You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Haazinu.
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman 2007
O Holy Shabbes Inspiration Haazinu
Give ear O heavens and I will speak
And may the earth hear the words of my mouth
May my teaching drop like the rain
May my utterance flow like the dew
Like storm winds upon vegetation
And like raindrops upon blades of grass. [Deut. 32:1ff.]
Remember the days of old.
God is a rock
all God’s paths are just.
From his hands Moses picked out a lightning bolt
that had burned itself into his flesh
he threw it to the ground
Give ear O heavens
may the earth hear the words of my mouth
he plied a thunderbolt out of his teeth
and buried it in the ground,
he began to teach:
God was like an eagle
arousing its nest
hovering over its young
spreading its wings
touching and not touching. [Rashi on 32:11]
gently returning to the nest
not to disturb its young.
covering us in flight [Ibn Ezra on 32:11]
as God covers us flying flying.
Blessing dwells and awakens the life force within
where we are rooted
inwardliness – awakening the life force
let the teachings drop as rain [Deut. 32:2]
heaven and earth
rain bringing forth fruit
the stories and the written text.
So you got fat [Deut. 32:15]
God would have suckled you with honey from a rock
and oil from a flinty stone
butter of cattle milk of sheep
fat of lambs
but you became thick
and kicked –
well, you can always come back.
Return, O Israel.
Kick and drink the good wine from the grape
unfermented blood of the grape.
Give up your non-gods
You’re a generation of reversals. [Deut. 32:20]
Who is a rock
who is perfect
whose paths are just –
what is the climbing vine
the fructifying rain.
Remember the days of old
understand the years of generation to generation.
Return O Israel to your God [Hosea 14:2]
I will heal their disloyalty
I will love them freely. [Hosea 14:5]
they can always
Moses spoke all the words of this song
into the ears of the people
Moses and his successor
Hoshea son of Nun
God spoke to Moses on that very day
apply your hearts to all these words
for it is not an empty thing
it is your life. [Deut.32:46-47]
From >Rabbi Miles Krassen
Shirat Ha’azinu (The Song of Deep Listening)
Compose this song for all your generations. Imprint it in the memory of the Children of Israel. Bequeath them a song to sing that will bear witness to My eternal Presence among them. (Devarim 31:19).
On the last day of his life, Moshe received the inspiration to compose: Ha’azinu, the song of deep listening. (Devarim 32:1). For each year, as we complete the Torah, we lose a Moshe, in preparation for the birth of a new Moshe, the part of ourselves that can hear the vibrations of divine guidance and speak it as oral Torah in the New Year. When the old year’s Moshe recognizes its impermanence, it condenses its entire Torah into a song.
For I know that without me, you won’t be able follow the way that I have been guiding you without going astray and that ultimately something that seems really bad will happen to you when you act in ways that disturb Be-ing. So Moshe whispered the words of this song into the collective memory of all Israel. (Devarim 31: 29-30).
Listen deeply…. The Slonimer Rebbe says that this song is the most important parashah in the entire Torah.
Balance the higher portions of the soul when I AM speaks, so that your body can also hear what is coming through. (Devarim 32:1).
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches us how important it is to make sure that our bodies have a share in the lessons that our souls are learning. As our Torah says of Herself, I am not just way up in Heaven… (Devarim 30:12). The greatness of Torah is not its lofty abstractions, but its power to make us more whole and integrated, right here in the manifest world. When our minds are calm and integrated with our bodies, we can unite Heaven and Earth and receive the lessons we need to positively affect what needs to be fixed in our worlds. To be effective, we need to develop the capacity to speak from the Heart. As the Talmud says:
Whoever speaks while aware of the Divine Presence will be heard… (B.T. Blessings 6b).
With this teaching in mind, the Rebbe Elimelekh reads the verse like this:
Make sure you are aware that Heaven is listening whenever you speak, and then your words will have the power to enter other people’s hearts. (Devarim 32:1).
Let me receive Torah from above like rain and let my prayer nurture growth below like dew… (Devarim 32:2).
For I am bringing forth a new Name for Be-ing and making the G-dfield ever greater. (Devarim 32:3).
It is a Hasidic teaching that as a result of our teshuvah practice, between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we can draw down a new and more evolved manifestation of Be-ing (YHVH) into the New Year. When we think of G-d in too rigid a way, it makes our G-dfield too limited. Because we are made in the Divine image, when our G-d is too limited, our potential is also limited. Just as we need a new Moshe, we also need a new G-d in order for our souls and the world to evolve.
The Ba’al Shem Tov told an odd parable that may seem shocking, but is really liberating when properly understood:
Once a Queen wanted to test the gratitude of Her subjects. So She went out among them to distribute alms to the beggars of Her realm. There was one old woman, who whenever anyone gave her anything, would only say, “whatever you give, comes back to you.” Even when the Queen gave the old woman alms, she only said: “whatever you give, comes back to you.” The Queen was furious when she heard how the beggar responded to Her gift. She went back to the castle and asked the royal baker to make some especially fine pastries that were laced with poison. The pastries were delivered to the old woman. When she saw how fine the cakes were, the beggar decided to save them for the right occasion. A little later, the Queen’s son passed by and asked the beggar woman if she had anything for him to eat. She told him, “Yes, indeed. I have some very fine pastries from your Mother.” The prince ate the cakes and died. When the Queen realized that She was the cause of Her son’s death, She recalled the words of the old beggar woman: “whatever you give, comes back to you.”
As long as our souls are developing in this world, our G-d is also evolving. Whenever we fall out of alignment with Be-ing, we “arouse Divine anger” and can expect to learn an appropriate lesson.
The Shaper of Life acts perfectly, all Its ways follow the law of a G-d who is in training with us; there is no meanness, Its actions are straightforward and direct. (Devarim 32:4).
Ultimately, G-d is also learning from our mutual dance. Our pain is also the Shekhinah’s pain. What we may perceive as Divine disapproval is really G-d suffering along with us.
The Shekhinah is also impaired, the flaw is not just in Her children; the world is still unfolding, as yet only partially evolved. (Devarim 32:5).
One of our challenges is to recognize that we are not only the children of Divinity, but also called upon to be Divinity’s parents.
For Be-ing’s sake, won’t you be wise enough to rescue the Shekhinah? Didn’t your Divine Source place you here in the World of Assiyah for that purpose? (Devarim 32:6).
The great kabbalist, Isaac Luria mythologizes this raising of the Shekhinah as the re-birthing of a new G-d. According to the Lurianic kavvanot (deep visualization practice) we view the ten days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur as a time when the old G-d undergoes surgery. During this operation, the sefirot of the Divine Female (the G-dfield) are separated and expanded, while the previous year’s YHVH (the Source of Be-ing) is anesthetized. When this operation has been completed, a new YHVH is awakened during the four days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot. During Sukkot, the Divine union of male and female aspects of Divinity can be renewed.
How can we possibly call a new YHVH into existence? Through the secret of:
Neutralize Divine judgment with kindness. (Devarim 32:1)
We can let go of our presumptions concerning what we think the G-d in our minds requires in order to be pleased with us and with others. Through greater kindness, which the Kabbalists call G-d’s greatness, we can now birth a kinder, greater G-d and draw a new YHVH into time and space.
We need to put the crystallized idea of last year’s G-d to sleep, so that an independent Shekhinah can break free of last year’s confining exile. To accomplish this, we listen deeply to Moshe’s song.
