Rabbi Danny Rich – 21 September 2018
Ha-azinu (Deuteronomy 32: 1-52) is the last Shabbat parashah – since V’zot ha’Brachah (Deuteronomy 33 and 34) is read on Simchat Torah morning –and consists primarily of a poem in which the author reprises the themes of the early chapters of Deuteronomy: the greatness and generosity of God and the stubbornness and rebelliousness of the Israelites.
Ha’azinu is typical of Biblical poetry in that each verse consists of two lines that are ‘parallel’ in meaning.
The theology of the poem is traditional. God is a perfect Being who treats the Israelites with complete justice whereas the Israelites prove to be God’s opposite. Despite Divine protection and even material beneficence, the Israelites turn to idolatry and poor moral conduct. Eventually (Verse 19) God despairs, becoming ‘angry’, and decides to punish Israel, in the well-known phrase, by ‘hiding the Divine face’. In a bizarre about turn (because Israel’s enemies might claim credit for victory) God decides to limit Divine punishment of the Israelites by focussing Divine anger on the enemies of the Israelites and finally by restoring Israel thus, presumably, vindicating the people of the One God against the efforts of the followers of idolatry.
There is so much that is challenging about the content of this poem, but I will limit myself to one idea within it, and then say something about the concluding verses (48-52) of Ha’azinu which are a brief return to the narrative as Moses’ prepares for his death.
After the opening verses and the setting of the theme the relationship between the Divine and Israel is set in its historic context in the metaphor of a desert wanderer who is led to safety and ultimate prosperity.
God found (Israel) in a desert region, in an empty howling wilderness.
God encircled (Israel) and watched over (Israel), guarding (Israel) as a pupil of the Divine eye.
Like an eagle which rouses nestlings, gliding down to the nest; God spread the Divine wings and bore Israel on the Divine pinions.
The Eternal One alone guided Israel, no alien God at the side.
God set Israel in the highlands, to feast on the produce of the field;
To be nurtured on honey from the crag and with oil from the hardest of rock,
Curd of cattle and milk of the flock;
With the best of lambs and rams of Bashan and he-goats;
With the very finest of wheat –and plentiful wine to drink.
So the (upright Israel) grew fat and kicked, becoming gross and coarse.
Whilst some of the poetic Hebrew is difficult to translate into English, the idea is clear. God acts generously in plucking Israel from a place of physical danger. God protects Israel as one instinctively protects one’s own eyes and leads Israel through the desert as a bird of prey nurtures its fledglings, initially bringing them food to the nest followed by teaching the young to fly and hunt but permitting them to be physically carried when there is a prospect of falling. Finally Israel arrives in the Promised Land where honey, oil, dairy products, meat, wheat and wine are available in abundance. Perhaps inevitably the rescued revel in their fortune, and in the most striking metaphor become like an unruly and rebellious animal which, not being satisfied and docile on feeding, turns against the very one who provides its sustenance.
This is not the only place in the Torah where there is a warning that material acquisition and success can become an end in itself and a danger to the well-being of the very society which has been its beneficiary.
We live today in a world which is so fast changing we can barely keep up. Until very recently each generation expected to be materially better off than the preceding one and it often seemed that the more we acquired the more we sought and the more we sought the less satisfied we became. Few of us wish to be hungry or cold or ill and many of us delight in seeing parts of the world our ancestors could only dream about, in communicating across the globe and benefiting in so many ways from the material advances brought about by science and technology.
Today, perhaps, the question is: Have we reached a tipping point? Will the succeeding generation(s) have to get by with less material well- being? Will our grandchildren learn that happiness may not come from growth and constant acquisition? Ha’azinu alerts us, at least, to the challenge.
I confess I am more interested in the final narrative verses of Ha’azinu in which Moses prepares for his death and is once again reminded that he will not enter the Promised Land. There is much inevitable debate about the harshness of the Divine decision but Moses in a moment of supreme dignity accepts his fate. He now prepares for his death by delivering (in the Simchat Torah portion) a blessing for each of the tribes. The Midrash puts these words into his mouth:
All my life I have scolded this people. At the end of my life, let me leave them with a blessing.
Perhaps that is our challenge. We may not leave the next generation material wealth but can we leave them a real blessing?
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