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Okay, so last week we began with a question, if you are God and you are planning a good bye speech to Moses, what would you say? Moses is God’s favorite person. Wouldn’t a thank you be appropriate? But a thanks is nowhere in evidence in God’s final speech. It is nightmare of terrible cycle which is likely to occur in Jewish history. The people abandon God and God abandons them. The people realize that God has abandoned them but it doesn’t help them because God abandons them even more. It is a disaster, you would have imagined that this disaster is the last thing Moshe would want to hear about. Why would God inflict this upon him? Because there’s something that Moshe can do about it and that something is this song.V’atah, and God says, ‘and now’, now that I have described this terrible cycle to you,kitvu lachem et-hashirah hazot, ‘Write down this song’, v’lamdah et-bnei-yisrael, ‘Teach it to the Jewish people’, simah b’fihem, ‘put it in their mouths’, lemaan tihyeh-li hashirah hazot l’ed bibnei yisrael, ‘I needed to be a witness to the Jewish people throughout time’, ki-avienu el-haadamah, ‘I am going to bring them into the land that I swore to the forefathers’ but v’achal v’sava v’dashen, ‘when they become complacent in that land’, u’fanah el-elohim acharim, ‘and they worship other Gods, v’niatzuniv’hefer et-briti ‘and they degrade my covenant’, v’hayah ci-timtzena oto raot rabot ‘when terrible things happen to them’, v’zarot v’antah hashirah hazot l’fanav l’ed, ‘this song will always be a witness for them. Ki lo tishachach mipi zaro, ‘It will never be forgotten’.
In essence, God is telling Moshe something strangely comforting here, I understand that you don’t want to die but in a certain strange kind of way, you won’t die. This song will always be able to stand before the Jewish people as if you, yourself were present. You may not be able to go into the land but this shirah of yours will be able to ensure that the people who do go to the land, will be able to stay there.
So what is this shirah and how exactly does it work as an antidote? Let’s take a look at it and try to understand.
What is shirat ha’azinu about? Well, just very roughly speaking, there are two main parts of the song. One is a brief recounting of Jewish history and the other is a brief forecast of the Jewish future. The brief forecast of the Jewish future is bleak, it speaks about the kind of destruction which we have talked last week, in Parshat Nitzavim but the recounting of Jewish history is done from a very fascinating perspective and it is there perhaps, that the secrets of shirat ha’azinu really lie.
I want to focus on that recounting with you and I want to just begin by noticing what I think is a fascinating kind of textual pattern. Take a look at it with me for a moment.
Okay, so here we are in verse 10. This is the first verse that actually begins the poetic description of the founding of the Jewish people. Yimtzaehu bieretz midbar ‘God found them, in a desert land’, u’betohu yelel yeshmon ‘the desert land was a howling wasteland’. Yesovevenhu yevonenehu, ‘God encircled them, built them up’, hisyitzrenhu k’ishon eyno, ‘guarded them like the apple of eye’. Very beautiful poetic language but take a look carefully at the language and let’s play our favorite game, where we have heard these words before? Let’s start with the word tohu. Tohu is one of the word that doesn’t appear that often in biblical text. This probably is only the second time it ever occurs in biblical text. Where is the first time we have tohu? The first time we have tohu is in the very beginning of creation itself. When the world before creation was just described as tohu vavohu. Astonishingly void and empty, all of a sudden here, you have got the same word tohu popping up. The word for the astonishing empty void of precreation was tohu vavohu, do you see anything here that reminds you of vohu? Do you hear the alliteration? u’betohu yelel yeshmon yesovevenhu yevonenehu, the bet and the hey and the vav is right there in both of these words. The word for encircling and building of the Jewish people is itself a building out of the word vohu. What’s next back in creation? Immediately after we hear about the tohu vavohu of precreation, we hear v’choshech el-pnei tehom, ‘it was blackness upon the face of the deep’. Back to ha’azinu, is there blackness after the mention of tohu vavohu? There is, the apple, the pupil of his eye, a blackness of the eye.