Always remember that the manifest world including its current G-d is but one configuration of the sefirot (seven powers of divine emanation) that are constantly changing. Turn to your Wisdom and receive guidance or ask your teachers and they will teach you. (Devarim 32:7).
The way that the Supernal Source manifests in this world with its temporary boundaries and limitations always only reflects the present state of human consciousness. (Devarim 32:8).
The portion of Divine Be-ing that can be established within the realm of human experience depends on the people who can overcome their sense of limitation (without dissolving). (Devarim 32:9).
Such a one finds Divine Be-ing even amidst the mournful pain of desolation and confusion. Then Be-ing encompasses her, enlightens her, and preserves her like the apple of Her Eye. (Devarim 32:10).
Like a giant eagle arousing her young, Be-ing raises one so awakened to Herself, resting only in Divine Be-ing, one knows that no other power truly exists. (Devarim 32:11-12).
The unpleasant expressions of Divine “tough love” are inevitable parts of the dialectic of our relationship of returning to and from Be-ing. Regardless of how much we may feel trapped in them, Moshe’s song guides us to the deeper view:
See now that I AM Present in everything. There is no other power besides Me. I AM is the Destroyer and I AM is the Enlivener; I AM has wounded and I AM will heal. Beyond My reach there is No-thing. (Devarim 32:39).
If we listen deeply enough to this song, we can begin to sense the limitless No-thing from which all the disparate modes of Be-ing emanate. On Yom Kippur, we are instructed to ascend to a level of pure Divine Light that even precedes the emanation of YHVH. This Shabbat, the Shabbat of Returning, may this song be our guide.
Rabbi Moshe Aharon Ladizhyner
~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~
DEUTERONOMY 32:1 – 32:52
This porton consists of the final farewell song of Moses.
HA’AZINU BEGINS with Moses addressing Heaven and Earth, exclaiming the nature of Torah and the character of Divine blessing as it manifests in our world. It is like the rain that falls, giving Life to the Land. It is like the dew that moistens Reality itself, making it supple, fragrant, alive and fluid. After blessing us with these succulent and watery images of Divine generosity, Ha’azinu returns us to the Ground of Being, to the solidity on which we stand. Seven times in this poem, God is called “Tzur,” The Rock.
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,” Jeshurun1 becomes our name.
And so Ha’azinu blesses us with these images or ways to understand and receive God’s Presence. God is like the rain and dew, giving Life to all. God is like the Rock on which everything rests, allowing us to stand upright and find our footing as we traverse this wilderness. Rain and dew are Heavenly images, while Rock is the essence of Earth. Heaven and Earth are the aspects within us that are called upon to hear this final sublime message. Heaven and Earth receive the blessing of Ha’azinu through their attentive witness.
AND WE ARE GIVEN YET ANOTHER METAPHOR that includes and transcends both Heaven and Earth:
Back in the Book of Exodus, God was a mother eagle who carried us
on her wings to our Freedom. And now that same Mother Eagle God
has returned to stir the nest – that tangle of branches where we doubt,
procrastinate and hesitate. She urges us to Flight, exhorting us to receive
the legacy of our Freedom. The Mother Eagle God reminds us, her
fledglings, that we are not limited to either Heaven or to Earth. We are
blessed with both the fluid and the firm. And we are blessed with the
ability to soar between them.
As we return again and again to the Rock on which we stand – feeling God beneath our feet supporting us on this journey – we might be deceived into thinking that this Rock is unresponsive, without love or tenderness. We might even be tempted to strike the Rock in frustration or anger. Laboring under this misapprehension, we would be missing the sweetest mystery… for, when we come to the highest places, the places of remembrance and true presence, the delicious bounty of Life will be ours. We will then suckle and be nourished by honey from that very Rock, and we will be anointed with the choicest oil from what had once seemed the hardest crevice.
HA’AZINU BLESSES US with this remembrance: The hardest and most difficult places on our journey may ultimately become the greatest sources of our Redemption and Nourishment. Only when we rise to the spiritual challenges before us, do we receive Life’s bounty. Our awareness can transform those difficult places on our journey into fountains of blessing.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
HA’AZINU DESCRIBES those difficult places. These are the spiritual challenges we are given – times of great suffering – which are the result of our forgetfulness.
We forget to turn back to our Source, the only true font of sustenance. We forget to trust the Rock beneath us… and instead search for God somewhere faraway and remote. We grasp after something external and remain unsatisfied.
Ha’azinu describes this state of alienation from our Source in vividly stark and cruel language:
“Outside: A sword will bereave,
and Inside: Terror”2
We have somehow become drunk on the wrong wine – a poisonous brew made from the grapes of Sodom and Gomorrah (a place famous for its hatred and meanness.) Wisdom means understanding the future that you are creating for yourself with your present actions … and this wine, which is called serpent’s venom … dissolves that understanding.
“Outside: A sword will bereave.” Every time we close our hearts and lift our hand against another, we ourselves will be bereaved. We will lose access to the power of goodness at our core. Every time we raise our voice in blame or hatred, we wound ourselves with our own sword.
“… and Inside: Terror.” Every act or word of violence or cruelty conceals the growing terror within.
It’s easy for me to acknowledge this state of alienation in the world, where my country wages war after war, concealing its terror of “the stranger,” and where genocide and the brutal domination and destruction of cultures and of the earth itself are the norm. I can see that war against the “other” as an easy option, serves to conceal the terror that hides within our own borders, within our own hearts.
IT IS EASY FOR ME to acknowledge our culture’s addiction to violence and the meanness of politics that feeds our own cynicism. At times like this, God’s face is hidden behind the mask of a cruel warrior… which is merely the reflection of our own hidden terror. It’s easy for me to become comfortably self-righteous and join with like-minded rebels to build up our case against the powers-that-be.
WHAT IS HARDER FOR ME (and here lies the true spiritual challenge of Ha’azinu) is acknowledging my own complicity. At times, I also drink from the poison wine. I wield the sword which is the cause of my own bereavement. I hide a terror within. I am a microcosm of the world that I so adeptly criticize.
Ha’azinu challenges us by warning, “It is not a worthless thing… it is your life.” It is not possible to avoid the pain of life… but when we react to the inevitable pains and difficulties of life by becoming bitter, negative and judgmental or by blaming others… then we turn our pain into suffering. Suffering is the magnification and reification of pain. When we become that pain and spiral down into an identification with negativity… then our lives become a “worthless thing.” We lose sight of the cosmos of which we are a part. We lose touch with our own power and essential goodness. Ha’azinu lifts up each moment and says, “It is your life! What will you do with it just now?”
1 Jeshurun is a poetic name for Israel/Jacob that appears just 4 times in the Bible: Deut: 32:15, 33:5, 26, Isaiah 44:2. While the name Jacob hints at deceitfulness, Jeshurun contradicts that tendency. It is probably derived from the root Y-Sh-R which means “direct/straight/upright,” or “righteous.” Perhaps we become Israel when our inner drama leads deceitful Jacob to become fully integrated with righteous Jeshurun.
2 Deuteronomy 32:25
3 The Hebrew word neshimah means breath and is from the same root as neshamah-soul.
Please click on the link to the website for Guidlines for Practice
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
ASYMPTOTE (HA-AZINU) 2008
Climb the mountain, God said. Look out
over the hills and the desert:
here dark spikes of cypress and cedar,
there scrub and sand pinked by sunset.
This is as close as you get.
