Listen: Ha’āzinû – Deuteronomy 32

For the first time in my life, I finally really read Moses’ final oration to the Israelites from Mount Nebo on the border of Israel just before he died and before his people entered the Promised Land. I read it three times. I was so upset! I phoned my daughter in Boston where she teaches rabbinics. She also happens to be a poet. I explained why I thought I was so put off. 

First, there was the context. Facing death, Moses in the previous parashat had just appointed Joshua as his successor and prophesied how God would lead them to victory when they crossed the border; every seven years at Succoth they would have to gather together to relive the experience. Moses also prophesied how, when the Israelites became comfortable, they would slide away from their faith in God, spurn Him and turn to other gods; evils and troubles would befall them. 

Then Moses recited the famous Ha’āzinû poem that constitutes this week’s portion. It makes Dante’s inferno, the first part of his Divine Comedy describing his trip through hell, feel like a spa. Beside the Ha’āzinû, John Milton’s Paradise Lost and his depiction of the human fall from grace is but a vacation cruise. For both those epic poems are, at their core, poems of nostalgic longing for Eden before the Fall, depictions of the life lost given what life will be like after we die if we do not repent our sins. With all the horrors described, the focus of these poems in contrast to that of Moses is on loss rather than the use of memory to shock and cajole, to disturb and disrupt. Then we are faced once again with a universal flood, but a flood that is the consequence of our own making. 

Ha’āzinû is a scolding screed calling on the Israelites in the midst of their wickedness to remember where they came from, to remember their history and how far they had fallen to the point where they “neglected the Rock that begot you, forgot the God who brought you forth.” (32:8) The point is not, however, to get back to where they had been, to an Arcadia, to the Israelites’ initial love affair with God in the wilderness with its frequent fights and angry separations, but to recall their responsibilities to the future, their duties under the covenant they once made with God. It is a depiction of a wasteland left as the after effects of climate change because we failed to listen, because we failed to heed and sacrificed our children’s futures to satisfy our current material needs. The poem is not an elegy, but a call to action, and all the more horrific for that.

God would then rain misfortune upon them with famine and deadly pestilence, wild beasts to attack them, venomous snakes to creep among them and wars to decimate them. One could anticipate an inversion of the Promised Land of milk and honey. Most of all, their enemies would gloat. Their God had deserted them. God would Himself pronounce that all this was His own vengeance for their betrayal. Their day of disaster would be near. 

However, it is He that deals death and gives life. It is He on Yom Kippur who chooses who will live and who will die. “I will make drunk My arrows with blood.” (32:41) Then God will wipe the earth of those who dared laugh and gloat over the suffering of His people. The waste, the death, the slaughter, the destruction of the earth will make the Great Flood look simply like a catastrophic interruption and not a horrific end. 

I hate horror movies. But there was a second and even more important reason for why I was so upset. The depiction of God turned me off, not this time because he was so wanton in the horrors He delivered upon mankind, but in His characterization.

ד  הַצּוּר תָּמִים פָּעֳלוֹ,  {ס}  כִּי כָל-דְּרָכָיו מִשְׁפָּט:  {ר}  אֵל אֱמוּנָה וְאֵין עָוֶל,  {ס}  צַדִּיק וְיָשָׁר הוּא.  {ר} 4 The Rock, His work is perfect; for all His ways are justice; a God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and right is He.
ה  שִׁחֵת לוֹ לֹא, בָּנָיו מוּמָם:  {ס}  דּוֹר עִקֵּשׁ, וּפְתַלְתֹּל.  {ר} 5 Is corruption His? No; His children’s is the blemish; a generation crooked and perverse.

God as the Rock of Ages has always turned me off. For the God I find in the first four books of the Torah is a God who changes, not a fixed being, a God who learns not a God of perfection, a God who is open to argument rather than an impenetrable fixture of the firmament. In this depiction of God as a Rock, humans, with all their failings, are viewed as a blemish, crooked and perverse, not so much because of what they do, but because of who they are. They are human-all-too-human. They are not God or even gods.

There is a third factor that repelled me. It was not just the horror show. It was not just the depiction of God and of humans by contrast. It was the poem itself. I thought it read like a string of clichés. My daughter advised me to read Isaiah again and to read an excellent 1988 essay by Harold Fisch, “Poetry with a Purpose: Biblical Poets and Interpretation.” It turned out to be a brilliant piece of academic writing on poetry as self-referential.

 At the core, I had failed to see these as the origins of the images echoed in what followed rather than as worn out images that had been repeatedly used as fading echoes of the original. For, as Northrop Frye wrote, poetry is an echo chamber, a process that at its core enables memory to work. Imitation and repetition are its modes and are its communication tools. As Rabbi Jay opined, poetry is not in itself self-explanatory. It can only be grasped in the context of the mode adopted for expression, the anti-pastoral in this case, and the reverberations with and on other poetry.

