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D’var Torah by Joe Nalven – Shabbat Shuvah, September 26, 2020

Shabbat Shuvah September 26, 2020 / Deuteronomy 32: Ha’azinu


Ha’azinu:  Leaders Speak:  Ancient Israel and Modern America



Moses and the Lord rebuke the Children of Israel in Moses’ song (poem[i]) to them. After completing his song, God tells Moses to go up Mt. Nebo to see the land of Israel – a land that he will not enter. Moses is to die on Mt. Nebo because he broke faith with God at the waters of Meribah-kadesh.


Incomplete Leadership Models: Remembering last year’s Shabbat Shuvah (Valeylech)

In Deuteronomy 31, Vayelech, we encountered two leadership models.[ii]  One model was illustrated in Moses advice to Joshua to go with the people, with the elders – a consensus model; a few verses later, God’s advice to Joshua is to bring the people, or as Rabbi Yohanan explains in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 8a), to hit the people over the head with a stick – an authoritarian model.

Dealing with an unruly mob can be frustrating, such as the incident of the Golden Calf where the people felt lost with Moses being away and demanded a more tangible god figure. Many scholars see this passage as the Children of Israel drifting back to an Egypt mindset by echoing the Egyptian Cow God with a Golden Calf.[iii]

The dvar Torah last year[iv] also involved a comparison with the United States model of dealing with people, especially when they became impassioned and became an unruly mob. The founders of the United States dispensed with both the Hebrew and the Christian Testament as support for law and drew instead on Enlightenment thinkers such as Baron de Montesquieu and John Locke. In ancient Israel, we saw the social control of the populace through Divine justice, through numerous mitzvot, though the assignment of rights and obligations through clans and tribes, and even the administration of justice with a distributive court system.[v] In modern America, by contrast, the United States approach to social control ultimately rests on a separation of powers to diffuse passions of a contentious community and to instill checks and balances on the different functions of governance – executive, legislative and judicial.

That was last year’s discussion of social organization and social control. That chapter of Deuteronomy now gives way to how one should listen. In the course of listening, we learn of how leaders speak their mind.


The Leaders Speak:  Moses of Ancient Israel and Modern American Presidents

In Ha’azinu,[vi] the Children of Israel are asked to give ear to Moses’ and God’s words. This is a tale of woe that the Children of Israel will experience should they fall away from God’s dictates. Following the comparison with the model of governance in the United States, we will also listen to the voices of various presidents and their warnings for keeping the country intact. The contrasts are striking. Let us walk through the verses of Ha’azinu[vii] and compare them with the sentiments of various U.S. Presidents.[viii] We will hear them speak about the problem of social control, about the nature of conflict and its consequences, its cure and how social control is achieved through compliance.


Social Control:  A Continuing Problem

The opening verses of Ha’azinu question whether the Children of Israel actually listened and followed the dictates of God:

17   They sacrificed to demons that were no gods, to gods they had never known,
to new gods that had come recently,

God’s reaction was so severe that he peeked into the future to see how they would fare:

20   And He said, ‘I will hide my face from them;
I will see what their end will be .  .  .

We see a similar interest about the future of the American people. For one U.S. president, knowing what the people do today will have consequences for future generations – economic, spiritual and political.

“As we peer into society’s future, we—you and I, and our government—must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without asking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come.”[ix]

God’s rhetoric is one of intense severity while that of an American president is serious concern. American presidents rarely display hellfire and brimstone[x] rhetoric towards the American public such as is found in Ha’azinu.


Conflict:  Disobedience versus Partisanship

The story of humanity, told from a Jewish perspective, and leading to the travails of this particular people, is marked with bickering and conflict. But the real dilemma is not among the people but with between them and God. This is more than a parent with disobedient children.

21   They have made me jealous with what is no god;
they have provoked me to anger with their idols.
So I will make them jealous with those who are no people;
I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation.

In this passage, jealousy and anger characterize God while idols and foolishness characterize the people of Israel.

By contrast, several millennia later, in the 18th century CE, the U.S. model of governance sought to avoid conflict that revolved around differences between Christian denominations. Sectarianism between different religious groups was avoided by replacing specific references to the Divine with the concept of Natural Law[xi]; laws were now written without reference to Biblical chapter and verse.