Your years of service are over.
Honestly, the striving was the good part:
yearning like a thirsty man for water
meeting setback sometimes with fury
and sometimes with grace
dreaming of vineyards and groves
each house with an oven of its own…
Does it hurt, being so near and so far?
Trust Me: I know what I’m doing.
If you could live to see what’s coming
it would break your heart.
From Rav DovBer Pinson
This week’s portion is primarily a song, composed by Moshe and delivered to the people of Israel. This ‘Shira’ or song, is one of prophecy, foretelling the story of the Israelites future .
The word Shira/song alludes to a circle. (Baba Metziya. 25a) There are two different realities in which we can exist. One is the circle reality and the diametrically opposed reality is the reality of the line.
The primary difference between a line and a circle is that while a line has a beginning and an end, the circle is continuous,having no place of beginning and no definite ending.
The reality of Kav/line is the absolute law of cause and effect, action vs. reaction. In this reality, once something is set in motion by your actions, there will be an absolute consequence of this action, for better or worse. In this linear reality there is no possibility for real change, to go back before the action and start anew. In contrast, circle reality, affords us the possibility to change our course in life, to do a complete about face as it were, whenever we so desire.
At the end of Moshe’s life, a new leader is being chosen, the cycle of renewal begins, and at this time Moshe reveals to the people the “song of the Torah,” the possibility of radical renewal.
As we enter Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate not only the beginning of the year, but the Rosh/head of the year. Rosh Hashana is the ‘brain’ of the year, the nucleus from which all of the year emerges. As we come into a new year, a new Light that was never revealed in creation will flow down, giving us the ability to tap into the energy of newness.
Rosh Hashanah embodies the renewal of the entire year. Everything physical and spiritual we will attain in the coming year is drawn down into us in it’s potential state on Rosh Hashanah.
In order to tap into this energy of renewal, we need to open ourselves with humility to receive the blessings for the coming year. We do this by putting aside our ego, and turning to Hashem saying; give us blessings in a circle reality, a reality where cause and effect need not be intertwined, and we can receive purely on the basis of right now, and Your inifinite kindness.
The Energy of the Week:New BeginningsThis week’s energy is the circle reality. A reality that goes beyond linear logic and wherein radical newness is a real possibility. The things that you feel are impossible based on the reality of the line, are completely logical and possible in this circle reality.
To tap into this energy we need to open ourselves up to the circle reality by being fully in the present moment, and setting our ego aside. In this humble place we are an open vessel, ready to receive blessing that is not reliant on past deeds and actions.
From Melissa Carpenter
Like an eagle He rouses His nest;
Over His fledglings He hovers.
He spreads out His wings, He takes one;
He carries it up on His wings. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:11)
… and darkness over the face of the deep, and the wind of God hovering over the face of the waters. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:2)
rachaf = hover
This week’s Torah portion, Ha-Azinu (Listen) is a poem Moses gives the Israelites to write down and make their children memorize. Every year I feel let down when I read this poem. It offers some lovely metaphors, but no new insights or instructions; it just doesn’t seem important enough after the build-up.
Nevertheless, this time I noticed a rare word, rachaf, that occurs both in this poem (just before Moses’ death and the end of the Torah proper) and in the beginning of Genesis/Bereishit. In fact, these are the only two occurrences of the verb rachaf in the pi-el stem, where it means “hover” instead of “tremble”.
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses compares God to a nesher—an eagle or vulture—teaching its fledglings to fly. (I generally don’t like to limit God to the third person masculine pronoun, but for the translation above “He” was the best compromise.) The parent eagle urges the young birds to fly out of their aerie, which perches high in a tree or crag. The adult eagle hovers close by, and if an eaglet falls, the eagle swoops under it and catches the fledgling on its own wings.
(In actuality, most eaglets learn to fly by themselves, but this type of parental rescue has been observed in our own time with golden eagles—but not with vultures.)
The Torah uses the image as a metaphor for the relationship between humans and God. We humans are stirred, moved by ineffable longings, and we attempt to move beyond the practical, material realm. God hovers over us protectively, and when we falter, God lifts us up.
In a few weeks, on Simchat Torah, Jewish congregations worldwide will read the last lines of Deuteronomy in their Torah scroll, then roll the scroll back to the beginning and read about the creation of the universe. In Genesis/Bereishit 1:2, before God even speaks light into being, the wind or spirit of God is “hovering” over the face of the waters. It seems as though God is watching over the dark, watery deeps, waiting to see if something will rise up, evolve on its own initiative. When nothing arises, God has to take the next step.
Thus humans are distinguished from the general mass of the universe; unlike stones or stars or even most animals, we have initiative, we attempt to make changes, and we reach toward our notions of the divine.
When we get morally confused or mentally tired, we falter and begin to fall, turning the religions we hoped were wings into weapons, and attacking each other instead of flying. Then who, or what, will catch us and carry us back up to the light?
From Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man
Sweet Song of Exile
Posted on December 15, 2011
פִּתְחוּ לִי שַׁעֲרֵי צֶדֶק אָבֹא בָם
Open for me, gates of triumph, open that I may enter and praise H’. This is the gate to H’, through which the company of the Righteous pass.
“Open for me the gates.” The prayer is earnest, the intention pure, but the answer may still be ‘no’; you may not come in, you will have to remain outside. Was not the Great Teacher, Moses himself, denied permission to go into the Land (though he he did gaze at it from the mountaintop)? And did not those others, the lost generations, traverse many stations of trial and purification, only to perish in the wilderness, yearning for but never approaching the Holy of Holies?
And yet, we are told, the farthest are the nearest, the outermost are the innermost, and the most distant of limbs have a place within the heart of hearts.
So the traveler, excluded from those circles of priests and tiers of levites, sits encamped beyond the walls, and there chants a different song of praise: Blessed is the One that holds the All.
Wendy’s comment: I love this teaching.
From Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum
UNIVERSAL TORAH: HA-AZINU
By Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum
Torah Reading: HA-AZINU, Deuteronomy 32: 1-52
THE SONG OF G-D’S JUSTICE
Some songs are happy, some are sad. Some are for entertainment. Some come to tell a story or teach a lesson. Some express the inner heart and soul. Unique among all songs is the song of Moses in our parshah. HA-AZINU is the song of G-d’s perfect Justice — the ultimate reproof to man.
The Hebrew word for song, SHIRAH, is related to the word SHER, which means a chain or necklace. A song is a chain, thread or structure that connects various particulars together in order to make a meaningful order. As the very climax of the Torah, Moses’ song of HA’AZINU gives order and meaning to the history of the people of Israel with its great highs and terrible lows. Everything comes to show the faultless, inexorable justice of G-d. “The Rock — His work is perfect, for all His ways are Justice, the G-d of faithfulness in Whom there is no wrong, He is righteous and straight!” (Deut. 32:4).
This may be easy to say, but it is very hard to actually know and believe in our heart of hearts. Nevertheless Moses challenges us to join him in this song of testimony, so that we too will know and declare G-d’s justice. The song is “interactive”: Moses chants, calling upon us to respond. “For I will call upon the Name of HaShem — ascribe greatness to our G-d” (ibid. v. 3). This verse is the Torah source for the prayer leader’s call to prayer and the congregational response, both in the synagogue — BAR’CHU — and at the table introducing the blessings after eating bread — NEVORECH (Brachos 45a). HA-AZINU challenges us to respond: to wake up, see and acknowledge G-d’s truth and justice, and to respond in the proper way, by repenting. HA-AZINU is such an important expression of the essence of Israel’s faith and destiny that some communities had the custom of reciting it daily in the morning prayers together with SHIRAS HAYAM (“Song of the Sea”) (Rambam, Laws of Prayer 7:13). In the Temple, successive portions of HA-AZINU were read every Shabbos in a six-week cycle as part of the service accompanying the Shabbos additional offering (Rambam, Temidim Umusafim 6:9).
