Parashat Ha’azinu 5777 & Rosh Hashanah

Rabbi Margaret Jacobi, 22 September 2017

‘God make him drink honey from the rock and oil from flint.’ (Deut. 32:13). Rock is the most unpromising of substances for nourishment; it is hard and unyielding. Yet in this, his last song to the Israelites, Moses promises them that they will receive honey from it, sweetness and sustenance. Not only is this an extraordinary promise of God’s ability to care for the Israelites. It is also a lesson that nourishment can come from the most difficult of places. Indeed, often what seems most difficult and intractable leads to the greatest reward.

I first learnt this, as I imagine many of us did, at school. I particularly struggled at A level with a subject called physical science, combined Physics with Chemistry. I wanted to give up, I felt it was hopeless, I was never going to understand electro-magnetic theory or thermodynamics. But when I finally did grasp the thermodynamics – I never did get electro-magnetic theory! -, there was nothing more exciting than the sense of having grasped something. I had discovered the joy of working through difficulties and reaching understanding.

This season of repentance, if we take it seriously, can be hard as rock. We may feel as if we have reached a brick wall in terms of trying to understand the questions we ask of ourselves: what is going on in our lives? where we are heading? Yet, just as rock is eroded by the drip drip of small drops of water, so we can break down problems which seem insurmountable if we persist, little by little, and do not give up.

Our own selves, too, can sometimes seem hard as rock. It can feel impossible to change. As we ask ourselves why we behave as we do and why we keep on in the same patterns of wrong-doing, it may seem to us impossible to break those patterns and behave differently in future. Yet, we can shape ourselves, gradually, by small everyday deeds. We can be helped by others, who respond to our needs, and whose needs we respond to, so that their influence helps to shape us into better people. If we persist we may find real sweetness and sustenance at the end of this season in realising that we that we have been changed by it, that we have found new understandings and are able to go forward into the new year in a different and better way.

This can give us real joy. After the Yamim Noraim, the days of Awe, comes Simchat Torah, the season of rejoicing in the Torah. In rabbinic times, honey became a metaphor for Torah, as Ps. 19 tells us: ‘Sweeter than honey and the honeycomb are your judgments, O God.’ For the rabbis there was no greater joy than the study of Torah, but Torah study, too, can be hard and demanding, especially when one struggles with the seemingly intractable logic of a page of Talmud. For the rabbis, and for us if we let it, Torah study can be a mirror for life. It can help us see our lives more clearly. As we struggle with Torah, so the questions of our own lives rise up before us. Their difficulties become apparent, but bit by bit, they become resolved and we taste the sweetness of honey that the rock of Torah can yield. And so, our rejoicing at Simchat Torah is not only rejoicing in Torah, but rejoicing in the questions that we have asked and the answers we have found in the days of struggle that come before.

As we struggle with the questions of our lives at this season, may we find the answers we seek, and may finding them bring us joy and sweetness and nourish us in the year ahead. And so may be blessed with a sweet new year, sweet as the honey we eat to mark its beginning.

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