Nevertheless, social conflict remained. American conflict became framed as political partisanship:

“[L]et us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we [now allow] a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions.[xii]

We might ask how the differences in societal conflict framed as religious sectarianism compared to political partisanship results in a ‘better’ or a ‘less bad’ society?[xiii] This is an open question that turns on factors such as style, preference and values that include liberty, equality and order.

Let us turn now to how each form of governance – Ancient Israel and modern American – describes remedies for failures of social control, divine versus secular.


The Consequences of Conflict:  Annihilation versus Condemnation

Both the God of Ancient Israel and American presidents eschewed conflict ─ disobedience to God in the former versus political partisanship in the latter. We find the language of each complementing the divergent systems of governance – theocratic versus separation of powers.

The remedies are expressed in sharply distinctive words:

In Ha’azinu:

24   [The Israelites] shall be wasted with hunger, and devoured by plague
and poisonous pestilence;
I will send the teeth of beasts against them, with the venom of things that crawl in the dust.

An American president, by contrast, abjures the corrosive effect of partisanship but falls well short of sending wild beasts and plagues against the people he governs:

“[But] the way we’ve structured democracy requires you to take into account people who don’t agree with you .  .  .   We weaken those ties [to each other] when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character are turned off from public service; so coarse with rancor that Americans with whom we disagree are not just misguided, but somehow malevolent .  .  .  [that] some of us as more American than others.[xiv]

The rhetoric differs – fire and fury versus indignation. But what about the cures that each advance?


A Cure for Conflict?  Broadcasting Fear versus Broadcasting Hope

Both God, through Moses, and American presidents approach conflict with a broadcast process – getting the message out. But the tone of the messaging the community is distinct. Moses’ broadcast extends from generation to generation; his message is cloaked in fear. The U.S. president is likely to challenge the fear[xv] and to replace that fear with an aspiration of hope[xvi] – to guide Americans in the here and now.

The Moses broadcast:

45 And when Moses had finished speaking all these words to all Israel,

46 he said to them, “Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law.

“Warning,” “command” and “be careful to do.”

Moses’ words are frequently the stick; for American presidents it is usually the carrot. The American president’s rhetoric is aspirational, not a threat or warning.

An American president broadcast:

”So to all Americans, in every city near and far, small and large, from mountain to mountain, and from ocean to ocean, hear these words: You will never be ignored again. Your voice, your hopes, and your dreams, will define our American destiny. And your courage and goodness and love will forever guide us along the way.”[xvii]

Admittedly, this comparison of Moses/God rhetoric may be too extreme and too selective.[xviii] Note how the occasion at Mt. Sinai is forward looking (Vayikra) while those at Mt. Nebo (Ha’azinu) are delivered as a farewell speech. Presidential rhetoric may also differ during inaugural speeches compared to farewell speeches.[xix] Still, I would surmise, that the overall difference in tone remains.


Compliance:   Faith, Collaboration and Unity

One can posit that all forms of governance seek to maintain an established order through methods of compliance.[xx] We might use the same words of faith and collaboration to achieve social unity; however, the way the actual ingredients are mixed and prioritized present different ways to channel the path to a social order. So, it would be interesting, as well as a challenge, to comprehend how a theocracy parses these words to achieve social unity versus a secular government committed to a democratic process. The theocracy would likely emphasize religious commitment through faith – with collaboration to follow.[xxi] Democratic governments might emphasize collaboration amongst its members over faith in the system of government.[xxii] The end goal of each is unity.

Moses/God requires faith in his divinity, expressed as compliance with the expectations set out in the Torah.

47 For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.”

By contrast, American presidents avoid sectarian straightjackets, turning instead to collaborative efforts, guided by the dictates of a secular constitution. In effect, guided by the idea of America:

“In serving, we recognize a simple but powerful truth, we need each other. And we must care for one another. Today, we do more than celebrate America; we rededicate ourselves to the very idea of America.”[xxiii]

Differentiating the one from the other, a theocratic framework from a democratic one, is difficult because the words used (faith, collaboration, unity) are malleable, allowing proponents of each to claim the ‘will of the people.’ Still, there is a difference despite the propaganda used to advocate for each.[xxiv]


The Words of a Leader:  Torah versus the U.S. Constitution

There are no guarantees for conflict avoidance, regardless of the rhetoric – whether the words of command and threat or the words of collaboration. The goal of a fulfilling destiny may be perceived as an illusion, like the pronouncements of a wizard of Oz.