“Listen, O heavens, and I will speak. Hear, O earth, the words of my mouth” (Deut. 32:1). Moses calls upon the heavens and earth, G-d’s impassive, unwaveringly obedient servants, as his witnesses. For mortal man is too devious and full of ploys to be a valid witness — he has a vested interest: he wants to justify himself. “Why did this happen to me? It isn’t fair.” Moses confronts us — the latter generation that he is addressing — with independent testimony that cannot be denied: the actual history of the people of Israel from the very beginning to the very end, for it is all encapsulated in HA-AZINU. “Remember the days of the universe, understand the years of generation after generation; ask your father and he will inform you, your grandfather and they will tell you…” (v. 7). What has happened in the past and what is happening now to Israel is of significance to the entire world. For Israel is at the very center. “When the Supreme gave the peoples their inheritance, when He spread out the children of man, He established the boundaries of the nations according to the number of the Children of Israel…” (v. 8)….
From Rav Kook
Ha’azinu: The Source of Rabbinic Authority
The Sages instituted numerous rabbinic decrees in order to prevent violations of Torah law. For example, the Sages extended the Torah’s prohibition of eating milk and meat together to include fowl, since it confused people who failed to distinguish between fowl and ‘real’ meat.
There are, however, a few cases in which the Sages went even further, and authored new positive mitzvot. The mitzvot to light Chanukah lights, to read Megillat Esther on Purim, to wash hands before eating bread – these are rabbinic enactments with no direct basis in Torah law. They are not extensions of Torah legislation or protective measures, but brand-new mitzvot. By what right could the Sages create them?
Even more audacious, the rabbis decreed that one recites a blessing when performing these rabbinic innovations: “Blessed are You, the Eternal our God… Who has commanded us to…” When did God command us to light Chanukah candles, or read the Megillah on Purim?
The Talmud in Shabbat 23a responds to this question. There are in fact two sources in the Torah for the rabbinic authority to establish new mitzvot:
“Do not stray to the right or left from the word that [the high court] will declare to you.” (Deut. 17:10)
“Ask your father and he will tell you; question your elders, and they will respond.” (Deut. 32:7)
Why two sources?
Rav Kook explained that God-given commandments will naturally lead towards the goal of absolute good. This is understandable, as God knows the future and is aware of all implications of any decree. Man-made laws, on the other hand, even those designed by the most prescient legal scholars, will never be able to achieve the same results as a Divinely-decreed mitzvah.
Of course, the Talmudic Sages were blessed with ruach hakodesh, Divine inspiration, in addition to the logic and reasoning that are an integral aspect of the Oral Law. They used these gifts in order to attain results similar to God-given mitzvot, to further the cause of the Jewish people’s perfection in both spiritual and material realms.
The Sages examined two aspects when formulating a new law:
The people’s current religious and physical needs;
The desire to maintain continuity with the Jewish people’s lofty spiritual heritage.
It is insufficient to take into account only immediate needs. If the people becomes estranged from its spiritual foundation, it has in fact become a different nation. Its unity and continuity are no longer assured.
Regarding the need to address the current needs of society, the Torah commands, “Do not stray to the right or left from the word that [the high court] will declare to you.” This refers to decrees of the high court, which institutes legislation determined by the present state of the people.
But other rabbinic enactments are new mitzvot, designed to maintain our ties with our spiritual heritage — such as lights on Chanukah, reading the Megillah on Purim, or washing hands before a meal, like the kohanim before they ate Terumah. Regarding the authority to enact these new mitzvot, the Torah states, “Ask your father… question your elders.” Israel’s past was elevated and holy, and is the source of our success. “For His own nation remained God’s portion; Jacob is the lot of His heritage” (Deut. 32:9).
(Adapted from Ein Eyah on Shabbat 23a, vol. III, p. 73)
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
L’dor vador: From Generation to Generation (2012/5773)
The word l’dor, has a gematriya of 234. The word appears in God’s first call to Avraham and to Moshe. Each is called by God to believe that others will be blessed through them.
The word vador has a gematriya of 210. It appears in the song of Haazinu, in a passage that speaks directly to the younger generation:
Remember the days of old. Understand the times of the previous generations. Ask your parents and they will tell you. Ask your elders and they will speak to you.
Looking only at words that appear in the Torah the number 210 is also the gematriya of emek, valley, and hahar, the mountain. Mountain and valley are two features of a landscape that depend on one another to exist.
210 is also the gematriya of amok, deep, and rochav, breadth. Depth and breadth are two of the dimensions that give every existing object its shape, neither of which can exist in isolation from the other.
And 210 is also the gematriya of chubar, joined together, which emphasizing once again that importance of both generations playing the roles suggested by Torah. The older: sharing blessings, teaching, guiding, answering questions, being flexible and open to change. The younger: asking questions, actively understanding answers, remembering and honoring.
The collaborative relationship between generations is part of a divine charge to humanity. How will we choose to implement it in our personal and communal lives?
Ha’azinu: Torah like Rain
Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger
Torah Portion: Ha’azinu
May my discourse come down as the rain, my speech distill as the dew,
Like showers on young growth, Like droplets on the grass. (D’varim/ Deuteronomy 32:2)
I hope all who observed Yom Kippur this week had a good and introspective experience.
The Days of Awe are observed together with many people, maybe hundreds or thousands, but at their best it’s a very individual experience as well, each one of us looking within to take stock and hold ourselves accountable to our higher ideals.
This relates to a verse in this week’s Torah portion, Ha’azinu, which is Moshe’s penultimate discourse or sermon to the Israelites before he dies and they go on without him. The verse above is understood by the ancient rabbis to refer to Torah in general. The word translated as “discourse” can also mean “lesson” or “counsel,” so it’s easy to see why the rabbis would link the idea of Moshe’s “discourse” to the Torah that he has taught while serving as leader of the people.
So why, they ask, is Torah compared to rain and dew? One text, quoted in the book Torah Temimah, says that Torah is like rain and dew because just as rain comes from one source, but waters each tree and plant which then produces fruit according to its individual natures, so too Torah is one, but each of us respond to it in a unique way. Torah “waters” each of us so that we may grow according to our individual capacity and talents. It is not meant to create robots or clones, but thinking, feeling, passionate people, each of whom will grow and act in Torah in in new and surprising ways.
So too this season of the Days of Awe; we read the same prayers out of the same book, but have profoundly different experiences depending on challenges and setbacks and sins and triumphs of each individual life. Judaism can bring you to the edge of spiritual grown, but we all have to decide how to take the next step; nobody else can find your passion and bring forth your spirit. The rain waters grass and trees alike, but they grow differently; our teachings and traditions need to be applied to the specific circumstances of each life, and only then will they bear fruit.
From the Maqam Project
From Rabbi David Kasher
A HOWLING WASTELAND – Parshat Ha’azinu
This has got to be some of the most beautiful poetry in the Torah:
He found him in a desert land,
In chaos, a howling wasteland.
