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Parshat Haazinu: Whither the Generations, D'var Torah by Jack Muskat, September 22, 2018

23/01/2019 12:34:31 PM

Jan23

The structure of this week’s Parsha, Ha’azinu (lit. Give Ear) is a poem, or Song by Moses for  the Children of Israel poised to enter the Promised Land. 38 Years have elapsed since Moses’ first Song “Az Yashir Moshe” was given to the first generation of Exodus, upon their triumphant crossing of the Reed Sea, upon their exit from Egypt. But this is a new generation, for whom the trials and tribulations of the past generation are but a distant memory, if recalled at all. Moses has been instructed by G-d in the last week’s Parsha, VaYelech, to write down his teachings and instruct the people. He is to sing a hymn of hope that Israel will prevail in spirit and in body. At first glance, the poem instructs,  decries, uplifts, it surges with power and limitless energy. At once terrifying and sublime, Moses exhorts the people that if they  obey the Torah, they  will find favour in the eyes of G-d.  Disobey, and  Hashem will turn away from the people, and conceal his countenance. A pretty stark  but simple choice to grasp, one would think 

Yet, at the conclusion of Parshat Ki Tavo, which we read  3 weeks ago, Moses admonishes the people He has already reminded them of the terms of the covenant and the prodigious feats that they have seen  with their own eyes: 

Yet to this day the Lord has not given you a mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.” (D: 29:3).

There is seething exasperation in Moses, an almost manic desperation that the Israelites just don’t get it, or if they get it, they will forget, and then forget that they have forgotten it.  It is this grave fear for the people by Moses, this palpable dread that they will yet fail again. Perhaps this is why the Parsha opens with some of the most evocative and lyrical language in the Bible. Luckily for me,  the great bible scholar, Robert Alter, agrees. He writes:

 “the Book of Deuteronomy is the most sustained deployment of rhetoric in the Bible.” 

Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, and the task set before Moses is to persuade his audience of the authoritative reality of an event that never occurred for them for them but for their parent’s generation, the Revelation at Sinai—and in so doing,   ensure  their loyalty and,  more importantly, fealty to G-d.

Moses is off to a good start: 

“ Give ear, oh heavens, let me speak. Let the earth hear the words I utter. May my discourse come down as the rain, my speech distill as the dew.”  D: 32:1-2

Moses has all the bases covered here, from heaven to earth,  as Rain from the Sky and Dew from the ground.

 In other words: “Listen up, folks, pay attention, there is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.”

Not bad for a guy who first told G-d way back in Exodus 4:10—“I am not a man of words. I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.”

The Parsha concludes with an expository passage of Moses preparing for death as instructed by G-d:

“Ascend these heights of Arabim to Mount Nebo and view the land of Canaan which I am giving to the Israelites. You shall die on that mountain that you are about to ascend… As your brother Aaron died on Mt. Hor. For you both broke faith with me at the waters of Meribah-Kadesh by failing to uphold my sanctity among the Israelite people. You may view the land from a distance but you shall not enter it. The land I am giving to the Israelite people.”

(32: 49-52)

WoW!  There is a lot to unpack here. First we have G-d seemingly rubbing it in for Moses. Not only will Moses not enter the promised land, the land of Israel to which he led a people out of Egypt,  first not even his people, since he was raised as an Egyptian, but G-ds’ chosen people, “Moses. Moses, you shall free my people Israel from Egypt (E: 3:4-10). To which Moses replies “Who, Me?”

And after all  that Moses has done for Hashem and for Am Yisrael. The phrase  “for the sake of the people”, becomes the signature tune of Moses, who was like a doctor on call .  We see it on Mt. Sinai “Go on down,  for  your people have become corrupt” (E: 32:7), where the Talmud interprets this as G-d saying  “ I granted you greatness only for the sake of Israel. Now that Israel has sinned, what are you to me?”

 Later, during the episode of the rebellious Spies Moses pleads with G- d not to destroy the people . “Be slow to anger and abound in kindness. Do not visit the iniquity of the fathers upon children, upon the third and fourth generation. Pardon this people. And the Lord said: “ I pardon, as you have asked.” (N: 14:17-21)  Little did Moses know that he had just sacrificed his own salvation for that of the people.  

