Ha’azinu [Listen] Deuteronomy 32
DVAR / Shabbat Shuvah / September 21, 2017
by Joe Nalven
For the last several years I’ve given a dvar on Shabbat Shuva. Each year I take a different direction.
Last year, I considered the various ways that we can read Deuteronomy 31, verse 3. It is about destroying one’s enemies, a recurrent theme picked up in earlier verses of Deuteronomy as well as in the Book of Joshua.
This year, we are asked to listen, to really listen. The major portion of this parsha is Moses’ Song – one that he sings alone, his last song before he dies later that day. It has also been called his last lecture.[i]
“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.”
The song sings of the rain coming softly and slowly to nourish the people of Israel; and, notes Rashi,[ii] if the rain comes too fast, it will destroy the people.
This year, we also hear what Adonai says to Moses after he finishes his song – that Moses will ascend Mount Nebo and see the Promised Land, but he will not enter it.
I offer a surprise midrash between Moses’ Song and his final ascent to Mount Nebo. But first, Moses’ song.
Moses’ song must be written by a Torah scribe in two columns; if not, the Torah scroll is invalid.[iii]
His words are an ominous sermon to Jeshurun, to Israel. When God, The Rock, cared for his people with milk, rams, lamb, honey, oil, he-goats, and fine wheat, they became fat and gross and coarse. They sacrificed to demons and tormented Him with alien gods and abominations.
And Moses sang these words on behalf of God reflecting on his people, Israel:
“For they are a treacherous breed, Children with no loyalty in them . . . For a fire has flared in My wrath . . . I will sweep misfortunes on them, Use up My arrows on them: Wasting famine, ravaging plague, Deadly pestilence, and fanged beasts Will I let loose against them, With venomous creepers in dust . . . To youth and maiden alike, The suckling as well as the aged.”
The only reason God did not finish off this wicked Israel was that their enemies might not realize that God had destroyed his own people and thought they themselves had overcome the Israelites.
Ultimately Moses’ sings of God relenting, emphasizing who He is:
“See, then, that I, I am He; There is no god beside Me. I deal death and give life; I wound and I will heal: None can deliver from My hand. Lo, I raise My hand to heaven And say: As I live forever, When I whet My flashing blade And My hand lays hold on judgment, Vengeance will I wreak on My foes, Will I deal to those who reject Me. I will make My arrows drunk with blood — My sword devours flesh —“
Moses is joined by Joshua. At the end of his poem, Moses admonished the people of Israel:
“Take to heart all the words with which I have warned you this day. Enjoin them upon your children that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching.”
Moses enters Canaan, the Promised Land: A Midrash[iv] [v]
How unfair it is that Moses will be told to ascend Mount Nebo and witness Canaan, the Promised Land, but not to enter it! And then, the parsha concludes with Moses death. Is this disappointing or, to the contrary, fulfilling?
After leading the people of Israel out of Egypt, and dealing with all sorts of complaints and challenges, Moses is denied permission to enter Canaan. Many readers of Torah cry out: This is unfairness of the most unfair.[vi]
And for what? Providing water to the people of Israel as he had done several decades earlier?[vii] The rebels within the community complained about the lack of water. Moses struck the rock at Meribath-kadesh in the wilderness of Zin so that water might spew forth. But God had asked Moses to speak to the rock; instead, Moses struck the rock twice. Perhaps he was distraught over his sister Miriam’s death or annoyed with the people complaining over their thirst . . . whatever the explanation, God decided to punish Moses for failing to follow his command to speak to the rock, not to hit it. The average person might be forgiven, but a leader is held to a highest standard.[viii]
And so, Moses does not get to enter the Promised Land.
Is that the end of the story? Or not?
I decided to write a midrash: Moses enters the Promised Land. The question is whether the fairness to Moses, given his many travails as the leader of the Israelite people, outweighs the judgment of God. Fairness versus divine justice.
A Moses Midrash: Descent into Canaan
Moses descends from the mountain range Abarim into Canaan. Moses walks with vigor and anticipation.
When he reaches the bottom of Abarim, a whirlwind carries Moses into the place where time is no-thing.
There is now, there is then. There is the place where time stands without movement and everything is seen from the beginning to the end.
The whirlwind offers no reason. Moses is forced to look upon the future of the Jews.
Of the Israelite temples: Moses sees the destruction of the First Temple in the 5th century BCE and the Second Temple in the 1st century CE.
Of the Jewish people: Moses sees the wanderings of the Jewish people, the pogroms, the Holocaust. Moses sees the Sicarii during the Roman occupation of Jerusalem in the 1st century CE, killing other Jews.
Moses sees the excommunication of Baruch Spinoza in the 17th century CE from the Jewish community of Amsterdam for being a free-thinker beyond accepted religious dogma.
