Ha’azinu, Deut. 32:1 – 32:52
Rabbi Gary Pokras
Ha’azinu is a fitting Torah portion for Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. It is Moses’ final speech to Israel before his death, and his parting words should give us pause. One the one hand, Moses describes God over and again as our Rock. This is one of the most reassuring names for the Divine. It evokes images of unflagging support and dependability. No matter what, we can always rely upon God. Indeed, some early verses of the chapter highlight God’s faithfulness and generosity:
[God] found them in a desert region,
In an empty howling waste.
[God] engirded them, watched over them,
Guarded them as the pupil of God’s eye.
Like an eagle who rouses its nestlings,
Gliding down to its young,
So did [God] spread wings and take them,
Bear them along on pinions;
יהוה alone did guide them,
No alien god alongside.
[God] set them atop the highlands,
To feast on the yield of the earth;
Nursing them with honey from the crag,
And oil from the flinty rock,
Curd of kine and milk of flocks;
With the best of lambs,
And rams of Bashan, and he-goats;
With the very finest wheat—
And foaming grape-blood was your drink. (Deut. 32:10-14)
Yet, while God is unshakably dependable and faithful, Moses reminds us that we are not. The text continues with a harsh recounting of what we lose when we abandon God, for God’s steadfastness is conditional, not absolute:
So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked—
You grew fat and gross and coarse —
They forsook the God who made them
And spurned the Rock of their support.
They incensed [God] with alien things,
Vexed [God] with abominations.
They sacrificed to demons, no-gods,
Gods they had never known,
New ones, who came but lately,
Who stirred not your forebears’ fears.
You neglected the Rock who begot you,
Forgot the God who labored to bring you forth.
יהוה saw and was vexed
And spurned these sons and daughters.
[God] said: I will hide My countenance from them,
And see how they fare in the end.
For they are a treacherous breed,
Children with no loyalty in them.
They incensed Me with no-gods,
Vexed Me with their futilities;
I’ll incense them with a no-folk,
Vex them with a nation of fools.
For a fire has flared in My wrath
And burned to the bottom of Sheol,
Has consumed the earth and its increase,
Eaten down to the base of the hills.
I will sweep misfortunes on them,
Use up My arrows on them: (Deut. 32:15-23)
While many of us are uncomfortable with the portrayal of a wrathful God, the language here is purposefully unsettling. Moses wants to ensure we get the message, for we will no longer be able to rely on his leadership or counsel. Instead, we must turn to Torah for guidance, and stay true to the values and teachings of our tradition – which is to say, to God.
During these intermediate Days of Awe, this message is a wake-up call, one among many. Over the past year we have strayed from the path, but we can always return. God faithfully awaits us, and every year gives us a second chance to reset our courses. That is the purpose of these days, through prayer to teshuvah, to help us to return … to each other, and to our Rock. May our prayers be answered and our teshuvah true, so that this year will be more meaningful and life-affirming for us all.