Back to creation, what do we hear about, after the blackness? Ruach Elokim merachefet al-pnei hamayim, the wind of God hovering, fluttering over the waters. Do we have anything fluttering now? Look at the next verse, c’nesher yair kino, like an eagle, stores up his nest, al-gozlav yirachef, fluttering over its young, ‘fluttering’ – there is that same word. Yirachef, merachefet, is also one of those rare words in scripture. The first time, it appears in creation, this is the second time that it appears. One more time this wind of God, hovering over a new creation. God, the eagle, taking care of its young.
How is the Torah portraying God here? It is portraying God as creator, as father. Look back at the verse that introduces this, halo-hu avicha kanecha, ‘he is your father, you creator who brought you forth’ and not just father, perhaps mother as well. A few verses later, yarkivehu al-bimoti aretz vayochal tenuvot sadai, God causes the Jewish people to ride on the high places of the earth as they conquered land in the desert coming close to the land of Israel, he fed them produce of the fields, vaynikehu debash misela, ‘and suckled honey from the rock, for this fledgling child’, v’shemen mechalmish tzur, ‘and oil from stone’. This poetic imagery is kind of striking, wouldn’t you say and notion of God, suckling Jewish people as if they were baby, nursing from their mother but they are nursing not from the mothers breast but the hardest thing in the world, this rock and in fact it was a rock that God caused them to get the most life giving liquid of all, water and the desert from, from the sela, from the sewer. The two words for the rocks and the book of numbers that was the source of the life giving water 40 years in the desert. The imagery is of God, the father [Inaudible 06:47], ‘is he not your father’ and now of God, the mother, the nurses, the flagellant child and now, let’s go back and put these all in context, why is God saying all of these, what’s the point of all these? Let’s read the beginning of Ha’azinu.
Haazinu hashamayim va’adaberah, ‘Listen, Oh heavens, Moses says and I will speak’, v’tishma haaretz imrei-pi, ‘and let the earth hear the words of my mouth’. Again the imagery, shamayim and aretz, it is the very beginning of creation. Heavens and earth, that’s how the Torah began and now, as the Torah comes to a close, once again, we hear heaven and earth summoned. These words of Moshe, yaarof kamatar likchi, ‘which will drop as rain, tizal catal imrati, ‘which will drip as dew’. Dew and rain are the connecting points between heaven and earth, what comes from heaven to earth? So again, we see this creation imagery over and over again in Ha’azinu but now, let’s go to the actual overt message of Ha’azinu. How it begins is actually shocking. Hatzur, ‘God is the rock, a foundation’, tamim paalo, ‘his work is perfect’, ki chol-drachav mishpat, ‘All of his ways are just’, Kel emunah, ‘he is a God of righteousness, of truth, steadfastness’ V’ein avel, ‘There is no inequity in him’, tzaddik v’yashar hu, ‘he is just, he is right’.
Why we are saying these, what do we have to launch, it is almost like defensive about this, taking about how just and perfect and right God is, why we are saying these? And it gets even stranger, shichet lo? ‘would you impute corruption to him?’ Lo, ‘No’, banav mumam, ‘if anything it is the children who were corrupt’. Dor ikesh ufetaltol, ‘A crooked, a wicked generation’. What is going on here, what a downer, why we are starting this wonderful, beautiful picture of creation of the Jewish people with this language that is so defensive and seemingly so angry? You have to understand the context, what’s the whole point of Ha’azinu?
Go back to last week’s Parshat. God had foretold a disaster cycle, the cycle would begin with the people becoming completely complacent with their lives and the land. The people worshipping other Gods, abandoning God’s covenant. Element B, God will pull away from them and they would become pray to the nations around them and then comes the faithful element C, the element that seems like it is the first breath of renewal on the part of the Jewish people and yet, it is a disastrous misstep instead. Va’amar bayom hahu, ‘The people will say on that day’, halo al ki-ein elokai bekirbi metzuni haraot haeleh, ‘do you know why these things are happening to me, it is because my God is not within me’.
