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Torah Sparks

October 1, 2011 – 3 Tishrei 5772

Annual: Deut. 32:1 – 32:52 (Etz Hayim, p. 1185; Hertz p. 896)
Triennial: Deut. 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, 1236, 1239; Hertz p. 891, 893, 892)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
Baldwin, New York

Parashat Haazinu is the next-to-last Torah portion, but is the last one to be read as part of the weekly Shabbat schedule – we read parashat V’zot ha-berachah during Simchat Torah services. Parashat Haazinu consists almost entirely of a song – or maybe it’s a poem –Moses recites to the People Israel. The poem, which Israel is to learn, is intended as a reminder of God’s justice and patience with them, and that justice and patience contrasted with Israel’s unworthiness and disloyalty. Israel is adjured to observe the covenant and to follow God’s laws as a primary obligation and the route to prosperity and well-being in the Promised Land. It is to pass on both this message and the poem itself, in which heaven and earth are called upon as witnesses, as a legacy to future generations.

Haazinu might be viewed as Moses’ swan song. In the few prose verses with which the parashah concludes, God tells Moses that he is to ascend Mount Nebo, and he will be permitted to view the Land of Israel from there. He will not be permitted to enter the Land, however, but will die on the mountaintop.

In keeping with its poetic content, parashat Haazinu is written in accordance with a unique scribal tradition. Its verses form two parallel columns, representing, according to one contemporary interpretation, the pillars of strength that will be required for the nation to confront the challenges of faith, statecraft, and nation-building that lie ahead.

Haazinu is testimony to Voltaire’s insight: “One merit of poetry few people will deny: it says more and in fewer words than prose.” So, too, we are reminded of Robert Browning: “God is the perfect poet.”

Theme #1: “Rock and Rule”

“The Rock – His deeds are perfect, Yea, all His ways are just; a faithful God, never false, true and upright is He.” Deuteronomy 32:4

Study: Derash

“‘Rock’ appears as a term for ‘god’ several times in the poem, referring both to the Lord and pagan gods (see vv. 15,18,30,31,37). It expresses the idea that the deity is a source of refuge, a protector. From the Bible’s viewpoint, the Lord is ‘The Rock,’ the only one deserving of the appellation. The poem uses it of pagan gods only ironically, when pointing out their inferiority or complete inability as protectors (vv. 31, 37).” Jeffrey Tigay, JPS Commentary

“Through the wilderness of our lives we are called to return again and again to the Presence of God who supports us, who is the ground beneath our feet. Because of the solidity of this Rock, we can stand upright. Each time we stumble, each time we fall into distraction, forgetfulness, confusion or complacency, we can again find our bearings and push against the Rock of God beneath us in order to stand upright. In fact, in Ha'azinu, ‘Upright,’ Jeshurun becomes our name.” Rabbi Shefa Gold

“God is the Rock, the mountain, that old immovable object. We are currently in the valley known as Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Repentance, nestled between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Our climb is our yearly trek of return, and as always it appears formidable. But we must find that irresistible force within us. Reaching that rocky, craggy top will take all our energy and will not be accomplished without spiritual cuts and scrapes. Old wounds need to be reopened in order for them to heal; along the way we may even expose psychic bruises of which we were unaware. But the journey is indescribable, the view breathtaking, and the opportunity to merely reach out towards our Rock is a profound experience.” Rabbi Michal Shekel

“Tzur – rock or flint – is harder than stone; little wonder that it is also used for preparing arrowheads and spearheads, weapons of attack and not just defense. Therefore we see that tzur can be interpreted as active defense, one that contains an element of offense. We observe that the expression tzur is used in may contexts as one of the stock epithets for the Holy One, blessed be He, as we see in the prayer for redemption: ‘Rock of Israel, arise to the aid of Israel,’ in which the word ‘arise’ is an active evocation; likewise in the prayer for the well-being of the State: ‘Our Father in Heaven, Rock of Israel and its Redeemer.’ Ironically, the attempt to avoid mentioning God in the Israeli Declaration of Independence, resorting instead to ‘Rock of Israel,’ was to no avail; for the phrase ‘Rock of Israel’ itself is patently one of the names of the Holy One, blessed be He. In the verse from this week’s reading the ‘Rock’ is described as tamim, or innocent, thus expressing the paradoxical essence of the Holy One, blessed be He. He is indeed like a rock, strong as flint, like a stone fortress, yet all the same, ‘his deeds are tamim.’ Perhaps precisely because He is a rock his deeds can also be tamim. His might and strength are what enable Him to act with kindness and to have mercy.” Prof. Dov Landau, Bar Ilan University

Questions for Discussion

“Rock” is a rich, complicated, and nuanced metaphor for God. What characteristics of a rock do you associate with God? Is there a metaphor (or metaphors) you prefer? If different appellations for God suit different occasions and seasons, how is Rock of Ages (Maoz Tzur) especially apt for the God of Chanukah (and, in a less famous stanza of the song, Purim)?

Professor Landau says that the use of “Rock of Israel” in the State of Israel’s Declaration of Independence was “an attempt to avoid mentioning God,” which ironically was “to no avail.” Given his analysis of the term “rock,” how is this divine epithet particularly well suited to the context? That is, how is “Rock of Israel” precisely the view of God most wisely invoked by the newborn Jewish state (as well as by the State of Israel today)?