He circled around him, he built him up,
Guarded him like the pupil of his eye.
Like an eagle who rouses her nest,
Glides down to her young,
Spreads her wings and takes them,
And carries them away on her limbs. (Deuteronomy 32:10-11)
But what is going on exactly? Who found who in that desert land? And where did he take them, eagle-like, from there?
The obvious answer is that this is about how God found the Children of Israel, and brought them into the promised land. The relationship between God and Israel, after all, is the major subject of the whole poem that constitutes our parsha, Ha’azinu. And indeed, the previous verse seems to force that interpretation:
For the Lord’s portion is His people,
Jacob is the line of his inheritance. (v.9)
On top of that, other great reference to eagles is back in Exodus, “I bore you on eagle’s wings, and brought you to Me.” (19:4) So the Lord found His people in a desert land, and carried them away into the land of Canaan. Most of the commentators assume that this is the meaning our opening image.
The only problem with this reading is that God did not “find” his people in the desert. He took them there! As Abravanel puts it:
How could he say that He found them in the wilderness when He really had found them in Egypt and there called His name upon them?
Most attempts to solve this problem focus on a reinterpretation of the word “found.” Various commentaries suggest that here the verb, “he found” really means, “he provided for,” or “he saw they were faithful,” or even, “he brought them into being” as a nation.
But the Zohar, the great mystical text of Judaism, offers another lens through which to read these verses. A few lines earlier, our parsha begins its account with the phrase:
Remember the days of old… (v. 7)
The Zohar, noting that the word for “old” here is ‘olam’ (עולם), which literally means “world,” gives us this interpretation:
Rabbi Abba said: What are the days of the world? They are the six days with which the Holy One, blessed be He, created the world.
The verse, according to Rabbi Abba, is asking us to remember not just our history, but creation itself. If we carry this reading into our howling wasteland, then it is not the people of Israel that God “finds,” but the first people – humanity itself. That is the way the great hassidic commentator, the Sfat Emet, picking up on the Zohar, understands these images:
The verses, “Remember the days of old,” and “The Lord’s portion is His people,” refers to what was written (in Genesis 1), “Let us make the Human.”
If so, then it was Adam that God found out there in the wilderness. But of course, this homiletic reading is also a stretch – even more so. Adam was never in the desert at all!
No, not the desert. But the very next words in our parsha do take us back to the Genesis story in which Adam was formed:
Chaos (tohu – תהו). There is only one other place in the Torah where we find this word – way back, at the very beginning:
In the Beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was chaos and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep. (Gen. 1:1-2)
And there in the howling chaos of the primordial void, a world would soon come into being. Six days later, God would find humanity, drawing them out into being.
But why now, here at the end of the Torah, are we being told to remember the story of creation? What does the origin of humanity have to do with the real subject of our parsha, the story of the nation of Israel?
Of course, that’s just it. Now, at the end of our journey, as we prepare to enter into the land of Israel and forge our particular destiny, we must remember that our story is much bigger than us. We have come so far from where we started; we have achieved a level of greatness. But we cannot forget that before we were a “kingdom of priests, and a holy nation,” we were just human beings, naked in the garden. And so we share a common inheritance with all of humanity.
And what is that inheritance? Where does our story begin?
We did not simply emerge from the desert. Nor did we first find ourselves in Egypt. We cannot start our family history with Our Father Jacob, or even with Abraham. Our story goes back further, back before the Children of Noah, back before Cain slew Abel, back even before there was a garden to stand naked in.
We were born in chaos. God found us there. Before we were delivered from Egypt, this was the first deliverance. He carried us, on eagle’s wings, out of chaos and void.
Let us not forget where we come from. Or we shall surely return to chaos.
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
The Spirituality of Song
From the Hebrew College
Seventy Faces of Torah
By Rabbi Alyson Solomon
Angels in the Wilderness
Ha’azinu/Shabbat Shuva, Deuteronomy 32:1-52
Early in Genesis we find Hagar, with dust in her hair and on her feet. Hagar is Abraham’s handmaid, pregnant with his first and oldest son, running from her master’s home. She runs furiously into the wilderness and stops by an עֵין הַמַּיִם, a spring or more literally, an eye of water. In Genesis 16:7-8 we read:
And an angel of the Lord found her [Hagar] by a water fountain in the desert, by the fountain on the road to Shur. וַיִּמְצָאָהּ מַלְאַךְ יְהֹוָה עַל עֵין הַמַּיִם בַּמִּדְבָּר עַל הָעַיִן בְּדֶרֶךְ שׁוּר:
And the angel said, “Hagar, Sarai’s servant, where are you coming from, and where are you going to?” And she said, “From before Sarai my mistress, I am fleeing.” וַיֹּאמַר הָגָר שִׁפְחַת שָׂרַי אֵי מִזֶּה בָאת וְאָנָה תֵלֵכִי וַתֹּאמֶר מִפְּנֵי שָׂרַי גְּבִרְתִּי אָנֹכִי בֹּרַחַת:
Suddenly an angel appears and says to Hagar, “From where are you coming and to where are you going?” On this verse, Rashi, our great 11th century commentator, teaches that actually the angel, of course, knew where Hagar was coming from, so the question had two functions. First, to give her an opening to start talking with him and second, on a deeper level, אֵי מִזֶּה [literally: where from this] means: “Where is the place about which you can say, ‘From this place I have come.’”
Hagar responds, I imagine somewhat breathlessly, “I am fleeing my master’s house.” Each time I read this section of Torah I wonder if this is simply Hagar’s opening statement or a deeper description of where she was coming from on a soul level.
Either way, she does not give her destination, perhaps because she doesn’t know where she’s headed. Perhaps her heart is broken, angry or numb.
This time of year, especially on Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat of Return, the Shabbat that finds us between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we find ourselves, personally and communally asking ourselves, as if stopped by an angel in the wilderness, “Where am I coming from and where am I going?” The image is full of wild momentum, pregnant with the unknown, layered with texture all coming together at an “eye of water,” a moment of hydration, to hear a messenger of the Holy One ask, “Wait, pause a moment. Where are you?” This moment to check our soul-GPS is one that reminds me of even earlier in Genesis when Creator calls out, speaking to humanity for the very first time, primarily for our benefit, אַיֶּֽכָּה, ayeka, where are you? To me, this question is both eternal and urgent.
As I kid, I remember being very confused by the high holidays. Growing up in Portland, Oregon, Rosh Hashana was a time of crisp breezes, leaves turning from green to yellow, muddy grass and searching for shiny chestnuts. School likely had just begun or was about to begin, meaning fresh school supplies, new shoes and my birthday. Rosh Hashana was sweetened with family and apples, honey and new beginnings.
Then came Yom Kippur. It seemed like the party ended just as the guests arrived. Everyone got very serious and solemn, we knocked on our chests to say we were sorry and reflect on the year that had pasted. Our rabbi gave an earth-trembling sermon about justice and our responsibility to make a difference. We sang about who would die and who would live and the shofar blasted and blasted until it rang in our ears, even as we occasionally glazed over, counting the light bulbs in the majestic cathedral dome.
Why, I wondered, and still sometimes wonder, did the holidays come in this order? Shouldn’t we look back and reflect, apologize and recognize our fragility first and then experience new possibilities and new beginnings? At least this way we could take out the trash and then enjoy the party—instead of going through a giant mud puddle upon leaving the car wash, or getting into an argument with someone outside of yoga class.
