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Torah Sparks

Parashat Ha'azinu (Shabbat Shuvah)
September 7, 2013 – 3 Tishrei 5774

Annual: Deuteronomy 32:1-52 (Etz Hayim p. 1185; Hertz p. 896)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 32:1-52 (Etz Hayim p. 1185; Hertz p. 896)
Haftarah (A): Hosea 14:2-10; Joel 2:15-27 (Etz Hayim p. 1234; Hertz p. 891)
Haftarah (S): Hosea 14:2-10; Micah 7:18-20 (Etz Hayim p. 1234; Hertz p. 891)

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 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 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. 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: "Shall we not revenge?"

"For the Lord will vindicate His people and take revenge for His servants..." (Deuteronomy 32:36)

Derash: Study

"Think of the Jews of the Middle Ages, who saw their fellow Jews accused of killing Christian children to drink their blood, of poisoning wells, desecrating the host and spreading the plague... and then murdered en masse.... We can still hear their responses: they are recorded for us in many of the lamentations, kinot, we say on the 9th Av. Yes, they appeal to God's vengeance, which is to say, to God's justice. But Jews did not seek to take vengeance. That is something you leave to God. There is a justice we will not see this side of the end of days. In the meantime, it is sufficient to live, and affirm life, and seek no more than the right to be true to your faith without... The search for perfect justice is not for us, here, now. It is – as Moses taught the Israelites in the great song he sang at the end of his life – something that faith demands we leave to God, who alone knows the human heart, who alone knows what is just in a world of conflicting claims, and who will establish perfect justice at a time, and in a way, of His choosing, not ours." (Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks)

"take revenge for. That is, avenge them, get satisfaction for the way the enemy treated them. Hebrew hitnahem does not have the negative connotations of English ‘revenge.' Its meaning is to change one's mind or mood, to assuage one's feelings... God will satisfy His outrage by punishing the guilty. Another possible translation, also based on the sense ‘changing one's mind,' is ‘relent concerning His servants,' meaning that God will relent from punishing Israel after all it has suffered." (Jeffrey Tigay, JPS Commentary)

"Revenge is an act of passion; vengeance of justice. Injuries are revenged; crimes are avenged." (Samuel Johnson)

"Revenge is the naked idol of the worship of a semi-barbarous age." (Percy Bysshe Shelley)

Questions for Discussion

Rabbi Sacks asserts that attributing the process of vengeance to God is a moral necessity, which removes the right to revenge from mortals from us. Under what circumstances is it morally justifiable to retaliate against those who attack us, and inflict harm upon us? Is God's unique capacity for justice "in a world of conflicting claims" absolute? Or are we obligated to act on our own best, thoroughly investigated, but necessarily imperfect sense of the facts? How might Rabbi Sacks have changed his perspective if he were Chief Rabbi of Israel, rather than Great Britain?

Is Rabbi Tigay's explanation of "revenge" as an inaccurate rendering of our verse persuasive? How might he respond to Rabbi Sacks? How does divine punishment of the guilty differ from divine revenge?

Clearly, Shelley would be troubled by our verse! Is the theology of this biblical text indeed "barbarous"? Idolatrous? Or is Shelley speaking only of illconsidered mortal vengeance? Might he agree that God's revenge is "poetic justice"? Do you?

How does Samuel Johnson's linguistic distinction help to elucidate our text? Does he strengthen the perspective of Rabbi Sacks... or Rabbi Tigay?

Theme #2: "Do we not die?"

