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Torah Commentary
Haazinu (October 15, 2016)


Robyn Weinstein Cimbol, Senior Director of Development and Philanthropy

Haazinu is the final recapitulation of the covenantal relationship between Israel and God. It contains the Farewell Song of Moses, which “bookends” the career of Moses that began at the Red Sea with the lyrical Song of the Sea/Shirat HaYam (Exodus 15). Unlike Song of the Sea, which is celebratory in nature and triumphant in spirit, the Farewell Song is rather violent and disappointing. It is in fact an indictment of the Israelites’ failure to uphold their side of the covenant. Sadly, it gives a rather bleak projection for the future.

At last, we approach the end of our historic narrative, and our journey is nearly complete. Moses has taken the Children of Israel from the shores of the Red Sea to the threshold of their Promised Land. Together, they have journeyed physically and spiritually, across the plain of history. Literally from birth through death, we have come to know Moses far more intimately than any other biblical figure.

We were present at his birth and rescue by Pharaoh’s daughter, his privileged life as a Prince of Egypt, his act of rebellion and subsequent incarceration, his role as interpreter of dreams, and ultimately his role as liberator/lawgiver. We’ve watched Moses, the Israelites and God interact, influence one another and evolve. Indeed, we’ve grown quite attached to him, and we want him to triumph. But we are disappointed. This parashah ends with Moses ascending Mount Nebo to view the Promised Land, aware that his entry is forbidden.

I used to feel sorry for Moses, believing he was dealt a “bum rap.” Having mediated between the ungrateful, unruly Children of Israel and a God whose demands were not always comprehensible, his own life ends without “reaching the Promised Land.” Or does it?

While the theme of repentance and possibility to avert a severe decree dominates the High Holy Days, Haazinu is far more pessimistic about the nature of humanity. As the verses above indicate, the future is filled with peril. We are bound to trip as we swing precariously between poles of adherence to and rejection of the covenant.

Like a parent desperately giving one last piece of advice to a wayward child, Moses endeavors to reconcile the perfection of God with heavily flawed humanity. We are given a remarkable glimpse into God, and we see an angry, vindictive, bloodthirsty God. Where is the God who is open to our penitential prayers during the Ten Days of Atonement? How do we reconcile this inconsistency?

Here we are told, in tense and graphic language, that the God-Israel relationship will not survive without Divine intervention. God is experiencing a “meltdown” or perhaps having a temper tantrum. We are forewarned that the fate of Israel is sealed as a result of failure to adhere to the covenant. Prosperity will corrupt and erase the memory of God’s role in this accomplishment. It is only God’s fear of “what will the neighbors think” that prevents the obliteration of the Israelites in the future.

Moses is obsessed with reminding the Israelites, one last time and with his final breath, of the importance of adherence to the commandments: “Take to heart all the words with which I have warned you this day. Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully at the terms of this Teaching. For this is not a trifling thing for you: it is your very life.”

A God of forgiveness has not yet emerged. This is evident by the ultimate punishment inflicted on Moses. Indeed, we are only to be saved in order to testify to God’s greatness. (This theme is indeed reinforced in the Avinu Malkeinu, when we ask God to forgive us for God’s sake if not for our own.) And, that is perhaps the ultimate expression of God’s perfection.

If we are given this warning, then we eventually must be given the chance to repent and change the course of history. Time sweeps us forward, and we confront new challenges. But, we carry with us the lessons of the past and the memory of the consequences of actions.

As we take leave from Moshe Rabbaynu and encounter the prophets, we are reminded that we are given a measure of control over our destiny. May we use our freedom to choose the right path, and may you be inscribed for a year of good health and abundant blessings.

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