ultimately only get to see it from afar:

There ain't no end to the sands
I've been trying to cross
The real truth about it is my kind of life's no better off
If I've got the maps or if I'm lost
The real truth about it is there ain't no end to the desert I'll cross
I've really known that all along
Mama here comes midnight
with the dead moon in its jaws
Must be the big star about to fall

And then the poignant ending.  This is, for Molina, as for Moses, a “farewell transmission” that ends with the prophet imploring us to harken:

Long dark blues
Will o the wisp
The big star is falling
Through the static and distance
A farewell transmission


May this Yom Kippur deepen our passion for traveling toward our Promised Lands with integrity, for learning from our inevitable mistakes, and for emerging from our encounter with mortality to an even greater commitment to listening and living with all of our hearts and souls.

May 5780 be a sweet year for us all.  May we be written and sealed in the book of life.

G’mar chatimah tovah.

To hear Jason Molina's "Farewell Transmission":

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