PARASHAT HA’AZINU - SHABBAT SHUVAH
September 30 – 8 Tishrei 5767
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: Hosea 14:2 – 10; Joel 2:15 – 27; Micah 7:18 – 20 (Etz Hayim, p. 1235; Hertz p. 891)
Prepared by Rabbi Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL
Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director
This portion is almost entirely a poem. It tells the history of the people Israel in the form of a song. The heavens and the earth – that is, all of creation -- are to be witness to the words that will be spoken. May the words come down like rain on the young grass.
Israel is to remember the days of old and consider years past. They should ask their fathers and listen to their elders. God found the people Israel in a desert region, which the poem compared to a howling waste. Like an eagle with its fledglings, God takes the people Israel under His wings. God guides them and brings them to the Holy Land.
Jeshurun, another name for Israel, grows fat and kicks. He spurns God and vexes Him with non-gods. God hides His countenance from Israel and vexes Jeshurun with non-people. The poem uses violent terms to describe what will happen to the nation of Israel. In the end God will vindicate His people and deliver them from their enemies; God will wreak vengeance on His foes.
After reciting the poem, God tells Moses to ascend the heights of Mount Nebo in the land of Moab, facing Jericho. God tells him that he will die on the mountain for his sin at the waters of Meribath-kadesh. Moses may view the land from a distance, but he will never be allowed to enter it.
Issue #1 - God and Repentance
“See now that I, even I, am He, and there is no other god with Me. I kill and I make alive, I have wounded and I heal, and there is none that can deliver out of My hand” (Deuteronomy 32:39)
A classic Hasidic parable is most apt at this time of year:
A king had a son whom he loved very much. Unfortunately, as the son was growing up, the king began to see that he was heading on the wrong path. The son’s behavior became more and more difficult, and the king realized that he could not keep him in the palace, so he sent his son to a far-off village to be raised in the home of peasants. There his officers and spies were able to keep an eye on him and see how he was doing. The king’s son grew up in the village, but always maintained a memory of the palace where he was born.
One day the young man said, “I am the son of a king, and I must return to my father.” He began the long and difficult journey. Soon messengers came to tell the king, “Your son is on his way home.” The king immediately broke into tears. He told his servants, “I know it is a difficult journey. Go load up my carriage right away. I will go and meet my son half way.”
The meaning of the parable is clear. The king is God and the son represents God’s children. There are times when we might feel that God has sent us away or is hidden from us. There are times when we send ourselves away, hide ourselves from God, as we travel a long distance from the proper path.
Today is Shabbat Shuva, the Sabbath of Repentance. The theme of these days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is teshuva, which literally means “return.” At this time of year we focus on returning to the path God wants us to travel. Teshuva teaches that we humans are not forced to continue as we have been living; we are able to turn our lives around and change the path we are traveling. When we do teshuva, in a sense God does teshuva also. God also is able to turn around. Perhaps that is the meaning of the rather difficult poetic words in this portion “I kill and I make alive, I have wounded and I heal.” God can change.
One of the most profound teachings of Judaism is the belief in a symmetry between what happens on earth and what happens in the spiritual world. When we human beings return to God, God also returns to us. God meets us halfway, if you will. We travel toward one another.
Can people truly change? The Talmud has a wonderful lesson. “Resh Lakish said, if a person comes to defile himself, the doors are certainly open to him -- but he is on his own. But if he comes to purify himself, he is helped from heaven. The school of Rabbi Ishmael taught, if a shopkeeper sells naptha (which has a bad smell) and balm (which has a beautiful smell), when a customer wants to measure the naptha, the shopkeeper says, measure it on your own. But when a customer wants to measure balm, the shopkeeper says, let us measure it together, so that we both may become perfumed” (Yoma 38b - 39a). God is like the shopkeeper who comes to help us if we wish to change.
Why do 12 step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous speak of turning to a Higher Power – God -- if a person wants to change?
Issue #2 – God in Nature
“He found them in a desert, a waste and howling wilderness” (Deuteronomy 32:10)
- What is the relationship between God and nature? It is common wisdom that we can find God in beautiful natural settings. Many Jews have described the beauty of reciting the early morning prayers as the sun rises over the Grand Canyon, or from Masada overlooking the Dead Sea. If the weather is nice, many synagogues will hold services outdoors in a natural setting.
- Yet Judaism disagrees with the pantheistic teaching that God is nature. God is not in nature. Jewish tradition has not always loved natural surroundings. Perhaps most pressing, the Israelites hated the desert. This week’s portion tells how God found us in a howling wilderness, a scary and evil place. God protected us as an eagle protects its young, until we were able to move out of the wilderness into a settled community. The ancient pagans worshiped nature. The sun and moon, mountains and trees, oceans and rivers were seen as gods, not as representations of the power of God. There was divinity everywhere. Today there is a return to this pagan viewpoint among many new age worshipers. The earth is Gaia, the great goddess, worthy of worship, and pantheism (the belief that God is really just nature) has returned.
- Nature can be beautiful and inspiring. It also can be dangerous and scary. Nature is not God, but a creation of God. God is beyond nature.
- Our job as human beings is not to worship nature but to perfect it. What does this mean?