When Moses calls out, “Give ear” as heaven and earth are witnesses for all time, we in the present hear the echo, but not as a nostalgic call to the past, but as a call to take responsibility for the present and the future. Words are not dispensable and frivolous throwaways, but fraught with the weight of ages. Words bind and command. They are in all seriousness the ultimate deed. They grow like vines and establish networks, and, with wine, they transport us across time so that we can recall the terrible disasters that befell us as a people and the enormity of the utter ruin we now face.

In addition to my repulsion at a horror show, in addition to my dismissal of a version of God that I rejected, in addition to my failure to appreciate the power of these images in the original collective imaginary of the West, my daughter had observed that I had failed to put myself in the place of the author. In addition to Isaiah, read Samuel 15, she advised. Poetry as rebuke is like no other. See Moses as an avatar, she advised, a leader who sums up his life for himself as having lived as an alien among a people hostile to his and God’s message. He is espousing a post-exilic theology, a time when the first temple was seen as an exercise in idolatry for which the people had been punished both by the destruction of that temple and with their being cast into exile.

I read and corrected for the last two failures. But what of the horror? What of the depiction of God as a rock? I reread the poem once again. (My apologies in advance for any misinterpretations of either my daughter or of Fisch.) In the light of my daughter’s remarks – or at least what I took from them – and reading Fisch’s essay, I now understood the following:

א  הַאֲזִינוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם, וַאֲדַבֵּרָה;  {ס}  וְתִשְׁמַע הָאָרֶץ, אִמְרֵי-פִי.  {ר} 1 Give ear, ye heavens, and I will speak; and let the earth hear the words of my mouth.
ב  יַעֲרֹף כַּמָּטָר לִקְחִי,  {ס}  תִּזַּל כַּטַּל אִמְרָתִי,  {ר}  כִּשְׂעִירִם עֲלֵי-דֶשֶׁא,  {ס}  וְכִרְבִיבִים עֲלֵי-עֵשֶׂב.  {ר} 2 My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew; as the small rain upon the tender grass, and as the showers upon the herb.

Moses calls on all of nature, not just the Israelites gathered before him, to hear his words. As heaven and earth are my witness, like the rain, like the dew, hear the distilled words from my experience. Hear the lessons that I have learned from history. That is Moses’ message. The pastoral references are not cited to recall the beauty and harmony of nature with nostalgic longing, for, as in Genesis, God said, and there was. 

א  בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ. 1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

Or, as I would render it, in the beginning of God’s creation of heaven and earth, the word precedes the material world. Poetry in this idiom is not a call to return to the beauty and pleasantries of nature, but to remember the importance and priority of the word as poetry, which, in its conciseness and its intensity creates a new imaginary.

  •  No Return, No Refuge. Rites and Rights in Minority Repatriation.] The basic message of the covenant, as I wrote in last week’s blog on the Torah, is the sin of covering up and the obligation to uncover the cover-up, an act signified by the circumcision of Jewish males.
  • Consider the image of the stone, not as a characterization of God, but as a characterization of God by a people living in a barren place, in the wilderness, in the desert where there are only stunted dead trees and no branches and nor leaves to shade one from the beating sun, a desert of rock and stones with no water on the surface except the dew that falls in the morning. There are no roses and no lilacs. For a people in a rocky desert, God is the Rock of Ages, a solid and fixed reference for a cohort on route to the Promised Land, God is a cloudy mist that leads them or a fiery presence that protects them.
  • The horrors inflicted on the Israelites as a result of their wickedness would be to return them to exile, return them to the desert stones and their burning heat. Return is not a recovery of an Eden, for the Jewish paradise belongs to a future of aspiration rather than a recollection of an idyllic past.
  • Jewish history is not about eternal recurrence, of what goes ‘round must come ‘round, of simple exchanges in the positions of polar opposites with history depicted as a teeter-totter, but a journey which builds on past recollection to move forward. Only by recollecting that past, only by remembering, re-experiencing and re-enacting our history can we move on. The past must remain present if we are truly to move into the future and accept in full our responsibilities to society and to this planet. For our history is not a record of steady progress, nor a seesaw movement, but a record of cataclysmic interruptions and the destruction of the Promised Land that we took so much labour and time, so much sacrifice and suffering, to reach.
  • Moses, whatever his shortcomings, whatever his bitterness and disappointment at not being able to enter the Promised Land, whatever the impact of that experience on his prophecies for the future, he remained never one to engage in nostalgic memory, neither for the court comforts of his Egyptian youth nor the idyllic simplicity and passivity of his young adult life as a shepherd.
  • Poetry itself is timebound rather than timeless. In this context, the words do not transport us into another realm, but back to earth; God is the word that enables His people to survive and thrive as a nation.  

Give ear, O heavens, let me speak.

With the help of Alex Zisman


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