Shabbat candles: 6:23 p.m.
Torah: Deut. 32:1-52
Havdalah: 7:24 p.m.
Ultimately, being a Jew has something to do with God. Yes, of course, being a Jew has something to do with charity, justice, truth, moral behavior, community, love of one’s neighbor, love of the stranger, but the source of these ethical and spiritual concepts is God, who made a covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai where He gave us His law and we agreed to be His people, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
One of Judaism’s most distinctive and challenging ideas is its ethics of responsibility, the idea that God invites us to become “His partners in the work of creation.” And yet, at the end of last week’s Torah reading, God informs Moses, “This people will rise up and stray after gods, they will reject Me and annul my Covenant.” God tells Moses about the antidote to this problem, “so now write this song, for yourselves … so that this song shall be for me a witness against the children of Israel.”
Haazinu begins: “Listen Heaven, I will speak. Earth, hear the words of my mouth, so that my teaching may penetrate like rain breaking up the soil” [Deuteronomy 32:1-2]. Moses is calling on nothing less than all of heaven and earth to bear witness to the calamities that would befall Israel if it sins — and the ultimate joy that will come with the final redemption. The Jewish people will nevertheless survive, and Haazinu concludes with a description of the redemption and the ultimate revenge against those who harmed the Jews.
Since the nature of this song is to express recognition of the total harmony of Creation, it mixes past, present and future. Jewish and world history is a total unified reality in which there is no conflict, and in which past and present are not only in harmony, but as clarifications of each other. If there are still Jews who abandon or depreciate God, this may stem from their having only a limited view of world events. Some may view history through economic, natural, social or political perspectives. By contrast, the Torah directs us to view history as the unfolding of the Divine plan.
Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzahl gives us an example of how our perception of world events changes according to the angle with which it is viewed. Several centuries ago, England was a small nation that grew, by the early 20th century, to a major military power, an empire that spanned the globe. There are no shortage of earthly reasons for how and why, but the answer from the Divine perspective might be that the empire’s power and reach, by 1917, enabled it to formulate the Balfour Declaration, greatly assisting the return of the Holy Land to the Jewish people. A little more than 20 year later, England was powerful enough to help hold off the Nazis at a time when England fought alone. After that, the British empire quickly declined — perhaps not coincidentally with its refusal to allow Holocaust refugees entry to their ancient home. This is just a small chapter in God’s providential supervision of the world.
“A faithful God, without iniquity, righteous and moral is He,” says the text [Deut. 32:4], and yet many Jews question God’s justice. Did we deserve the tragedies, pogroms, crusades, and suffering we have experienced? The Sifre, an early rabbinic commentary, interprets the phrase, “A faithful God” not to refer to our faith in God but God’s faith is us — Creation was an act of faith on the part of God. This is the challenge of Haazinu. The Torah is not man’s book of God, but God’s book of man. As Abraham Heschel aptly titled his book, “God in Search of Man,” we are here because a God of love wanted us to be.
Rashi says, regarding the heavens and earth being called as witnesses, to be a warning: If Israel were to deviate from the Torah, the heavens would punish them by withholding rain and the earth would punish them by withholding its produce.
Most commentators interpret Moses’ words calling on heaven and earth as figurative. However, Rabbi Abraham Twerski, the noted chasidic rabbi and psychiatrist, believes it may be more than allegorical. The punishment for sin is not always imposed upon a person externally, but may be contained within the sin itself. The harmful consequences of a sin may affect others or the sinner himself, as the natural consequences of sin. Rav Soloveichik wrote that the punishment of sin is the sin itself.
May we all have a meaningful holiday season filled with joy and gratitude to God for his many blessings; looking forward to that time when all will acknowledge the greatness of God in unity and peace.
Martin Polack a business analyst living in Teaneck, N.J., who devotes time to Jewish adult education and outreach.