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18.09.2020 16:00    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  shuva  haazinu  

Haazinu – A Call for Personal Moral Improvement

Shabbat Ha'azinu, which this year follows immediately after the New Year, is also Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath during the Ten Days of Repentance.  These days are propitious moments for forgiveness and atonement, and hence a special time for personal thoughts of repentance and soul reckoning.

Shabbat Shuvah is so named after the opening words of the haftarah from Hosea, "Shuvah Yisrael—Return, O Israel, to the Lord your G-d, for you have fallen because of your sin" (14:2).[1] "To the Lord" is understood as meaning to try your utmost and then some, rising above oneself by special effort.  The prophet's use of the plural - in "Take words with you and return to the Lord" - attests to the aspiration towards oneness of the Jewish people, emphasizing that each and every person individually must mend and improve his or her ways.  The conclusion is that the wise and sensible person will seek and find the failings in himself and not in another, as expressed in sayings of the Sages, who were deeply versed in human nature:  "Do not impute to your neighbor a fault that is in yourself" (Bava Metzia 59b), or "First judge yourself truly and then judge others" (Bava Metzia 107b; this translation is based on a play on the word keshot, reading it as Aramaic for "truth" as opposed to Hebrew for "adorn" [Translator's note]), and the like.  The underlying didactic value is:  "Do not judge others until you stand in their place," as Hillel the Elder[2] said (Avot2.4), meaning that one should not judge others or pry into their souls, their private realms, for we do not know everything about others, nor should we.  It is our duty only to deal with our selves, to mend and improve our own ways.

Returning to the Lord after having deviated from the straight path finds expression in the poem, Ha'azinu:  deep individual soul-searching in the wake of having failed through sinful and improper behavior, and subsequent mending of one's ways in order to return to the proper road of morally befitting behavior.

The poem Ha'azinu (Deut. 32:1-43) which covers most of this week's reading, presents a brief review of the annals of the Israelites from their beginnings until entering the land of Israel and asserts that the people will sin in the future, violating the covenant made at Mount Sinai.  The people will be punished, and only after they pay for their sins will the Lord forgive His people and avenge them of their enemies.[3] The way that is presented is one of corrective moral reproach.  In other words, this is a poem of faith that calls for teaching values to be applied in soul-searching and in rectifying one's behavior.[4]

Ha'azinu, like all poetic writing, is lofty and rich, has rhyme and rhythm, and its purpose is to convey a message easily received by the reader or listener so that the text is thoroughly understood and internalized.  The Lord addresses heaven and earth, the eternal giants of nature, calling on them to serve as everlasting witnesses to His words.  Addressing them is intended to focus the audience's attention so that they listen closely and take in what is said with a view to applying the lessons properly.  On more than one occasion we have been witness to undesirable and even fateful outcomes that began with lack of attention and failure to be ready and willing.[5]

In verse 2, the poem continues with the Lord emphasizing the eternal nature of the Torah and the values it teaches, comparing them to dew and rain from heaven:  "May my discourse [Heb. lekakh] come down as the rain, My speech [imrah] distill as the dew, like showers on young growth, like droplets on the grass."  Here lekakh, which could also be rendered as "lesson" is equated with imrah, the Lord's words, equated with Torah or Instruction.

The Torah teaches the way to behave in life and presents us with a collection of sayings (imrot) and general rules for proper comportment, good instruction, as King Solomon said in Proverbs (4:2):  "For I give you good instruction; do not forsake My Teaching."  Proper behavior between man and G-d begins with proper behavior between one person and another, and that is preceded by moral behavior and sound values in the person himself.[6]

The individual declares:  "For the name of the Lord I proclaim; render greatness to [i.e., due recognition of the greatness and might of] our G-d" (v. 3), recognizing that "The Rock!—His deeds are perfect, yea, all His ways are just; a faithful G-d, never false, true and upright is He" (v. 4).  The great and perfect works of the Lord, who is mighty and solid as a rock, are founded on being faithful, true and upright.

The Israelites had all the necessary conditions for success.  Nevertheless, the poem foresees that they will turn away from recognizing this and will behave as ingrates (v. 5-6):

They acted corruptly [to themselves],

Not [as] His children, the fault being with them,

A stubborn [= know-it-all] and inconstant generation.

Do you thus requite the Lord,

O base [= contemptible and lacking values] and witless people?

Is not He the Father who created you,

Fashioned you and made you endure [= put you on your feet]?