When he later  finds his voice:

“ I pleaded with G-d to cross over to see the good land on the other side of the Jordan. But the Lord was wrathful and would not listen.. The Lord said to me: “Enough, never speak to me of this matter again. (D: 3:26).

 When I first read the text I was overwhelmed with the intimacy of the prose. It felt like I was  eavesdropping on a lover’s quarrel. In the beginning of the relationship, Moses can’t find his voice, and G-d encourages him to speak up. Now that he has something to say , G-d tells him to shut up.  

And when eavesdropping on any conversation, especially one between G-d and Moses, it is never a good idea to jump to premature conclusions. After all, Moses was the only person to whom G-d showed his face:  “Panim le Panim.” And how we ourselves long in vain to catch but a glimpse of the Divine Spirit in our singing of  Kol Nidre and our Netana Tokef.  G-d is basically a mystery, and we are but helpless mortals groping for even the smallest sign of the Divine Plan.

And who was Moses?  He is no less a mystery.  A man of multiple identities and purposes. In her excellent volume, Moses,  Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg,  touches on a few:

  1. born into a world of genocide he is nurtured in fear. When he is 3 months old his mother places him in a basket in the Nile  river. In this way she both fulfills and defies the Egyptian decree; “ Every male child you shall cast into the river.” (Ex: 1:22)
  2. He is saved by the watchful gaze of 3 women: His mother, who sees that he is good,  his sister Miriam, who keeps an eye on the basket, and Pharaoh’s daughter, who sees him in the basket and is stirred to compassion. But he will not nurse, and Miriam hires Moses’ birth Mother as “wet nurse.” She suckles her own child for the Princess.
  3.  He is named “Moshe” by Pharaoh’s daughter, which is Egyptian for son. “For I drew him out of the water” which is also pun on the Hebrew—Moshaich. To pull out of. As Moses will later pull the Israelites out of Egypt.

 

I would like to conclude with some contemporary thoughts of how Moses’ final address and scolding to the people is so critically relevant in our time.  I had just returned in early August from a nine day Men’s trip to Israel. I stood on top of Masada and looked across the Dead Sea and  saw Mt. Nebo,  the place where Moses died ( and where to this day we have yet to find his burial ground.). I  imagined him looking back at me, his voice crying  across desert,  “So, how did you guys, do?”  I turned away to compose my thoughts. “ It isn’t so simple, Moses. We did OK for a few generations, then we lost the 2 temples and were exiled for 2000 years. We stayed together by studying your Torah, and added Rabbinic Judaism just to be sure, for another 1500 years.  We survived numerous pogroms over the years, and there were periods of relative prosperity and peace, but our enemies got better and better at killing us until they nearly wiped out a third of us in the Shoah on the way to killing us all. But we kind of bounced back and in 1948, the miracle of the State of Israel was reborn. 

But what  worries me is today is what you yourself saw: the division of the Jewish People at Sinai, between the faithful and the idolaters.  Our divisions threaten our Dreams. We see it in the growing divide between the Diaspora and Israel. Our younger generation no longer yearns for a connection to our land.  Jewish values have been recast as Universal values.  Israel is seen as too nationalistic, too ethnic, too tribal. Too Jewish. We risk losing this generation forever.

How ironic Moses. You who dreamed of entering the land and were denied it. We, who have regained the land, are abandoning it. The world is on fire, Moses. A rock was just thrown through the Window of a Synagogue on Yom Kippur, in Poland, of all places. Anti-Semitic graffiti was smeared on the doors in a Paris neighbourhood. Avi Fuld, of blessed memory, a father of four, was stabbed in the back by a teenage terrorist just outside Jerusalem. And this was just this week, during the High Holy Days.

In a world where Israel and the Torah no longer matter for some, it is our duty bring this lost  generation  home. As you tell us: “Ask your father, he will inform, you elders, they will tell you.”

Our Parsha is called “Haazinu”  Listen.. Listen. We would all do well to head your warnings, Moshe.

Shabbat Shalom

References:

Alter, Robert. The Five Books of Moses. Norton. 2008

Zornberg,  Avivah Gottlieb. Moses: A Human Life. Yale University Press: 2016

Tue, 3 August 2021 25 Av 5781