From the perspective of Ha’azinu, we wonder along with God: Can strict guidance and the words of terror cure a willful Jewish people?[xxv]

From an American perspective, we wonder along with our presidents:  Can adherence to a separation of power diffuse and overcome political partisanship?[xxvi]

Can we evolve as Jew or as American?

Or does social conflict remain the common feature for each? We are all human.

And from time to time, we are the mob.[xxvii]

And yet, to have a stable form of government – both ancient and modern, leadership is required, whether to aspire to cohesion or controlling the mob. The social pragmatics are different. And amidst these social pragmatics are the words that leaders employ. This is true for both biblical and presidential leaders. Their rhetoric[xxviii] may yet persuade their communities to unity.


[i] Rabbi David Kasher, The Parsha Nut, The poetry of Torah – Parsha Ha’azinu.

[ii] The two part discussion of leadership in Deuteronomy 31 and 32 began last year. See This year’s discussion completes the analysis by focusing on the rhetoric of leadership.

[iii] Dvar, Chukat, Joe Nalven, June 23, 2018,  The Golden Calf echoes the Egyptian (and pre-Egyptian cultic) deity Hathor.

[iv] Dvar, Vayelech, Joe Nalven, October 5, 2019,

[v] The administration of justice in a court system emphasizes interpersonal conflict while that found in the Golden Calf incident emphasizes a broader societal conflict.

[vi] While this commentary focuses on Ha’azinu and on Divine justice, there are many instances of God showing both compassion as well as justice. However, this parshat exemplifies justice rather than the more balanced overall values of both din (justice) and rachamim (compassion). See, for example, how the balance of both values operate in the context of a rabbinic sermon

[vii] Carmy, Shalom. “Cold Fury, Hidden Face, The Jealousy of Israel: Two Kinds of Religious Estrangement in The Torah.” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, vol. 43, no. 4, 2010, pp. 21–36.

[viii] The statements of U.S. presidents cited here are drawn from inaugural and farewell addresses. There is a substantial body of literature on presidential rhetoric. See, for example, James W. Ceaser, Glen E. Thurow, Jeffrey Tulis and Joseph M. Bessette, The Rise of the Rhetorical Presidency, Presidential Studies Quarterly, 2, 158–171, vol.11, 1981 ; Laracey, Mel., “‘The Rhetorical Presidency’ Today: How Does It Stand Up?” Presidential Studies Quarterly, vol. 39, no. 4, 2009, pp. 908–931. JSTOR,

[ix] Dwight Eisenhower, 34th President, Farewell Address, January 17, 1961.

[x] Some commentators would argue that President Trump’s inaugural speech was a hellfire and brimstone speech, but here the anger is not directed towards the American public but about undesirable aspects of society such as a failed education system, abandoned factories and crime (“American carnage”).  But others read this speech from a racial perspective; see, for example, Duchess Harris, Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Trump, eBook, 2019. However, the scope of anger in Ha’azinu is broader and indiscriminate.

[xi] The Natural Law Tradition in Ethics, Mark Murphy,  Key elements of Natural Law theory is that 1) God is the giver of the natural law and is only one aspect of divine providence, and 2) from a human perspective, the “natural law constitutes the principles of practical rationality, those principles by which human action is to be judged as reasonable or unreasonable .  .  .  .”

[xii] Thomas Jefferson, 2nd President, 1st Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801.

[xiii] ‘Social conflict’ is always a characteristic of human society just as ‘social cooperation.’ However, the emphasis from a management perspective is generally approached from ‘how do we deal with conflict.’ Today, we can add a racial lens to viewing ‘social conflict’? We might ask whether that make a difference to addressing social conflict beyond defining how competing groups identify. What matters is how the ‘good society’ manages conflict and whether that ‘goodness’ is administered through a democratic form (that might suffer from mobocracy) or whether it is administered through an authoritarian form (that might suffer from tyranny)?  All of these questions are still open to debate – even today. See, for example, Joel Gehrke, China and Russia use George Floyd unrest to make case against democracy, Washington Examiner, June 03, 2020,  The articles highlights the rhetoric over the ‘better’ system of governance in an interdependent world marked by national distinctions:  “Part of the narrative of the Chinese is implicitly, our authoritarian system has certain advantages in dealing with unrest,” said Evan Ellis, an expert in Chinese influence in Latin America at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. “The COVID crisis and the response has opened up a whole new competition of ideas of whose system is better suited to protect people’s interests in this dangerous and interdependent world.” The unrest is the rare issue over which Russian and Chinese officials can posture as fellow travelers with Western officials. Chinese officials, facing years of condemnation from the U.S. over Beijing’s enslavement of Uighur Muslims in political re-education camps, have sought to claim moral high ground during the Floyd controversy.”