But the curators of our Jewish calendar were very thoughtful and very real. It was understood then and now that, actually, we need to experience newness and possibility, birth and creativity, redemption and frankly hope, so that we can do the amends, make the repairs, forgive and reaffirm our vision for the New Year.
In the way that Torah portions end on a nechemtas, an uplift, the New Year, Rosh Hashana, begins on one. We reconnect with life, with possibility, with renewal, and in this way, we jumpstart our prospects for return. We fortify our desire and resilience to do the hard, deep work of Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat of Return. On this Shabbat alone we are given an extra vitamin, a brand new toothbrush, support to gird our loins. We renew our listening – literally this is the Shabbat Ha’azinu, the Shabbat of Our Listening – in order to hear what Moshe said in his final days. His final telling becomes our new beginning. In hearing his words anew, we solidify our אֵי מִזֶּה, the place about which we can say, ‘From this place I have come.’”
As she flees through the wildness, Hagar receives an essential question and eternal question, especially at this season and Shabbat of Return, of Listening. Shabbat Shuva is a moment to slow down, dust off our feet and have a glass of water long enough to respond the questions: from where are you coming and to where are you going?
Minister Victoria Safford in Minnesota preaches it like this:
“Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope. Not the prudent gates of optimism, which are somewhat narrower. Not the stalwart, boring gates of common sense; nor the strident gates of self-righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges, (people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through) nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of “Everything is gonna’ be all right.” But a different, sometimes lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition. The place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but the joy of the struggle. And we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing asking people what they see.”
Whether it’s a dusty desert angel, the mezuzah on our door, a child pulling on our legs, a speeding ticket or lab results… whatever the speed bump in the road, perhaps it might be just in time to save our lives, to hydrate our spirits. Or, at least, make our trek more meaningful, more full of hope.
From My Jewish Learning
Dripping Like Rain, Flowing Like Dew
Moses’ poetic mention of rain and dew teaches us to recognize both the obvious and subtle presence of God in the world.
BY RABBI RUTH GAIS
Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;
Let the earth hear the words I utter!
May my teaching drip as the rain,
My words flow as the dew,
Like showers on young growth,
Like droplets on the grass.
For the name of Adonai I proclaim;
Give glory to our God!” (Deuteronomy 32: 2-3)
Moses‘ final words to us, his people, are poetry. These words are so important that ordinary prose just won’t work. They are so important that the entire world, heaven and earth must listen. His words, grandiloquent, fierce, and impassioned, must fall upon us like rain, touch us like dew.
I can understand the comparison to rain. Rain, as we understand more and more in our drought-stricken region, is absolutely crucial for life. These days we welcome it with gladness. But always, whenever it rains, even a light drizzle, no matter the spirit in which we accept it, we can’t help but notice it. Whatever Moses will say in the verses that follow will be like rain–an attention-grabbing teaching that we cannot and must not ignore.
But like other commentators, I’m a bit puzzled by the mention of dew. Why does Moses say that his words are like the dew? Rashi, following Sifre, a midrash on Deuteronomy, explains that everyone rejoices in the dew but rain, though vital, can be annoying to someone on a journey, for example, or to a winemaker into whose vat the rain falls as he is pressing his grapes and spoils his yield. Rashi’s answer is both practical and acute; it takes into account our very human reaction to a phenomenon that we know is crucial for our survival but at that particular moment is, well, raining on our parade.
Rashi assumes that everyone unconditionally rejoices in the dew. I love the dew because it is the antithesis of rain. Dew is shy and unpretentious, qualities which rain can sometimes also possess, but much more aggressively. Rain always calls attention to itself.
But when I think of dew, it is with a smile. I think of an early summer morning. It is calm and sleepy. I could be the only one awake in the whole world except for the birds. The sun has just risen and its rays are still gentle. I am barefoot. If I just run out the door I’ll get my feet wet and then go about my business. But if I take my time and look before I step on the grass, I can see the little drops of dew glistening on each individual blade. When I step on the grass, I shiver a little, but it’s a pleasant, anticipatory shiver, heralding all the mystery that the new day will bring. Dew is quiet, and unassuming, beneficial and dependable, yet mysterious. It is there every morning but we are likely to ignore it or take it for granted.
Dew just is. This simple fact is crucial to our understanding of the importance of dew. The implication of dew’s quiet existence is quite profound. To be aware of the dew is to become alert to all of the hidden goodness of God that we so often take for granted. In the haftarah (reading from the Prophets or Writings) we read for Shabbat Shuvah (the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) this week, Hosea tells us that God will be to Israel “ka’tal,” like the dew (Hosea 14:6), and coated with dew, Israel will blossom and flourish.
Rain, like Torah, keeps us alive but rain does not always fall. The dew, smaller and less obvious, is a constant. Both rain and dew are signs of God’s mercy, which is at times obvious, at times less so. During these days of teshuvah (repentance) when we have much hard spiritual work to do I find it comforting to think of God’s mercy like the dew, always there, steadfast in love no matter how far we might have strayed and how long we might have forgotten it.
Provided by the UJA-Federation of New York, which cares for those in need, strengthens Jewish peoplehood, and fosters Jewish renaissance.
Words as Witness
The song-poem in this Torah portion shows that words do more than narrate and describe.
BY RACHEL FARBIARZ
“It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.”
~William Carlos Williams (from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”)
The Pentateuch (Torah, or Five Books of Moses)’s penultimate portion, Parashat Ha’Azinu, memorializes the “Song of Moses,” canted by the great leader on the day of his death. An epic poem in six parts, Ha’azinu tells of God’s enduring relationship with Israel, unfurling their stormy entanglements into both desert past and prophetic future.
Its recitation is Moses’ last pedagogic act, and the song-poem figures largely in the great leader’s final preparations for death. Moses schools the entire assembly in its verses, satisfying God’s command that Ha’Azinu’s words “not be forgotten from the mouths of your offspring.” And on the day of his death, the relentless scribe writes out the poem in its entirety, instructing the Levites that it be placed in the Sanctuary, next to the Ark of the Covenant (Deut. 31:21-30).
There is powerful emotional force to this song-poem. Arranged not in the Torah’s typical textual format, Ha’Azinu’s verses instead are presented in columns — the better, one can imagine, to see their words quiver. Even our scrolls seem thus to acknowledge that Ha’Azinu’s power is drawn not from the narrative substance of its verses, but from their form; that the poem holds its audience in thrall through its couplets and cadences; its lurid imagery and outlandish metaphor; its esoteric language of “no-gods” and “no-folk.”
Ha’Azinu’s verses are less sentences than incantations — a kind of magic that does the heavy lifting of the soul from a posture of attention to one of rapture, from interest to commitment. This is the mysterious work of poetry, rendering Moses’ final recitation not a mere collection of words, but “a witness for the children of Israel” (Deut. 31:19).
And here is Ha’Azinu’s searing imprint: That words can be witness — to covenant and commitment, trauma and injustice; to the failures of history and to the future’s promise. Words do not only narrate and recount: They also do. They rebuke indifference and instill commitment. They suspend bridges between worlds and gather people into communities. They compel action.
Words as Witness in Kenya
Since early 2008, when waves of post-election violence wracked Kenya, an extraordinary coalition calling itself the Concerned Kenyan Writers has been leveraging these functions of the word. Shortly after the violence broke out, a group of “poets, writers and storytellers” began penning an “alternative account of the violence that shook Kenya.” The writers sought to convey the complexity–and humanity–of what they saw: in the words of Kenyan writer Shalini Gidoomal “to wade into the thick of analysis and discussion during the conflict at a time when sensational, dehumanising images were conveying a simplistic story of barbarism to the world.”
