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Parashat Ha’azinu - Shabbat Shuvah
September 27, 2014 – 3 Tishrei 5775

Annual (Deuteronomy 32:1-52): Etz Hayim p. 1185; Hertz p. 896
Triennial (Deuteronomy 32:1-52): Etz Hayim p. 1185; Hertz p. 896
Haftarah (Hosea 14:2-10; Joel 2:15-27; Micah 7:18-20): Etz Hayim, p. 1235, 1236, 1239; Hertz p. 891, 893, 892

 Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

Moses calls on heaven and earth to bear witness to his poem. He recounts that God (who frequently is referred to as “the Rock”) always has treated Israel with consistent justice. God punishes the people as a result of their sins, but reduces the punishment. Moses promises that God will redeem the Israelites.

God calls Moses to ascend Mount Nebo, where he will soon die.


Theme #1: Lend Me Your Ears

Give ear, O 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, like showers on young growth, like droplets on the grass. (Deuteronomy 32:1-2)

Moses’s grand poem begins with a plea to heard.

[How shall we reconcile the subtle difference between Moses’ statement in Deuteronomy 32:1 and Isaiah’s words as recorded in Isaiah 1:1, “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth”?] What did these two prophets call to the heavens and the earth, that they should listen to their voice? According to Midrash Mehilta, the prophet needs to demand the honor of the parent and the honor of the child, which is to say, the honor of God and the honor of Israel. Elijah demanded the honor of the parent but not the honor of the child. And Jonah demanded the honor of the child but not the honor of the parent. And, on account of this, their prophetic teachings were cut short. Jeremiah demanded the honor of both parent and child and his prophecy was doubled. … When prophets demand the honor of the parent, they would appeal to the earth, which is to say, to those who dwell on the earth, and when they demand they honor of the child, they would appeal to the heavens, which is to say to “our parent, who is in heaven.” This may be the explanation why Moses, who was the closest any prophet ever got to heaven, demanded the honor of the child and Isaiah, who was very close to the earth, demanded that Israel honor God. -- Yalkut Yehudah

Everyone knows that there can be speaking words, which is hard, and talking, which is soft. Similarly we have occasional rain, which is a blessing for all vegetation. There are plants that thrive on rain and plants that would be injured by too much. And thus showers are good for the grass; these grasses require light rain. And corresponding to those who only need compassion while others need stern justice, this is the Scriptural lesson: “Give ear, O heavens, let me speak …” -- speaking here connotes “hard.” “Let the earth hear the words I utter …” connotes “soft.” -- Rabbi Solomon Zalman Ulman

“My doctrine shall drop as the rain”: Even as rain gives life to the world, so words of Torah give life to the world. But while some people in the world rejoice in rain, others are grieved by it. Thus he whose pit or vat is full of wine, or his threshing floor full of grain, is distressed by rain. Is the same true of words of Torah? [No indeed], for Scripture goes on to say, “My speech shall distill as the dew”. As all people in the world -- all -- rejoice in dew, so all people in the world, in all of it, rejoice in words of Torah. -- Sifrei Deuteronomy

Questions for Discussion:

Yalkut Yehudah’s comparison of several Israelite prophets centers on Moses’s and Isaiah’s willingness to consider both the heavens and earth in their testimony. This virtue can be compared to a someone who attempts to make peace between two opposing parties -- he/she cannot succeed unless he/she considers both sides and their respective arguments. What are the potential consequences of not doing so?

Rabbi Solomon Zalman Ulman says that the different references to speech in our portion’s opening lines are due to the importance of speaking differently to different audiences. How do we make similar adjustments today? Some pride themselves on being brutally honest or graciously gentle at all times; are there ever circumstances when those approaches must change?

As Sifrei Deuteronomy reminds us, there are times when we strive to please everyone (as dew pleases all people) and other times when we please some and displease others (such as when it rains). Is it really true that we can never please everyone?


Theme #2: 'Til Death Do They Part

That very day the Lord spoke to Moses: Ascend these heights of Abarim to Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab facing Jericho, and view the land of Canaan … You shall die on the mountain that you are about to ascend, and shall be gathered to your kin, as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his kin; for you broke faith with Me, among the Israelite people, at the waters of Meribath-kadesh in the wilderness of Zin, by failing to uphold My sanctity among the Israelite people. (Deuteronomy 32:48-51)

As Moses’s final moments beckon, he is reminded once more of what prevented him to enter the land of Canaan.

A different perspective is presented by Psalm 106:32: “They provoked wrath at the waters of Meribah and Moses suffered on their account.” In the opinion of this psalm, it was not Moses who sinned but the people, and he was punished on their account. The sin that is attributed to Moses, however, is just one part of the Pentateuch’s broader effort to show us that Moses was not perfect. He, too, was human -- flesh and blood -- at birth and also at death. -- Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitch, From God to Gods

The poet Heinrich Heine best summed up the supreme achievement of Moses in these words: “Unlike the Egyptians, he did not form his artistic works out of bricks and granite. He rather built human pyramids. He carved human obelisks. He took a poor tribe of herdsmen and made of it a people that was to defy the centuries, a great, eternal, holy people, God’s people, that could serve as a model for all other peoples, indeed for entire mankind. He created Israel.” -- Sol Liptzin, Bilbical Themes in World Literature

Rabbi Yohanan said: Scripture refers 10 times to the death of Moses … this teaches that ten times was it decreed that Moses should not enter the land of Israel, but the harsh decree was not finally sealed until the High Court revealed itself to him. -- Deuteronomy Rabbah 11:10

Questions for Discussion:

Shinan and Zakovitch seems to minimize the events at Meribah and claims that God disallowing Moses to enter the Promised Land is not so much a punishment as it is a natural consequence of being human. Does this suggest that Moses’s death in the wilderness had been God’s plan all along, and that it is a convenient excuse to blame it on his inability to control his own temper? If so, why mention Meribah at all?

Heinrich Heine says that of all the things Moses had built, the character of Israel is his chief contribution. How do we build character today? Must we go through tests and difficult ordeals? Must we make numerous mistakes, or must we know to avoid mistakes in the first place? Must we have years of life experience? Must we have exposure to outstanding teachers?

Rabbi Yohanan’s statement in Deuteronomy Rabbah claims that the decision to forbid Moses from the Promised Land is mentioned 10 times, but the final decision is not made until the very end of Moses’s life. This alludes to Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the days in between; we have 10 days to ask to be written in the Book of Life, and only at the end of Yom Kippur is that book sealed. Does this help explain why so many midrashim describe Moses as praying for fervently to enter Canaan? Perhaps he thinks that enough prayer will enable him to stay in the Book of Life a little longer?

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