[xiv] Barack Obama, 44th President, Farewell Address, January 10, 2017.

[xv] Franklin D. Roosevelt memorialized ‘nothing to fear’ phrase in his First Inaugural Address, 1933.

[xvi] Other presidential messages of hope include:  Dwight D. Eisenhower, “By these rules of conduct, we hope to be known to all peoples. By their observance, an earth of peace may become not a vision but a fact. This hope–this supreme aspiration–must rule the way we live.” First Inaugural Address, January 20, 1953; John F. Kennedy, “We steer our ship with hope, as Thomas Jefferson said, ‘leaving Fear astern.” State of the Union, 1963; Ronald Reagan, [T]his shining star of faith that has guided millions from tyranny to the safe harbor of freedom, progress, and hope.” State of the Union Address, January 25th, 1984.

millions from tyranny to the safe harbor of freedom, progress, and hope

[xvii] Donald Trump, 45th President, Inaugural Address, January 20, 2017.

[xviii] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Pursuit of Joy, Ki Tavo, (comparing Vayikra),  For example, Moses also speaks curses at Mt. Sinai (Vayikra), but according to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “[These] end on a note of hope.”

[xix] President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave a remarkable farewell address, noting the danger of the military-industrial complex. However, this was cast as a warning, not a threat to the American public:  “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic process.” January 17, 1961. This is an area worthy of additional research on the rhetoric of leaders, ancient and modern.

[xx] There are competing models to explain why and how society remain intact, and conversely why society may fall apart. The cohesion model, particularly for complex society, assumes interdependence and the functional relationship of a society’s component parts much like how the organs of the body work together. The conflict model looks at hierarchy, hegemony, and the dominant and subordinate components of a society; each potentially or actually in competition with each other based on race, class, gender and the like. Compliance (and likely perceived by many as ‘cohesion,’ and arguably the illusion of cohesion) is achieved by inculcating acceptance of the social order through language, education, values and preferences. For a quick summary of order/cohesion versus conflict models, see

[xxi] An example of faith preceding collaboration: “In order to be collaborative, you must have the right perception.  The greatest example of a correct perception is that of Jesus and team Godhead.  Paul teaches that he was willing to complete and not compete.  (Phil. 2:1-4)”

[xxii] From a 21st century perspective, trust in government appears tenuous. Eric Levitz, Across the World, Voters Are Losing Faith in Government,” Intelligencer,  February 28, 2020.

[xxiii] William Clinton, 42nd President, 1st Inaugural Address, January 20, 1993.

[xxiv] We can see how perverse the malleability of words become. Joseph Goebbels, a master of Nazi propaganda —  and Reich Minister of Propaganda — explained how Nazi government was democratic:  “We Germans are living in a true democracy however autocratic the methods of its leadership may sometimes be. The most important characteristic of our democracy is the great trust uniting government and people.” Das Reich, (broadcast April 17, 1942. Cited in, Herma, Hans, “Goebbels’ Conception of Propaganda,” Social Research, vol. 10, no. 2, 1943, pp. 200–218. JSTOR,

[xxv] The answer is probably not. Cf. Deuteronomy 9:13: The Lord further said to me, “I see that this is a stiff-necked people.”

[xxvi] For an extreme view of whether the U.S. model can overcome partisanship, see: David Faris, The separation of powers is a lie,, May 31, 2019

[xxvii] Although set in India, this poem describes the mob mindset. HT Correspondent, Hindustan Times, “We are the mob and the mob is us: Apurva Asrani’s poem on lynchings is sharp and moving,” Jul 28, 2017.

We are the mob and the mob is us.
Left-wing, right-wing or in the centre, what difference does it make?
Aren’t we all just looking for a fight, since we’re always right & the other fake?
Not thoughts or feelings, but trending hashtags tell us where to draw daggers, and how deep.
And before we hit the jugular, we are wowed by another trend, another bend, and we unflinchingly take the leap.

[xxviii] “Rhetoric is the art of ruling the minds of men.” Plato, Phaedrus; “The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable, but the mouth of fools spouts folly.”  Proverbs 15:2.

Nb: I would like to thank Rabbi Jonathan Stein for his close reading and suggestions. All errors that remain are those of the author.



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