Professor Tigay understands “Rock” as a source of safety, while Rabbi Shekel, to some extent, sees in “Rock” a potential for pain and injury! Are these views mutually exclusive? How does Rabbi Gold’s image of “pushing against” the Divine Rock help to harmonize these two views?

Our verse opens “Tziduk ha-Din” – the funeral prayer acknowledging God’s goodness and justice, and acceptance of God’s verdict. How do the sources cited here relate to or help to explain the liturgical use of our verse?

Theme #2: “Half Empty?”

“For this is not an empty 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.” Deuteronomy 32:47

Study: Derash

“The Torah is not an empty thing. And if you find it empty, the emptiness is in you!” Talmud Yerushalmi Peah 1:1

“Heaven is in each word, all of Torah is song, and not always plainly spoken. It invites, indeed requires, deeper inquiry and explanation. Moshe warns the people that this is ‘no vain teaching for you.’ Ki lo davar reyk hu,’ no empty thing. If we don’t get it, it’s not because the words are in vain or empty, but maybe we are. Maybe we are vain, maybe we are empty. Maybe we need to dig deeper.” Rabbi Malka Drucker

“Opening ourselves to the peculiar power of words is vital to the project of doing justice in a global context. Listening for the songs and poems of those with whom we work in solidarity helps us learn the shape of justice, schooling us in overlooked details and barely-audible stories; teaching us of the complexities and toll of living with violence, disease, want or injustice. Most critically, these words can serve as actors in their own right, unhardening hearts, compelling action, bearing witness. And it is thus that Moses’ end-of-life supplication is enacted: ‘Take these words to your heart… because it is not an empty thing for you: It is your very life…’” Rachel Farbiarz, American Jewish World Service

“The lesson contained in these concluding verses of the Torah is the importance of each detail. There is nothing superfluous in the Torah and there is no sliding scale of values between its different portions. The seemingly most insignificant and prosaic detail hidden in the folds of a story is of equal importance to its philosophy and fundamental laws. All goes under the name of ‘Torah.’” Nehama Leibowitz

“Faith is an excitement and an enthusiasm: it is a condition of intellectual magnificence to which we must cling as to a treasure, and not squander on our way through life in the small coin of empty words, or in exact and priggish argument.” George Sand

Questions for Discussion

Do Professor Leibowitz and George Sand agree? Or does Professor Leibowitz’s reverence for the “seemingly insignificant or prosaic detail” lend itself to the “exact and priggish argument” decried by Sand? How does Professor Leibowitz’s statement differ from the classical dogma that no word or letter of the Torah is superfluous, or does it simply restate this principle? How is a non-fundamentalist student of the Bible who uses critical and scientific methodology to make sense of this principle?

Imagine Professor Leibowitz, Rabbi Drucker, and Rachel Farbiarz in conversation. How might they together explain the moral and spiritual goals of Deuteronomy 32:47 and the ultimate value of an exacting study of the scripture?

Our verse links study and devotion to the biblical text to the quality of Jewish national life in the land of Israel. Certainly, remarkable opportunities for Jewish learning are to be found in the State of Israel today. What benefits are unique to study in Israel, as opposed to educational opportunities in the diaspora? How might we, our families, and our congregations make the most of such opportunities? How should our formal and information educational institutions include an Israel component?

Notwithstanding George Sand’s caveat, “exact argument” has a time-honored place in Jewish tradition and rabbinic literature. How do we assure that such an intellectual exercise remains in keeping with the exciting, living faith she endorses?

Historic Note

Parashat Haazinu, consisting almost entirely of poetry, is read on October 1, 2011, the anniversary of the birth of American Jewish poet Louis Untermeyer on October 1, 1885. Untermeyer, known for his wit and love of puns, was author or editor of nearly 100 volumes of poetry. He was a Poetry Society of America gold medalist, and from 1961 to 1963, in a presidential administration where poetry was, thanks to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, accorded new national prominence, he served as the United States’ poet laureate. He wrote: “From compromise and things half done, keep me with stern and stubborn pride; And when the last fight is won, God, keep me still unsatisfied.” Among his poetry with biblical themes is “Koheleth” from the volume titled “Burning Bush.”

Halachah L’Maaseh

The repentance sought during the High Holy Days – and to which Shabbat Shuvah sermons, in particular, are customarily devoted – requires remorse for past actions and a commitment to personal change. It also demands verbal apologies (See Rambam, Hilchot Teshuvah 1:1; 2:1- 3). The offended party has an obligation to grant forgiveness eventually, and is considered cruel he or she continues to refuse it (Ibid., 2:10). The sinner may, however, have to make several attempts to secure forgiveness (2:9), and Rambam acknowledges that some particularly heinous offenses may well be irremediable and ultimately unforgiveable (see chapter 4). The mitzvah of repentance (teshuvah) can and should be pursued at any time throughout the year, whenever it is necessary. Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah – the Ten Days of Repentance (in the Talmud referred to exclusively and prosaically as “the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) are, however, considered a particularly propitious period for this spiritual endeavor (2:6).

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