This complaint is lodged against the Israelites:  is this how you repay the Lord?  Is this proper thanks?  The answer: such behavior befits a contemptible, immoral people.  Such a people is unwise because they have not the sense to make good use of the Torah given them, as Onkelos renders the verse:  "the people who received the Torah."  After all, He is your Father, who created you, who made you and set you on your feet.  Look how are you behaving towards the Lord!  You owe your very existence to Him!  The Torah is teaching us an important lesson in values:  we must improve our ways by respecting others and making sure we give due thanks to others who have dealt kindly with us.

Verses 7 through 14 of the poem present a brief sketch of history, giving prominence to the especially favorable treatment the Israelites received from the Lord since time immemorial:

Remember the days of old [= the past],

Consider the years of ages past [= note what has happened to various generations];

Ask your father, he will inform you,

Your elders, they will tell you:

When the Most High gave nations their homes [= distributed the nations geographically]

And set the divisions of man [= by determining their boundaries],

He fixed the boundaries of peoples

In relation to Israel's numbers [= set the boundaries of the land of Israel according to the number of tribes that left Egypt].

For the Lord's portion is His people,

Jacob His own allotment [= the Lord's allotment is the people of Israel who follow in His ways, and this is His place].

He found him in a desert region,

In an empty [= distant and abandoned place] howling waste [= in a desolate place where wild animals howl].

He engirded him, watched over him [= looking closely at him],

Guarded him as the pupil of His eye [= as the apple of his eye; as if it were His very own eye, one of the most delicate, sensitive and vulnerable organs of the human body].

Like an eagle who rouses his nestlings [= the Lord watched over and continues to watch over the people of Israel as an eagle watches alertly over its nest (taking the poetic form of verb ya`ir as indicating both past and future, and interpreting it as related to `eranut, being alert—RR)],

Gliding down to his young.

So did He spread His wings and take him [= His nest],

Bear him along on His pinions;

The Lord alone did guide him [= and will continue to guide him (interpreting the poetic form of verb as past and future—RR)],

No alien god at His side [= only the Lord is G-d!].

From this depiction of G-d's outward, physical protection of the people of Israel, Moses moves on to describe the Lord's concern for the material well-being of His people, since time immemorial, a caring that was ill-requited:

He fed him honey from the crag,

And oil from the flinty rock,

Curd of kine and milk of flocks;

With the best of lambs,

And rams of Bashan, and he-goats;

With the very finest wheat—

And foaming grape-blood [= wine] was your drink.

All of the best things—the finest foods in great bounty—were bestowed upon the Israelites; and what thanks did they give?  Ungratefulness (vv. 15-18):

So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked [= the people of Israel kicked at all the beneficence bestowed upon them and abandoned the Lord]—

You grew fat and gross and coarse [= you grew extremely fat from the bountiful beneficence]—

He forsook the G-d who made him

And spurned the Rock of his support.

They incensed Him [= aroused His jealousy] with alien things [= other gods],

Vexed Him with abominations.

They sacrificed to demons, …

Gods they had never known [= unfamiliar gods]

New ones, who came but lately,

Who stirred not your fathers' fears [= to whom your ancestors did not relate].

You neglected the Rock that begot you [= the lofty Lord who begot you, you forgot],

Forgot the G-d who brought you forth [= the true G-d who created you].

The people of Israel were ungrateful and turned to pagan worship, betraying the trust put in them and violating the covenant; and accordingly they were punished:  "They incensed Me with no-gods, vexed Me with their futilities;  I'll incense them with a no-folk, vex them with a nation of fools" (Deut. 32:21).

The Lord will hand His people over to a contemptible and base gentile enemy, devoid of the most minimal moral values; yet even that gentile nation will be punished for ascribing their success to themselves, failing to understand that all their strength comes from the Lord.  Since the poem is supposed to serve as a witness, these words convey a message to each and every one of us to behave properly out of careful observation.

Ultimately, the other nations laud and praise the remnant of Israel, who stayed fast by the Lord, as described in the poem's concluding lines:

O nations, acclaim His people!

For He'll avenge the blood of His servants,

Wreak vengeance on His foes,

And cleanse the land of His people.

Rashi explains:  "At that time (when I shall take vengeance on them) the nations will praise Israel:  'See, how praiseworthy is this people—that they have cleaved to the Holy One, blessed be He, amidst all the troubles which have passed over them, and have not forsaken Him, for they experienced His goodness and His excellence.'"  What led the children of Israel to stand fast by the Lord, notwithstanding all their tribulations?  It seems they must have thought logically and read the reality well, arriving at practical conclusions, mending their ways and improving their values, and thus successfully measuring up in the end.

