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Torah Sparks

October 15, 2005 - 12 Tishrei 5766

Annual: Deuteronomy 32:1 - 32:52 (Etz Hayim, p. 1185; Hertz p. 896)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 32:1 - 32:52 (Etz Hayim, p. 1185; Hertz p. 896)
Haftarah: II Samuel 22 (Etz Hayim, p. 1197; Hertz p. 904)

Prepared by Rabbi Daniel A. Ornstein
Congregation Ohav Shalom, Albany, NY

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director

Where We Are in the Torah

This week's portion is Deuteronomy, chapter 32, the tenth in the book. In 5766 Haazinu is read on the Shabbat preceding Sukkot.


Most of Haazinu is the song/poem that God commands Moses to teach the people so that future generations in exile will remember the covenant with God and repent of their sins. In the poem, Moses calls heaven and earth as his witnesses against the Israelites for their backsliding tendencies and their rejection of God's goodness. He praises God for perfect justice. God created the world, setting the Israelites apart from all other nations as a special nation upon whom God doted. Israel's special status made her "grow fat and kick" in rebellion against God with idolatrous practice and neglect of God. God punished the people by hiding God's countenance and exiling them, yet God did not destroy them so the nations exiling them could not say that Israel's demise was their doing. In the end, God is storing up vengeance for these same nations who have arrogantly oppressed Israel and God will deliver God's people. Moses then admonishes the people to take the words of the poem to heart for all generations, for this teaching is what will give them life. God tells Moses to ascend Mount Nevo on the steppes of Moav, (modern day Jordan), as he prepares to die. Moses may look at the Promised Land from the mountaintop but he may not enter the land with the people.

The First Text from Our Torah Portion for Study with Commentaries

So YESHURUN grew fat and kicked/You grew fat and gross and coarse/He forsook the God who made him/And spurned the Rock of his support. (32:15)

  • From The Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot 32a - There is a parable about a man who spoiled his son, then put a purse of money around his neck and sent him off to a brothel. Is there anything that that boy could do at that point to prevent himself from sinning?... It's just like people say: a full belly makes people do sleazy things!... As we learn (concerning the Israelites): SO YESHURUN GREW FAT AND KICKED.
  • From The Torah Commentary of Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra, (Spain, North Africa, and Europe, 1089-1164) - It is a positive commandment to gather the entire Jewish people, men, women, and children at the close of each sabbatical year when they are on pilgrimage (for the Sukkot festival); to read to them aloud passages of the Torah that would enliven them in their performance of mitzvot and strengthen their faith.
  • From The Torah Commentary of Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra (Spain, North Africa, and Europe, 1089-1164) - The name YESHURUN refers to the people of Israel. It comes from the Hebrew word, YASHAR, which means "straight, upright." The meaning of the verse is, "This fat one, (i.e., spoiled and rebellious), used to be straight and upright." Others say that YESHURUN comes from the Hebrew word SHUR, "to gaze, to be gazed upon," just as Balaam the prophet declared about the Israelites: AS I SEE THEM FROM THE MOUNTAINTOPS/GAZE ON THEM (ASHUREINU) FROM THE HEIGHTS/THERE IS A PEOPLE THAT DWELLS APART/NOT RECKONED AMONG THE NATIONS. (Numbers 23:9)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. The passage from the Talmud is part of a larger Talmudic discussion about God's role in human evil through God's creation of the evil impulse. If our behavior is the result of God given impulses that we act upon, are we really culpable for our wrongdoing?
  2. The Talmud is also talking about the deleterious effects of material blessing upon human behavior: the more we have the more spoiled we become and the worse we behave. Compare and contrast this idea with the insight that poverty and deprivation lead to antisocial and criminal behavior.
  3. Ibn Ezra points out two possible sources for the Hebrew name YESHURUN: to be upright and to be gazed upon. Ultimately, what motivates us to be upright: the inherent goodness of being righteous, or the fear of being watched and punished for how we behave? Do people ever act out of purely altruistic motives?
  4. Think about Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of development of moral reasoning. He claims that we start out as children doing good solely to avoid punishment. If we truly grow up, we can reach the highest level of moral reasoning: doing right based upon an internalized set of abstract moral principles that are right in and of themselves. (His theories have been sharply criticized on many grounds over the years.)

The Second Text from Our Torah Portion for Study with Commentaries

And when Moses finished reciting all these words to all Israel, he said to them: "Take to heart all the words with which I have warned you this day. Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the words of this Teaching. For this is not a trifling thing 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." (32:45-47)

  • From The Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Peah, 5:1 - These are the commandments for whose performance a person enjoys "interest income" in this life, and whose principle a person is rewarded with in the next life: honoring parents, acts of kindness, and promoting peace between people in conflict. Yetthe study of Torah is equal to them all. Rabbi Mana derived this list of commandments from our verse in the Torah, (Deuteronomy 32:47):
    1. THIS IS NOT A TRIFLING THING FOR YOU: refers to Torah study.
    2. IT IS YOUR VERY LIFE: refers to honoring parents.
    3. THROUGH IT YOU SHALL LONG ENDURE: refers to acts of kindness.
    4. ON THE LAND: refers to promoting peace between people in conflict
  • From Torah Temimah, (Torah anthology and commentary of Rabbi Barukh Ha-Levi Epstein, Russia, 1860-1942)
    1. Tradition teaches elsewhere that if Torah becomes trifling to you it is because you don't give it the necessary attention to understand it.
    2. In the Ten Commandments we are told that honoring parents brings us long life.
    3. Proverbs 21 teaches that a person who pursues acts of tzedakah and kindness will long endure.
    4. Tradition teaches elsewhere that the temple was destroyed and the Jews were exiled from the land ofIsrael because of baseless hatred that should have been prevented.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. There are a number of parallels to this statement of the Jerusalem Talmud that are found throughout rabbinic literature. Discuss this traditional rabbinic promise of even greater reward in the afterlife to the person who performs these particular commandments.
  2. Do you believe in an afterlife? Why would the Torah and the Talmud want to focus on performing the commandments for the sake of receiving a reward? Is it better to do God's will even with the wrong motivation, or to refrain from doing right until we are sincere in our motivations?
  3. Why are these specific commandments singled out as offering great reward in this life and even greater reward in the world to come for their fulfillment?
  4. Generally, the Torah portion Haazinu is read on Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This year we read it just before Sukkot. Discuss the possible connections between this Torah portion's promises of reward for observing the commandments and the themes of Sukkot.
  5. Concerning Torah study being equal to all of these commandments, there is a famous debate found in the Talmud. Which is greater, Torah study or action? The rabbis concluded that study is more important because it leads to action, (which we can assume is truly more important!) Discuss the underlying ideas in this teaching.

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