Moses sees the killing of Yitzhak Rabin in the 20th century CE by another Jew out of fear of implementing a peace accord.
Moses sees Jews in the 21st century CE asking another Jew to sit shiva for her living father, directly blaspheming the fifth commandment to honor father and mother.
Whether small or large, Moses feels wave upon wave of anguish, more powerful than the walls of water of the parted Reed Sea, more powerful than all the armies of the Pharaoh.
The whirlwind disappears with Moses still standing at the foothills of the Abarim mountain range.
Moses turns to Mount Nebo. Moses atones to God for disobeying divine justice. And Moses greets God’s punishment as relief — yes, relief from the oppressive weight of leading Jews into the Promised Land.
Haazinu: Ascending Mount Nebo
We read the last verses of today’s parsha, Haazinu — understanding why Moses not being allowed into Canaan was never about fairness. Ascending Mount Nebo is only about justice and the opportunity of turning to God.
“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, which I am giving the Israelites as their holding. 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 both 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. You may view the land from a distance, but you shall not enter it — the land that I am giving to the Israelite people.”
As we enter the moment of Yom Kippur
As we turn ourselves to Yom Kippur, we reflect and atone for our transgressions, hoping that we have yet another year in our own promised land. Perhaps if we were swept up into the whirlwind and saw what that promise land held, we might reflect that it is not the amount of time we have before us, but how we live it and what we make of it. Our Yom Kippur is about justice and turning to God. Our Yom Kippur is not about fairness.
“And here, shipmates, is true and faithful repentance; not clamorous for pardon, but grateful for punishment.” Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
This dvar is dedicated to Sydney Wexler, an inspiration to those who study Torah at Congregation Beth Israel, San Diego. His comment upon hearing about the midrash above was succinct: “It’s a radical idea, but why not?”
[i] D’var Torah by Heidi M. Cohen, http://reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/haazinu/
[ii] Haazinu. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haazinu#cite_note-71
[iii] Haazinu. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haazinu#cite_note-42
[iv] An example of Moses in midrash online: The Birth of Moses: Between Bible and Midrash, http://thetorah.com/birth-moses-bible-and-midrash/ ; See, also, Scholar and Advocate: The Stories of Moses in Midrash Exodus Rabbah by Michael Graves, https://www.ibr-bbr.org/files/bbr/bbr21a01.pdf . A review of the entries for Moses in The Book of Legends, Sefer Ha-Aggadah found no entries for Moses actually entering Canaan, Promised Land, but rather an extended treatment of Moses seeking the intercession of others with the Holy One either to enter Canaan or to spare his life. Editors, Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitsky (Schocken, New York 1992, originally published in Odessa, 1908-1911). But cf. Christian perspective, Matthew 17:3, “And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them [Peter, James, John and Jesus], talking with Jesus.” (AMP) https://www.biblegateway.com/verse/en/Matthew%2017%3A3 . According to the Gospel of Matthew, Moses, together with Elijah, at Jesus’ Transfiguration on either Mount Tabor or Mount Hermon – which would indicate that Moses does enter the Promised Land, signaling the transition from The Law (Moses) and Prophets (Elijah) to the New Testament (Jesus). https://bible.org/seriespage/25-transfiguration-matthew-171-13 I would like to thank John Tupta for providing a reference to Moses in Matthew 17:3.
[v] Rabbi Alyson Solomon notes that Moshe Rabbeinu meets with Akiva in a midrash in the Babylonian Talmud Tractate Menachot 29b. This midrash points to a different way of interpreting Torah, less literal, and one that Moses finds difficult to comprehend. This meeting relies on a projection of Moses through time, as a transpersonal flight into the future, rather than as a personal Moses going down into Canaan during his actual lifetime. See, https://hartman.org.il/SHINews_View.asp?Article_Id=134 , http://ancienthebrewpoetry.typepad.com/ancient_hebrew_poetry/2011/09/moshe-and-akiva-in-tb-menachot-29b.html .
[vi] CHUKAT-BALAK: Moses and the Rock, http://www.chabad.org/blogs/blog_cdo/aid/937116/jewish/CHUKAT-BALAK-Moses-and-the-Rock.htm
[vii] Naftali Silberberg, Why Did Moses Hit the Rock? http://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/537634/jewish/why-did-moses-hit-the-rock.htm
[viii] Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen, Highest Standards, http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/highest-standards/
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the D’var Torah articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Beth Israel.
jill saysTuesday, September 26, 2017 at 1:37 pm
Dear Joe–I didn’t know you were so conversant with the scriptures. Can you sum it up for me in a few words?
Thanks, and Shana Tova, Jill