The result was a powerful collection of work–including poetry, testimonials, and short stories–that ultimately became part of the record of the Waki Commission’s inquiry into the violence. One such piece, “Translated from Kibakizungu” by Wambui Mwangi, urgently plies its audience:
“Where is this person who will … give Kenyans a credible reason to stop this violence and to find new ways of expressing our fears and our frustrations? Who will explain us to each other, who will clarify… our challenges of salvaging and rebuilding our battered selves…? Who will convince us that this untidy, resentful, sullen, bleeding, wounded, bewildered, defensive, psychotic, irrational, betraying, dangerous place we call home, this our Kenya, has any point left to it at all?”
Mwangi, I think, has answered her own questions: It is those writers and artists like herself who will “explain us to each other,” compelling action upon such “explanations.”
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 (Deut. 32:46-47): “Take these words to your heart . . . because it is not an empty thing for you: It is your very life….”
Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.
From Rabbi David Kasher
THE POETRY OF TORAH – Parshat Ha’azinu
Why do we read poetry?
I mean that question generally: Why do human beings write and read poetry?
And I mean it specifically: Why do we come across poetry in the Torah? What’s it doing there? Sure, we have Psalms later on – explicit Biblical poems. But it’s strange when a regular prose narrative is suddenly broken up by a long poem. And it happens from time to time in the Torah.
There are lots of little poetic asides here and there, but the first major epic-style poem is the Song of the Sea, in the book of Exodus. The reason for the poem there is pretty clear. They’ve just witnessed the biggest miracle in the Torah – the splitting of the Red Sea – they’re overwhelmed with gratitude and wonder, and they want to praise God. So a poem can serve as a medium for praise and celebration.
But the other major block of poetry in the Torah is in our parsha, Ha’azinu, the second to last in the Torah – and it does not seem to be all that celebratory. It’s sometimes called the Song of Moses (the word for poetry and the word for song in Hebrew are the same, which is interesting in itself). Moses is about to die, and he gathers the people together specifically to listen to him deliver this poem. Why?
It’s not a very pleasant message. A lot of it is filled with vicious condemnation of the very people Moses is addressing:
For they are a treacherous breed,
Children with no loyalty in them. (Deut. 32:20)
כִּי דוֹר תַּהְפֻּכֹת הֵמָּה,
בָּנִים לֹא-אֵמֻן בָּם.
Not exactly a fond farewell.
So why turn to poetry? Is Moses really just a closet artist, who wants to compose one last piece? Is this some pre-death ritual performance? Does he think the people will remember his last words better if they rhyme?
Actually, the reason for the poem was given in last week’s parsha, and it was God who wanted it done:
Now, write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this poem will be My witness for the people of Israel. (Deut. 31:19)
וְעַתָּה, כִּתְבוּ לָכֶם אֶת-הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת, וְלַמְּדָהּ אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, שִׂימָהּ בְּפִיהֶם: לְמַעַן תִּהְיֶה-לִּי הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת, לְעֵד–בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Rashi and Nachmanides both understand “this poem” to refer to the upcoming Ha’azinu poem. And, in fact, Moses does end up writing it down right after he finishes.
And if that’s true, then we have our answer. The poem is meant as a “witness for the people.” Now what does that mean?
The Ibn Ezra is the only one of the classical commentators who gives a good answer. He says that:
It is as if the poem answers those who will say, “Why is all this happening to us?”
כאילו השיר’ עונה לאשר יאמרו למה מצאתנו כל זאת
So, in the future, when some of the doom and gloom that is foretold actually comes to pass, people will turn to one another and say, “Hmm….remember that poem? Turns out Moses was right.”
That, I have to say, is a pretty depressing reason for a poem.
But there is another interpretation of this verse. The Talmud (Nedarim 38) reads “Now, write down this poem” as referring to the whole Torah.
The Torah is a poem! That’s a strange claim, and there’s some debate, but they bring a proof from the end of the verse, “In order that this poem will be My witness.” And that seems to settle it.
This interpretation does make more sense of the witness part of the verse – the Torah acts as God’s eternal witness, testifying to the Divine revelation and God’s will. But it leaves us with another big question: What does it mean to call the whole Torah a poem?
And for that, I’m going to step aside and let the great 19th-century commentator, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (the Netziv) take over. Because his answer is one of the most beautiful pieces on Torah, and on poetry, that I have ever read. He quotes the piece of Talmud we mentioned, and then goes on to say:
We still have to understand how the whole Torah could be called a poem! Surely it is not written in the language of poetry. Rather, the answer is that Torah has in it the nature and the richness of poetry.
הא מיהא יש להבין היאך נקראת כל התורה שירה, והרי לא נכתבה בלשון של שירה. אלא על־כרחך יש בה טבע וסגולת השירה
A. (The Nature) – For the Torah speaks in a fragmented language. And it is well-known to anyone who has studied that this language of fragments is very different from the language of prose.
In a poem, the idea is not fully explained the way it is in prose. And so, one has to look at it sideways, saying that one rhyme means this, and another rhyme means that. And that is not just creative interpretation. That is simply the nature of poetry, even the most basic poetry.
And it is further understood that one who deeply studies an idea expressed in this poetic form, becomes connected to it. The illuminating language of the poem and its unique grammar is far sweeter to him than to one who simply comes to read it quickly and extract the main idea…
This is the nature of the whole Torah as well, whose stories are not fully explained. Rather, one has to make insights and explanations based on the intricacies of the language. And this is not just creative interpretation. On the contrary, this is the most basic way to understand the verses…
א) דבשיר אין העניין מבואר יפה כמו בספור פרזי, וצריך לעשות הערות מן הצד — דזה החרוז כוון לזה הסיפור, וזה החרוז כוון לזה — ולא מיקרי דרוש, אלא כך הוא טבע השיא, אפילו של הדיוט. ומושכל עוד, דמי שיודע בטוב עניין בטוב עניין שהביא לידי מליצה זו שנתחבר עליו, מתוק לו אור לשון של השיר ודקדוקה הרבה יותר מלאיש שאין לו ידיעה מתכונת העניין, ורק בא להתבונן מן המליצה תורף העניין,ומזה עלול הוא להשערות בדויות, מה שלא היה מעולם ולא לזה כיוון המשורר. כך הוא טבע כל התורה, שאין הסיפור שבה מבואר יפה, אלא יש לעשות לו הערות ופירושים לדקדוקי הלשון, ולא נקרא דרוש, אלא כך הוא פשט המקרא.
B. (The Richness) In poetry, there is a richness that comes from it having been adorned with all kinds of hints, in a way that isn’t done with prose. Like the custom of using the first letter in each line to spell out the alphabet, or to write out the poet’s name. There is a richness that is special to this fragmented language and not to prose. And it is well known that in order to achieve this level of richness, the poet is often forced to bend the language, so that the beginning letters end up being the ones he is seeking.
ב) דבשיר יש סגולה לפארה ברמזים מה שאינו מעניין השיר, כמו שנהוג לעשות ראשי החרוזים בדרך א“ב או שם המחבר, וסגולה זו מיוחדת במליצה ולא בסיפור פרזי. וידוע דסגולה זו מכרחת הרבה פעמים להמחבר לעקם את הלשון כמעט, רק כדי שיחלו ראשי החרוזים באות הנדרש לו.
