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Torah Sparks

September 29, 2012 – 13 Tishrei 5773

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: 2 Samuel 22:1-51 (Etz Hayim p. 1197, Hertz p. 904)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
Temple Emanuel of North Jersey - Franklin Lakes, NJ

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 hHa-Berachah during Simchat Torah services. Parashat Haazinu consists almost entirely of a song, 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; that justice and patience are 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. The parashah concludes with a few prose verses, 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.

Theme #1: “Forget-Thee-Not”

“You neglected the Rock that begot you, Forgot the God who brought you forth.” (Deuteronomy 32:18)

Study: Derash

“Our rabbis taught: When God comes to deal benevolently with you, you provoke Him, thereby diminishing (matishim: a play on teshi, neglect – JHP) His power to be benevolent.” (Rashi, citing Sifrei)

“The poem turns directly to Israel and exclaims that it is guilty of the most unnatural behavior: forgetting one’s own parent. begot… brought forth: These Hebrew verbs may have been chosen to suggest a mother. The image of forgetting one’s mother casts Israel’s behavior in the most unnatural light.” (Chumash Etz Hayim)

“A figure as bold as it is beautiful. God is represented as a Father, to whom Israel owed its existence as a people; and, at the same time, as a Mother, travailing with her infant, and forever watching over it with tender affection.” (Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz)

“’The Rock that begot you’ – God created you. ‘You forgot’ – God created you with the ability to forget so that you would be able to put out of mind all the sufferings that may come to you. But you ‘forgot the God who brought you forth’ – You have misused your God-given ability to forget, promptly forgetting God who created you and who gave you this skill.” (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk)

“Think of your father, Abraham. This is the meaning of ‘You neglected the Rock that begot you.’ You forgot who your father was, and therefore, you ‘forgot the God who brought you forth.’” (Korban He-Ani)

“The gravest sin for a Jew is to forget – or not to know – what he represents.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)

Questions for Discussion

Was God’s decision to debar Moses from entering the Land of Israel an act of cruelty or kindness? Do Moses’ lapses in obedience to Divine instruction adequately explain God’s decision? Or are Moses’ seemingly minor transgressions merely a pretense… concealing a grander, more thoughtful, benevolent, and providential plan?

What personal goals and aspirations, pursued for a lifetime, would you be willing to leave unreached, if given the assurance that “others will pick up” where you left off? Would you consider this a “blessing” (a la Mamet), a “better gift” (see Friedberg) than personally reaching your desired destination?

How do you understand the Sifrei’s assertion that Moses had a fuller – or perhaps more fulfilling – experience of the Promised Land than those who physically traversed its border? In what ways can vision, belief, faith provide a more impactful “reality” than tactile, bodily contact? Was Moses’ glimpse of the Promised Land merely a small comfort… or the defining moment of his greatness?

What do we represent as Jews? What are the primary experiences and lessons of our shared history that we are duty-bound to remember? What is your personal Jewish mission statement?

How does the use of feminine imagery affect our understanding of God and our relationship to the Divine? Why is such imagery particularly apt in the present context?

A rock that gives birth? Why the mixed metaphor?

The only reference to God in the Israeli Declaration of Independence is as “the Rock of Israel.” Is that epithet purposely vague… or – given its prominence in our verse – a veiled warning not to forget the religious significance of the Jewish State?

The verb here translated as “brought you forth” implies travail, suffering… the pain of labor, birth-pangs. How are we as Jews (especially those of us living in a Christian majority culture) to understand the significance of a suffering God… who endures pain on our behalf?

Have you been unduly neglectful of your “Divine Parent”? Is such forgetfulness a recurring pattern in Jewish history? In the contemporary Jewish community? How can we do better? How can you?

What is Rashi – and the rabbinic texts he cites – teaching us about God’s power and goodness? How do we diminish the Divine through our forgetfulness and inattention? Is it – conversely – within our power to enhance God’s capacity for benevolence through our actions and attitudes?

Theme #2: “Eye on the Prize”

“You may view the land from a distance, but you shall not enter it – the land that I am giving to the Israelite people.” (Deuteronomy 32:52)

Study: Derash

“With the very last words in the parashah, God offers Moses the small comfort of seeing the destination of his life’s work from afar, while also reminding him that he will not be able to savor its rewards.” (Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary)

“Moses is told that he may not enter the Promised Land… May we not see his exclusion as a blessing? He was, we are told, a faithful servant. How wonderful for him, then, to be given rest in sight of his goal, but spared from the quotidian, enervating, anguishing results attendant upon his work’s completion. Any triumph, any absolute end must be followed by a period of emptiness, loss, dejection, and self-doubt.” (David Mamet, Five Cities of Refuge)

“God showed Moses far and near, hidden and revealed alike – everything that is called the land of Israel… Moses saw with his eyes more of the Land than Joshua walked with his feet.” (Sifrei)

“Like Moses, we also learn that life as we know it ends. We do not have to finish our life’s work, but we have a duty to be on the journey. ‘Lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor…’ the famous jolly song from Pirke Avot goes. It isn’t up to us to finish the work, but neither are we free to desist from it! Where we have served our purpose, strived to fulfill our potential and lived our ideals, others will pick up where we left off. There is eternal hope as long as we recognise our reason for living, in understanding Divine purpose.” (Hazzan Jaclyn Chernett)

“Why doesn't Moses protest his not being able to enter the Promised Land? Hasn't he earned it? Hasn't he ‘worked hard enough?’ Maybe. But to focus on this issue misses the entire point… God gave Moses a better gift, something that would be fulfilled and that the Israelites, his children, would enter the Promised Land. Think of it. What would we give to know, on our death beds, that our children would be successful… happily married for their entire lives and die at ripe old ages? What would we give to know that the seeds of ideas we planted years ago would rise to fruition?” (Larry Friedberg)

Questions for Discussion

What does it say about Jewish religious experience – and about Jewish nationalism, Zionism – that God’s chosen prophet and law-giver – the human being with the single most intimate relationship with, and understanding of God – never set foot in the Land of Israel?

Historic Note

Perhaps the darkest verse in all of parashat Ha’azinu, read on September 29, 2012, is: “The sword shall deal death without, As shall the terror within, To youth and maiden alike, The suckling as well as the aged” (32:25). On September 29, 1941 – 71 years ago today – Nazis engaged in wholesale murder, carrying out the infamous massacres at Babi Yar. 33,771 Jews were killed in the initial attack, considered the largest single massacre in the history of the Holocaust.

Halachah L’Maaseh

The obligation to dwell in a Sukkah for seven days is prescribed in Deuteronomy 16:13. Rabbi David Golinkin surveys a corresponding seven different reasons or explanations for this observance: 1) To thank God for a bountiful harvest, citing Exodus 23:16; 2) To remember and re-enact the experience of our ancestors during the Wilderness Period; 3) To demonstrate how far we have progressed since our humble origins – to remember the “bad old days” and (according to Philo) thereby to generate a sense of gratitude; 4) As an exercise in humility (citing Rashbam): we are reminded that ultimately we owe our “harvest” and even our homes to God, not to any exclusive efforts of our own; 5) According to Menorat Ha-Maor, to subject ourselves to the elements and thereby fortify our faith in God; 6) According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, as a symbol of peace and brotherhood; 7) “To subject ourselves to the whims of nature and thereby remember the poor in our season of joy.”

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