We suggested last week that that was a truth but a very dangerous truth. Yes, it is true that God is not with you but why because you pulled away and if you don’t understand that, you don’t understand the whole picture. Ha’azinu gives the context for that picture. It’s what makes that picture make sense. It is a kind of defense argument, in favor of God. It is that defense argument because the people are coming to God with accusations. It is because God is not within me, not really words of teshuvah they were bitter words, they were accusatory words and those words need to be countered. Hatzur tamid paalo, ‘Your creator would never unilaterally abandon you’. He is just, he is your foundation, he is righteous, God doesn’t do that. Shichet lo? ‘Would you ascribe corruption to God?’ Lo, banav mumam’ It is the people, who have blemished themselves’. Dor ikesh ufetaltol, ‘This crooked generation’, l’Hashem tigmlu-zot? ‘Will you have the nerve to ascribe this disaster to God?’ am naval v’lo chacham, ‘You foolish people’, halo-hu avicha kanecha , ‘do you know who God is?’ God is your creator, your father, your mother, the source of everything. Hu ascha, ‘He made you’, v’yekonenecha, ‘he formed you out of his own hands’. You have to understand this, you have to understand your history. Zechor yemot olam, ‘Go back and recount your own history. Tell it like it is’, binu shnot dor-vador, ‘go and count the years of the generations. Sheal avicha v’yagedcha, ‘Ask your father, he will tell you’, zekeneicha, ‘ask your elders’. And what is that truth? It is the truth of God’s political creation of this nation. Eons ago, God created the shamayim and the aretz, the heavens and the earth. And now, at the very end of the Torah, God summons the heavens and the earth, those physical creations to bear witness about another creation too. A political creation. A struggling band of people who have no chance of making it in the desert, who are nurtured, guarded, built into a nation. This nation is a nation like no other nation.
What is nation, the current version of Wikipedia suggest, a nation refers to a large group of people who share a common language, culture, ethnicity, descent or history. Think about all of those things and think about God’s relationship to them, with respect to the Jewish people. With all other nations, those things are independent of their relationship to a duty. They have a common language because they have developed one. They have a common culture because they have developed one. They have people because they happen to have children. They have a land because their king happen to have conquered one. The Jewish people don’t have a land because their king happen to haven’t conquer one, the king is God and God is the one who gave them land. They don’t have children because a bunch of people got together and had descendants. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Rachel, couldn’t have children. But God allowed them to have children. The children came from God, the land came from God, the language came from God, everything came from God. God made this nation out of nothing, the same way he made heaven and earth out of nothing. The nation owes its existence to God. There in lies its uniqueness. God made them into what they are and because of that, their destiny is inextricably intertwined with the God who is responsible for their very existence. If you abandon that God, what do you expect to happen? Verse 29, lu chachmu yaschilu zot, ‘if only the people had some wisdom, they would understand this’. Yabinu leacharitam, ‘they would understand the meaning of what’s happening to them’. As their history progresses forward, eicha yirdof echad elef, ‘exactly how did they expect that one enemy fighter would be able to chase after a thousand of them’, ushnaim yanisu revavah, ‘were two could chase 10,000’, im-lo ki-tzur mecharam v’Hashem hisgiram, ‘were it not for their rock, their foundation, their creator had sold them away, and God has shut them out’. This stuff doesn’t happen by accident, national disintegration only comes about when you pull away from the foundation stone of your political existence. If the nation pulls back from God, God will pull back from the nation.
