October 23, 2018

Ha’azinu – A World Without Teshuvah and Messianic Expectancy

“Give ear, O heavens, that I may speak, / Hear, O Earth, the utterance of my mouth. / Let my teaching drip like rain, / Let my words flow like dew, ‘ Like droplets on new growth, / Like showers on grass.” (Deuteronomy 32:1-2)

Like an eagle protecting its nest / Over its young-birds hovering, / He spread out his wings, he took him, / Bearing him on his pinions.” (Deuteronomy 32:11)

See now that I, am he / I myself bring-death, bestow-life / I wound and I myself heal, / And there is from my hand no rescuing! / For I lift up my hand to the heavens, / And say: As I live, for the ages.” (Deuteronomy 32:40)

These are among the fifty-two verses in this week’s Torah portion Ha’azinu (Deuteronomy 32), one of the shortest portions in the annual Torah reading cycle.

Though these verses are magnificent poetry, the Torah isn’t largely a poetic text. Rather, it’s a series of legal texts set in a narrative context. For poetry we have to search elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible – the soaring visions of the prophets, the yearnings of the Psalms, the saga of Job, and the eroticism of the Song of Songs.

Despite the Torah’s narrative and legal style, this portion closes in a burst of poetry as Moses nears the end of his life.

Essentially, Parashat Ha’azinu is a poetic meditation on the covenantal relationship between God and Israel. It’s graphic and written from the prospective of God, not Moses. Its themes dwell not upon the strength of the divine-human bond, but upon its weakness. Israel is characterized not as a covenantal lover, but as a treacherous adversary prepared to smash the covenant and cavort with other gods.

Towards the end of the poem, Moses shifts suddenly from speaking as a third-person narrator into the first person as God’s prophet. We envision an enraged God Who intends to hand Israel over to its most vicious enemies and its ultimate devastation. Fearing Israel’s demise to polytheism and oblivion, God reverses the divine decree, vanquishes Israel’s enemies and renews the covenant.

One scholar suggested that this poem is a CAT scan of God’s mind embracing the totality of divine rage, longing and love. Though God did indeed reverse the divine decree, it wasn’t because of divine compassion; rather, it was the consequence of divine pride.

There is something especially shocking about this poem, and that it’s missing utterly the idea of Teshuvah.

One would think that at the end of the annual Torah reading cycle that coincides each year with the close of the Yamim Noraim that Torah would affirm the covenantal bond between God and Israel as a consequence of Israel’s Teshuvah and return to God. But, the poem ignores the possibility of Israel’s repentance and presents a world devoid of the capacity of the people to alter God’s will through its contrition and Teshuvah.

It’s difficult to imagine living our lives without Teshuvah. Perhaps, that’s the point of the poem, to show us what such a world would be like without the possibility of our return, without the life-sustaining value of hope.

Judaism understands that Teshuvah is so indispensable for human welfare that the Talmudic sage Resh Lakish insisted that God conceived of Teshuvah before creating the world and wove Teshuvah into the fabric of creation itself.

The prophetic and rabbinic concept of repentance is among Judaism’s most ennobling and inspiring affirmations. Judaism rejects a fatalistic world, one in which what was will always be without the possibility of personal and communal evolution. Judaism affirms that we do indeed have a measure of control over our lives, that we can improve ourselves and be better morally and spiritually than we were. Though perfection isn’t the goal of the Yamim Noraim, self-improvement is.

Since our beginnings as a people we Jews have been buoyed by hope and messianic expectancy, all made possible by Teshuvah.

And so, perhaps, Ha’azinu is a warning about what our lives really would be like without the covenant and without our capacity to be better than we were.

Shabbat Shalom.

Note: Translation of the Hebrew are from “The Schocken Bible: Volume 1 – The Five Books of Moses” with a new translation and Introductions, Commentary, and Notes by Everett Fox