So it is exactly with the whole of the Torah, all of it.
Aside from the most basic, simple reading, there is in every word many secrets and hidden ideas. Because of this, there are many instances when the language of the Torah is not to be read literally.
And all this is not true for the Holy Torah alone, but with all sacred scripture.
ודבר זה ממש היא בכל התורה כולה. שמלבד העניין המדובר בפשט המקרא, עוד יש בכל דבר הרבה סודות ועניינים נעלמים אשר מחמת זה בא כל פעם המקרא בלשון שאינו מדוייק כל־כך. וכל זה אינו רק בתורה הקדושה, אלא בכל מקראי קודש.
We read poetry for the same reason that we read scripture. Because the mystery of the language beckons us in, invites us to take our time with it, to savor the experience. We soak ourselves in the words. And then we become connected to those words. We recite them over and over again, and they taste sweet on our tongues.
We read poetry because we sense that there are secrets hidden inside, ideas that cannot be expressed in everyday language. The possibilities for meaning are endless, and we are always chasing after more. We delight in the artistry of word-bending, and we suspect that even the particular form of the poem is telling us something – perhaps something about the poet, perhaps something about ourselves.
It’s true, we don’t “need” poetry. We can get by communicating in prose, and take care of the basic functions of human life. The fact that we write poetry is a testament to our search for something more. Some kind of hidden beauty, some kind of deeper meaning.
Poetry, like Torah, is a “witness to the people,” a witness to our eternal quest for transcendence.
Let My Teaching Drop as Rain
In the glorious song with which Moses addresses the congregation, he invites the people to think of the Torah – their covenant with God – as if it were like the rain that waters the ground so that it brings forth its produce:
Let my teaching drop as rain,
My words descend like dew,
Like showers on new grass,
Like abundant rain on tender plants. (Deut. 32:2)
God’s word is like rain in a dry land. It brings life. It makes things grow. There is much we can do of our own accord: we can plough the earth and plant the seeds. But in the end our success depends on something beyond our control. If no rain falls, there will be no harvest, whatever preparations we make. So it is with Israel. It must never be tempted into the hubris of saying: “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me” (Deut. 8:17).
The Sages, however, sensed something more in the analogy. This is how Sifrei (a compendium of commentaries on Numbers and Deuteronomy dating back to the Mishnaic period) puts it:
Let my teaching drop as rain: Just as the rain is one thing, yet it falls on trees, enabling each to produce tasty fruit according to the kind of tree it is – the vine in its way, the olive tree in its way, and the date palm in its way – so the Torah is one, yet its words yield Scripture, Mishnah, laws, and lore. Like showers on new grass: Just as showers fall upon plants and make them grow, some green, some red, some black, some white, so the words of Torah produce teachers, worthy individuals, Sages, the righteous, and the pious.
There is only one Torah, yet it has multiple effects. It gives rise to different kinds of teaching, different sorts of virtue. Torah is sometimes seen by its critics as overly prescriptive, as if it sought to make everyone the same. The Midrash argues otherwise. The Torah is compared to rain precisely to emphasise that its most important effect is to make each of us grow into what we could become. We are not all the same, nor does Torah seek uniformity. As a famous Mishnah puts it: “When a human being makes many coins from the same mint, they are all the same. God makes everyone in the same image – His image – yet none is the same as another” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5).
This emphasis on difference is a recurring theme in Judaism. For example, when Moses asks God to appoint his successor, he uses an unusual phrase: “May the Lord, God of the spirits of all humankind, appoint a man over the community” (Num. 27:16). On this, Rashi comments:
Why is this expression (“God of the spirits of all humankind”) used? [Moses] said to Him: Lord of the universe, You know each person’s character, and that no two people are alike. Therefore, appoint a leader for them who will bear with each person according to his disposition.
One of the fundamental requirements of a leader in Judaism is that he or she is able to respect the differences between human beings. This is a point emphasised by Maimonides in Guide for the Perplexed:
Man is, as you know, the highest form in creation, and he therefore includes the largest number of constituent elements. This is why the human race contains so great a variety of individuals that we cannot discover two persons exactly alike in any moral quality or in external appearance…. This great variety and the necessity of social life are essential elements in man’s nature. But the well-being of society demands that there should be a leader able to regulate the actions of man. He must complete every shortcoming, remove every excess, and prescribe for the conduct of all, so that the natural variety should be counterbalanced by the uniformity of legislation, so that social order be well established.
The political problem as Maimonides sees it is how to regulate the affairs of human beings in such a way as to respect their individuality while not creating chaos. A similar point emerges from a surprising rabbinic teaching: “Our Rabbis taught: If one sees a crowd of Israelites, one says: Blessed Be He who discerns secrets – because the mind of each is different from that of another, just as the face of each is different from another” (Brachot 58a).
We would have expected a blessing over a crowd to emphasise its size, its mass: human beings in their collectivity. A crowd is a group large enough for the individuality of the faces to be lost. Yet the blessing stresses the opposite – that each member of a crowd is still an individual with distinctive thoughts, hopes, fears, and aspirations.
The same was true for the relationship between the Sages. A Mishnah states:
When R. Meir died, the composers of fables ceased. When Ben Azzai died, assiduous students ceased. When Ben Zoma died, the expositors ceased. When R. Akiva died, the glory of the Torah ceased. When R. Chanina died, men of deed ceased. When R. Yose Ketanta died, the pious men ceased. When R. Yochanan b. Zakai died, the lustre of wisdom ceased…. When Rabbi died, humility and the fear of sin ceased. (Mishnah Sotah 9:15)
There was no single template of the Sage. Each had his own distinctive merits, his unique contribution to the collective heritage. In this respect, the Sages were merely continuing the tradition of the Torah itself. There is no single role model of the religious hero or heroine in Tanach. The patriarchs and matriarchs each had their own unmistakable character. Moses, Aaron, and Miriam each emerge as different personality types. Kings, Priests, and Prophets had different roles to play in Israelite society. Even among the Prophets, “No two prophesy in the same style,” said the Sages (Sanhedrin 89a). Elijah was zealous, Elisha gentle. Hosea speaks of love, Amos speaks of justice. Isaiah’s visions are simpler and less opaque than those of Ezekiel.
The same applies to even to the revelation at Sinai itself. Each individual heard, in the same words, a different inflection:
The voice of the Lord is with power (Ps. 29:4): that is, according to the power of each individual, the young, the old, and the very small ones, each according to their power [of understanding]. God said to Israel, “Do not believe that there are many gods in heaven because you heard many voices. Know that I alone am the Lord your God.”
According to Maharsha, there are 600,000 interpretations of Torah. Each individual is theoretically capable of a unique insight into its meaning. The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas commented:
The Revelation has a particular way of producing meaning, which lies in its calling upon the unique within me. It is as if a multiplicity of persons…were the condition for the plenitude of “absolute truth,” as if each person, by virtue of his own uniqueness, were able to guarantee the revelation of one unique aspect of the truth, so that some of its facets would never have been revealed if certain people had been absent from mankind.
Judaism, in short, emphasises the other side of the maxim E pluribus unum (“Out of the many, one”). It says: “Out of the One, many.”
The miracle of creation is that unity in heaven produces diversity on earth. Torah is the rain that feeds this diversity, allowing each of us to become what only we can be.
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