The important rule for successful action appears in the middle of the poem (v. 29)—to wisely consider the possible repercussions of any action before embarking upon it:  "Were they wise, they would think upon this, gain insight into their future."  If only people thought carefully, wisely and logically from the start, before doing something, they would spare themselves understanding in hindsight, after taking action.  As Rabbi Solomon b. Moses Alkabez said in his magnificent liturgical poem, Lekha Dodi, which is sung in all communities when ushering in the Sabbath:  "Made in the end, but thought out from the beginning."

The Lord commanded Moses to write down this value-laden didactic poem, engraving it in stone, and to teach it to the children of Israel, "putting it in their mouths," as Ibn Ezra explains:  "So that they know it by heart"—so that they understand the poem from having studied it thoroughly, until it flows from their lips and can be recited clearly as any well-studied mishnah or teaching.   Likewise, after reciting the poem Moses says to the Israelites (Deut. 31:46-48):

Take to heart [= in your conscience, emotionally] all the words with which I have warned you this day.  Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching.  For this is not a trifling  thing [= something of no value] for you:  it is your very life; through it you shall long endure on the land that you are to possess upon crossing the Jordan.

Parashat Ha'azinu is well suited to the Days of Awe, the days of judgment, repentance, forgiveness and mercy; for as we said above, it, too, contains themes of judgment as well as repentance.  As Sefat Emet (1884) explained:

In the verses, "Now, therefore, write down this poem…then this poem shall confront them,…" (Deut. 31:19-21), we note that prior to their sin, the Divine Presence was revealed in the midst of the Israelites.  Of their time in exile it is written, "they shall say, 'Surely it is because our G-d is not in our midst…' Yet I will keep My countenance hidden" (Deut. 31:17-18).  But the Lord, blessed be He, is present among the children of Israel through the Torah.  The Holy One, blessed be He, commanded Moses to embed all the hidden light in the Torah scroll; also, the Torah is called `edut or testimony, for the Divine Presence dwells in Israel.  By laboring over the Torah, the sacred light is revealed, as it is written, "[this poem] shall answer them" (ve-`anta, Deut. 31:21), from answering by awakening from below.  "Now" is a reference to repentance.  Perhaps it intimates that the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, our Teacher of blessed memory, that their generation was the root [= leaders firmly rooted in educational values] on which all depended.  They also had to repent for the sins of later generations, and repentance preceded sin.  The idea is that by the sins of the first generation, though they were lesser sins in comparison to the multiplicity of sins of later generations, nevertheless, everything depended on the root.  Therefore, the Holy One, blessed be He, showed them what will ultimately be, at the End of Days, and they repented and by virtue of their repentance we are able to awaken to repentance; therefore this was written in the parashah of repentance.

This idea appears in more polished form in his commentary four years later (Va-Yelekh, 1888):  "After the sin, it says:  'Write down this poem,' namely, the Parashah of repentance, Ha'azinu, which was given to the base generations.  This is the revelation of the last path in the Torah written in tangible form.  This path penetrates increasingly until complete rectification is achieved with the coming of the Messiah, may it be speedily in our day."

Thus, our role in life as the children of the Omnipresent demands great responsibility, as Sefat Emet concludes from the poem (Ha'azinu, 1886):

Regarding Ha'azinu, I have already written elsewhere (Ha'azinu 1876), that it is the rectification of creation in general by the children of Israel, who were created in order to connect everything on earth with its root in heaven…for thereby the children of Israel have the ability to rectify heaven and earth.

This rectification is individual, national, and world-wide.  Amends are both overt, in this world, and covert, in the higher realms, insofar as faith involves the nexus between that which is on earth and its root in heaven.

The conclusion to be deduced from the poem was formulated by the tanna, Simeon ben Zoma, in Tractate Avot (4.1), in his definition of the truly wise, mighty, wealthy, and honored person in our tangible material world:

Ben Zoma said:  Who is wise?  He that learns from all men, as it is said, "From all my teachers have I acquired understanding."  Who is mighty?  One who subdues his passions, as it is said, "Better to be forbearing than mighty, to have self-control than to conquer a city" (Prov. 16:32).  Who is rich?  He who rejoices in his portion, as it is said, "You shall enjoy the fruit of your labors; you shall be happy and you shall prosper" (Ps. 128:2); "you shall be happy" in this world, "and you shall prosper" in the world to come.  Who is honored?  He who honors his fellows, as it is said:  "For I honor those who honor Me, but those who spurn Me shall be dishonored" [= those who spurn Me will be spurned and base because of their very own behavior—I Sam. 2:30).

May we always, especially in these days of soul-reckoning and thoughts of repentance, be blessed with the ability to properly implement the behavior recommended in the poem of Ha'azinu and in the words of the Sages.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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