"You shall die on the mountain you are about to ascend, and shall be gathered to your kin, as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his kin; for you both broke faith with Me among the Israelite people, at the waters of Meribath-kadesh in the wilderness of Zin, by failing to uphold My sanctity among the Israelite people." (Deuteronomy 32:50-51)


Derash: Study

"And die on the mountain. This is a rare and shocking, use of the verb ‘to die' in the imperative." (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses)

"A hairdresser in Berkeley once told me that the biblical God often seemed like an alcoholic parent. It was painful to hear, because I knew she had been reading closely. Certainly God's response to the song itself is brutal: ‘Go up onto Mount Nebo... and die on that mountain... for you dishonored me, and did not sanctify me... from afar you will see the land where you will not go.' Moses' silent acceptance of this judgment is the mute perversity of the codependent." (Rabbi Pinchas Giller)

"Moses is told that he may not enter the Promised Land because of what would seem a trifling incident at the well of Meribah. But 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 his 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... Had God informed Moses, ‘You have performed perfectly, now enter and receive your reward,' Moses would have had no reward at all." (David Mamet)

"The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time." (Mark Twain)

"Death would not be called bad, O people, if one knew how to truly die." (Guru Nanak)

"A few can touch the magic string, and noisy fame is proud to win them: Alas for those that never sing, but die with all their music in them!" (Oliver Wendell Holmes)

Questions for Discussion

What very different perspectives on our parashah!! Is God's decision that Moses must die before reaching the Promised Land the "brutal" act of a Divine Abuser, inflicted upon His long-suffering and emotionally damaged victim (a la Rabbi Giller)... or the wise and compassionate plan of a benevolent God toward His beloved, faithful, and grateful servant (see David Mamet)?

The biblical text and subsequent Jewish Tradition insist that Moses' relationship with God was one of unique clarity and intimacy... far rarer than those privileged few who "touch the magic string." How might this help explain God's decision? How do the comments of Guru Nanak (founder of Sikhism) and Mark Twain contribute to our understanding of this question?

Does God's intimate connection with Moses temper the "shocking" nature of the imperative "die"? Perhaps 120-year-old Moses, who had served God diligently for forty years, needed God's "permission" to stop, to rest... to die. Perhaps God, too, needed to let go. Was God simply easing His prophet's passage into eternity? Was the reference to Moses' "trifling" failing a mutually understood pretense for this loving farewell?

While the timing and circumstances of Moses' death might be depicted as tragic... how might we understand them as compassionate, beautiful... even enviable?

Historic Comment

In parashat Haazinu, read on September 7, 2013, after "Moses finished reciting all these words to all Israel," God informs the prophet of his imminent death on Mount Nebo. On September 7, 1891, Heinrich Graetz, one of the intellectual giants of nineteenth century Jewry and author of the multi-volume History of the Jews, died. On September 7, 2002, Uziel "Uzi" Gal, the Israeli gun designer, best known for the submachine gun that bears his name, passed away... "and was gathered to his kin."

Halachah L'Maaseh

There is a long established practice of personally reviewing the weekly parashah in anticipation of its public reading on Shabbat. BT Berachot 8A articulates the principle of "shnayim mikra v'echad targum" – reading the parashah twice in Hebrew and once (originally, at least, in the Aramaic) translation. To this pattern is attributed the greatest antiquity (see Aruch Ha-Shulchan 285:2). Those already intimately familiar with the content of the weekly Torah Reading nevertheless have the same obligation to study and review each parashah (See Responsa of the Rashba 1:206; Responsa Igrot Moshe 5:17). Mishnah Berurah 285:6 urges that the commentary of Rashi be consulted in conjunction with the weekly review of the parashah. On the virtue of using English (or other vernacular) renditions of Scripture, Targum, and supporting materials (such as Torah Sparks!!) in preparing the weekly parashah, see Turei Zahav 285:2, Mishnah Berurah 285:5, and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, quoted in Yagel Yaakov, p. 208.

Personal Note from Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser:

With parashat Haazinu 5774, I conclude my three year tenure (in addition to Genesis 5765) preparing United Synagogue's weekly Torah Sparks. I am grateful for the privilege, as well as for the comments, critiques, questions, and kind correspondence my efforts have generated from among readers of Torah Sparks. Yasher Koach on your devotion and your studies. May you continue to grapple for ever deeper meaning, beauty, and inspiration in the weekly parashah, in our history, and in halachah l'maaseh.

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