By Ethan Kaufman
Shabbat Shalom! There’s a popular saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. John Carder Bush believed that “a poem is worth a thousand pictures”. What makes art so special is that it is meant not only to stimulate the common senses, but evoke something deeper. Therefore, it doesn’t take that many words to have the desired impact.
My parasha, Ha’azinu, is among the shortest parashot in the whole Torah, at only 52 verses, or psukim, long. Yet, it is a poem, powerful and concise. In Ha’azinu, Moses, assuming the voice of God, addresses Israel as a nation – they have reached the point of entry, just outside Eretz Israel. Moses recites a poem that he himself composed, telling the Israelites about all the things God has done for them. He goes on to talk about Israel’s impiety in the face of Elohim’s graciousness, and how they will be be cursed for it. The poem concludes with a turn of tables, as God promises Israel’s redemption. After the conclusion of his poem, God tells him he must ascend Mount Nebo, look out over the Promised Land, and die. The next parasha, Vezot Ha’bracha, concludes with Moses’s death.
Recently, I was reading a very interesting Ray Bradbury story called “The Veldt”. It centers on a family who have built their entire lives around physical comfort, and in the process lose their sense of purpose in life. Eventually, the parents realize this lifestyle has inadvertently turned their children against them. The story ends with the children orchestrating their parents’ murder. While this is certainly a very macabre, extreme example it is oddly reminiscent of the ideas present in Ha’azinu.
In this parashah, and in fact, throughout the entire Tanach, the relationship between God and Israel is, for both better and worse, very similar to the attachment shared between parent and offspring. To quote the book of Hosea, “when Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son.” Throughout the entire Torah, God sees his “children” grow and mature, from the subjugated, persecuted horde that fled the shackles of Egyptian slavery, to a holy people that is worthy of a special relationship and covenant. Yet as this anointed congregation moves out to fulfill their destiny, they are met with a decidedly negative message – the poem that Moshe recites upon the mountain. However, at closer inspection, there is more here than meets the eye.
Moshe’s homily poses some interesting ideas. The oration goes something like this: Moshe recounts to Israel the way that God has created them, united them, turned them towards something greater than themselves, and placed them on a metaphorical pedestal of honor. He guarded them and took them under His wing, and gave them a land and a means by which to prosper. All the while Moshe is speaking in past tense. Then, suddenly, he begins speaking in present tense, about how the Israelites, His chosen people, will spit in his face and turn away from him, forget him, turn to other deities. A classic example of this behavior is the golden calf. And what does Moshe do – he gets angry. And he condemns his people , now in the future tense, saying “you forsook the God that made you, who brought you to where your are today, look what you’ve become.” And the list of accusations continues on and on, there seems to be no end. And just as the anger in Moshe’s voice peaks, he promises that God will redeem his people, vanquish their enemies, and restore them back to the place of honor that they deserve.
Ha’azinu is one of those parashot where the prose is truly cohesive, no particular pasuk stands out, but together, all 52 psukim paint a beautiful, vivid picture. Nevertheless, psukim 5 and 10, each in their own way, summarizes one of the main ideas of the parasha. Verse 5 reads “sheechet lo, lo banav mumam, dor eekesh uphtaltol, children unworthy of him, this crooked perverse generation, their baseness has played him false” This seems to shows that, in both Moshe and God’s perspective, there is little love lost between Israel and God, and that God sees Israel as more of a blemish on the world than a force for good. And yet, to close off the poem, Moshe tells his audience that, in the end, God will keep his covenant, vanquish and scatter their enemies, and that therefore, Israel will be brought back into a closer relationship with their divine parent.
It seems as though God’s love is both unconditional and conditional at the same time. In pasuk 9, He even claims that “His own portion is his people, Jacob His allotment,” meaning that God loves his people unconditionally. Then why, on this occasion does he speak to curse them as he does?
Haazinu is Moses’s valedictory speech, it addresses Israel at a crossroads, it is about to conclude its 40-year stay in the desert, and is about to embark on to conquer and settle a new and uncharted land. In addition to this, they will have to be under the guidance of a new leader, and be under the threat of attack from the native clans that already inhabit the Promised Land. These factors put together make Israel a very vulnerable people, who are at the mercy of their surroundings. Because of this, they are even more reliant on God than usual. And so, Moses uses poetry as a vehicle to negotiate this fundamental crossing place. Moses’s poem is a plea to his people, a warning telling them to heed their God, to respect him, because when it comes down to it, they are it his mercy, and they absolutely need to maintain a positive relationship with Him if they are to survive this next epoch in their history.
In “The Veldt”, the parents’ death is inadvertently a result of the way they treated their children. Because the children were badly spoiled and pampered by their parents, they lost touch with their humanity, and their relationships with their parents deteriorated. Finally, the two children decided that they valued their way of life more than their parents. In the context of Ha’azinu, this is exactly the type of situation that God is trying to avoid. As harsh as it may seem, God’s threats are a way to keep his children on track and on the right path. There are several incidents in the Torah where Israel strays, and each time God responds with great anger. As harsh as this might seem, this seems to say anger is a necessary part of being authoritative. If God had chosen to take the path of the parents in “The Veldt”, Israel might well have ended up as a group of twisted and perverse people, with few morals, and yet a sense of entitlement. Together, immorality and entitlement can form a dangerous, toxic pair. If a merciful God was desperate enough to try and scare Israel into righteousness, rather than let them fall from grace, so be it.
Ha’azinu is a message to stay true to your roots, and answer your calling. Judaism is not a religion that carries splendor and glory so much in the easily perceptible world – 2000 years gone are the days of the Temple, and the era of the prophets and grand miracles are even farther removed from our current condition. However, we can still look outward, but in a different way, a more subtle way, by nurturing our relationships.
The relationship that Israel shares with God is akin to our relationship with our parents. In the same way that God provided for his “children” when they were in need, raised them with values, and united them as people, with a definite purpose in this world, a good parent does the same thing, albeit on a much smaller scale. And a big part of growing up is walking through those doors, negotiating those crossing places, venturing into those uncharted “Promised Lands”, where you can’t do it on your own, and you need a third party, whether it be God, or someone else, to help you through the doorway.
First and foremost, I want to thank my parents. Aba, you helped me through this simply by being there and helping me practice every evening, from my aliyot, to haftorah, to torah service. Eem lo ayita shama, lo ayita maspik la’asot et hakol. Mum, you’ve been absolutely amazing in every respect. You’ve put in so much time, and been so selfless in doing everything, I’ve truly been in awe. Throughout my life, we’ve had a very special relationship, and I want to recognize you for being there when I need someone to talk to. Nina, you were an absolute lifesaver. I couldn’t have possibly had a better tutor, who helped me learn and polish, and read with such precision and finesse. Also, my thanks to my aunt Nadine Frankel and Rabbi Ari Lucas for helping me on this drash. I want to thank Rabbi Chaim Turreff for being my Judaica teacher and spiritual mentor. Uncle Danny and Marie, thank you for being there when I need you and helping me with all the small things. Joseph, your bar mitzvah 2 years started my family and I on the path that brought me here today, to stand at this beema. For that we owe you. Also, I must extend love and gratitude to the Riches, especially Nora, the daughter of my mother’s identical twin, aunt Bonni, and best friend. And finally, thank you everyone, for being here to share, witness, and contribute your presence to my bar mitzvah. May we all step through the doorway together.