Now if these all ended here, it is a very bitter pill to swallow. Yes, Ha’azinu gives the Jewish people a framework for saying its history, a framework which makes very clear, sometimes painfully clear the nature of Israel’s connection to its source. The disastrous consequences of pulling back from that source and the necessity to view clearly what has happened when terrible things befall the nation but all of that somehow feels cold. Where does that leave us? In times of national trouble. Okay, so maybe it was our fault somehow but how do you pick up the pieces? Is there any guidebook for that?
When pain fills our hearts and we look and we see, no way out other than this bleak picture of truth, God is our source, we left him, he left us but now what? What is the answer to ‘now what’? I think the Torah does provide an answer to that ‘now what’. It provides not just the start realization of the truth but a way to rebuilt, once that truth is recognized. It is a stunning, comforting path, a path which chillingly we may already, historically be halfway through.
Come back with me next week and we will explore it together.
1. Bereishit: Does Man 'Acquire' Woman?
2. Noach: Why Did God Destroy the World?
3. Lech Lecha: Covenant With God
4. Vayeira: Abraham's Struggle With Loyalty
5. Chayei Sarah: What Makes For A Successful Life?
6. Toldot: A Conversation For the Ages
7. Vayeitzei: Consequences of Jacob's Deceit
8. Vayishlach: Becoming a Person of Integrity
9. Vayeishev: Who Really Sold Joseph?
10. Miketz: Why Didn't Joseph Write Home?
11. Vayigash: The Epic Confrontation Between Judah and Joseph
12. Shmot: If Midrash is Real, Why Isn't It Peshat?
13. Va'era: Did God Take Away Pharaoh's Free Will?
14. Bo: Did God Really Need Ten Plagues?
15. Beshalach: What Does It Mean to Have Faith?
16. Yitro: The Marriage of God and Israel
17. Mishpatim: Female Servitude...Wait, What?
18. Terumah: Is There a Face Hiding in the Tabernacle?
19. Tetzaveh: Where Is God In a Physical World?
20. Ki Tisa: Moshe's Benevolent Chutzpah
21. Ki Tisa: Epilogue
22. Vayikra: Can Leaders Make Mistakes?
23. Tzav: What Does It Mean To Survive?
24. Shemini: Why Did God Reject Nadav and Avihu?
25. Tazria: The Bizarre Purification of the Metzora
26. Metzora: Living Within the Community
27. Acharei Mot: The (Surprising) Purpose of Yom Kippur
28. Kedoshim: How Can I Achieve True Love?
29. Emor: What Sabbath Is All About
30. Behar: Why Does Land Have To Rest?
31. Bechukotai: Why Would God Curse His People?
32. Bamidbar: Who Cares About Genealogy?
33. Shelach: Is Hope Irrational?
34. Korach: Can We Influence God?
35. Chukat: Was Hitting the Rock So Horrible?
36. Balak: Balaam, Prophet For Hire?
37. Pinchas: What Does It Mean To Be Zealous For God?
38. Matot: Why Is The End of Bamidbar So Anticlimactic?
39. Masei: Why Is The End of Bamidbar So Anticlimactic? II
40. Devarim: What Does It Mean To Have Faith?
41. Va'etchanan: Seeing Layers in the Ten Commandments
42. Eikev: What Does It Mean To Be A Good Person?- Part 1/2
43. Eikev: What Does It Mean To Be A Good Person?- Part 2/2
44. Re'eh: The Strange Laws Of Jewish Slavery
45. Shoftim: The Line Between Murder And Apathy
46. Shoftim: Epilogue 1
47. Shoftim: Epilogue 2
48. Ki Teitzei: The Hated Wife- Part 1/2
49. Ki Teitzei: The Hated Wife- Part 2/2
50. Ki Tavo: The Soliloquy Of The Farmer- Part 1/2
51. Ki Tavo: The Soliloquy Of The Farmer- Part 2/2
52. Nitzavim-Vayeilech: Where's the Happy Ending? - Part 1/3
53. Ha'azinu: A Unique Nation - Part 2/3
54. V'Zot Habracha: Looking Towards the Future - Part 3/3
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