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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT HA’AZINU
October 11, 2008 – 12 Tishrei 5769

Annual: Deuteronomy 32:1 – 32:52 (Etz Hayim, p. 1185; Hertz p. 896)
Triennial: Deuteronomy 32:1 – 32:52 (Etz Hayim, p. 1185; Hertz p. 896)
Haftarah: II Samuel 22:1 – 51 (Etz Hayim, p. 1197; Hertz p. 904)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Moses recites the poem God had instructed him to write down and teach to the people. It begins with words of moral teaching contrasting the virtue of God to the wickedness of Israel. It then tells of God’s goodness to Israel, Israel’s prosperity and rebellion, and God’s punishment for Israel’s breaking the covenant. Finally, the poem recounts God’s mercy, promising that God will save His people from their enemies.

Moses reads the poem to the people and warns them to take it to heart.

God tells Moses to ascend Mount Nebo. He will be allowed to see the Promised Land from there before he dies.

1. Those Were the Days

They sacrificed to demons, no-gods, gods they had never known, new ones, who came but lately, who stirred not your fathers’ fears. (Devarim 32:17)

  1. The younger generation is always a little weaker in religious conviction than the older. But in the past these differences were well within normal limits. There were differences between young and old such as could be expected and readily understood. But the gulf existing between the generations today is wide beyond belief. Indeed, the younger generation bears no resemblance at all to its parents. It is almost like a new people, with new ideals – and new idols – that were altogether unknown to the generation which went before. New ones, who came but lately – a new generation has arisen who stirred not your fathers’ fears, of which your fathers could not even have conceived. (Attributed to the Hatam Sofer [Rabbi Moses Schreiber, 1762-1839, Pressburg, Hungary])
  2. “Ask your father, he will inform you, your elders, they will tell you” (Devarim 32:7). In earlier generations, it was possible to say that all were learned in the Torah. In our times, though, the people are unlearned and ignoramuses. If a child asks his father anything about Judaism (“ask your father”), the father will answer: Go to “your elders, they will tell you” – go and ask your grandfather, because I don’t know the answer. (Y. Yefet, quoting the Magid of Kelm [Rabbi Moses Isaac of Kelm, 1828-1900, Poland])
  3. Rabbi Zera said in the name of Rava bar Zimona: “If the former were as angels, we are as mortals; and if the former were as mortals, then we are as asses – and not as the asses of Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa or Rabbi Pinhas ben Yair [animals that appeared to understand the requirements of halakhah], but as common asses. (Talmud Shabbat 112b)
  4. Rabbi Yohanan said in the name of Rabbi Yehudah bar Elai: “Come and see how the latter generations are unlike the former ones. In former generations people made Torah their vocation and their trades their avocations, and they succeeded in both; in latter generations, when people made their trades their vocations and Torah their avocation they did not succeed in either... (Talmud Berakhot 35b)
  5. Shalom bayis [peace in the home] in a family whose members are at different levels of observance is possible, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. In my own journey, hundreds of questions and concerns have arisen along the way, on both sides. My family and I have hurt one another’s feelings, made one another angry, and questioned one another’s values, commitments, and priorities. But at least we are still very much a family, all of us doing our parts to maintain family harmony. There are plenty of days when I wish they would “see the light” and come along on my journey with me. On just as many days, they wish that I would calm down and return to their level of observance so that I could eat in their home without all the advance planning, join them in their synagogue, and stop doing weird things like wearing a wig all the time. (Azriela Jaffe, “What Do You Mean, You Can’t Eat in My Home? A Guide to How Newly Observant Jews and Their Less-Obsesrvant Relatives Can Still Get Along,” p. xviii)

Sparks for Discussion

The Hatam Sofer was famous for his vehement opposition to the early Reform movement in Germany and to any innovation in Judaism. His claim that each generation is less religious than its predecessor is an old one. Why do you think the rabbis of the Talmud regarded earlier generations as more learned and observant than later ones?

In the mid-1900s, it was generally accepted that each generation of Jews in America would be less observant than their parents. It was believed that Orthodoxy would soon disappear and the process of assimilation would continue unabated. That is not what happened. In fact, today it is not unusual for Jews to be more observant and traditional than their parents. Are you more or less observant than your parents? Than your children? Why? Has your family experienced conflicts due to different levels of observance? How have you resolved (or tried to resolve) them?

2. It's All Torah

For this is not a trifling [elsewhere: empty, vain] thing for you: It is your very life... (Devarim 32:47)

  1. For it is no vain thing – and if it is vain, it is your fault [mikem – from you]. Why? Because you do not labor in the Torah. (Jerusalem [Yerushalmi] Talmud Peah 1:1)
  2. Why was the Torah compared to a fig? Because all fruits have waste: dates have pits, grapes have seeds, pomegranates have peels, but the entire fig is fit to be eaten. Similarly, there is no waste in the words of Torah, as it is said: “It is not an empty matter for you.” (Yalkut Shimoni, Joshua 2)
  3. The lesson contained in these concluding verses of the Torah is the importance of each detail. There is nothing superfluous in the Torah and no sliding scale of values between its different portions. The seemingly most insignificant and prosaic detail hidden in the folds of a story is of equal importance to its philosophy and fundamental laws. All goes under the name of “Torah.” If we can find no significance in a particular detail, if it is “a vain thing,” then the fault is ours, and due to our lack of understanding, our failure to labor to discover the meaning. (Nehama Leibowitz, “Studies in Devarim,” p. 354)
  4. Ben Bag-Bag taught: Study it and review it: You will find everything in it. Scrutinize it, grow old and gray in it, do not depart from it. There is no better portion in life than this. (Pirkei Avot 5:24)

Sparks for Discussion

The rabbis insist that if you find something in the Torah that seems irrelevant, worthless, trivial, or obsolete, that is only because you do not yet understand it properly. Why do they say this? Do you agree? Are there limits to interpretation? What do you imagine might happen if we were to skip over the “boring” parts in our Torah reading and study?

Might the same approach be applied to Jewish practice? If there is a mitzvah you find irrelevant, worthless, trivial, or obsolete, might that be because you have not yet approached it properly? Are you willing to give God the benefit of the doubt?


 
 
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