I’m exhausted. I’m exhausted by obsessing about the economic crisis and how it will affect me and those I care about. I’m exhausted by months of worrying about who will be elected President. I’m exhausted by Selichot and Elul and Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur and self-examination and apologizing and forgiving.
But after a month of prayer, reflection, music, stories, sermons and meditation, I’m also relieved. I’m relieved because I might have a line on some freelance work. I’m relieved because I think Barack Obama is going to win. And I’m relieved because I have come out the other end of the holidays filled with peace, a small amount of self-acceptance and a whole lot of love for my community.
So I sit down to work on this dvar torah. I’m feeling good. And Then, I read the parsha, Ha’azinu. Oh My (as Joe Biden would say, literally) God.
The parsha, ha’azinu, “meaning “give ear”, listen, is an archaic and strangely beautiful poem, known as Shira Ha’azinu, the Song of Moses, and it’s ostensibly one of the last things Moses says to the Hebrews before he dies. In it Moses tells the tale of a wonderful generous awesome God who saved the Hebrews from the Egyptians and then gave them everything they could possibly want and then is horrified and really pissed off when they ungratefully screw things up. They become an idol-worshipping, treacherous nation of fools.
Much of the poem is taken up with the various ways God intends to punish these ingrates, with wasting famine, ravaging plague, deadly pestilence, fanged beasts, venomous snakes and much more. And the only thing that stops God from wiping these irksome people off the face of the earth is the fear of what it would do to God’s reputation if the other nations of the world see what a failure God’s chosen people have been. God decides it would be more embarrassing to kill us than to let us live. So God brings the Children of Israel low but promises to watch over them and eventually save them from their enemies, transformed though they may be by their suffering.
Happy New Year!
So what is one to make of this? For me, there are two possible explanations. One, this is Moses speaking to the Hebrews who are about to cross over to Israel. He’s dying, he knows it, this is his last chance to speak and he’s telling them everything he thinks they need to know before they leave him. He reiterates all the rules and regulations, and in the next parsha he blesses them before they go, but here he gives in to his anger and sadness and disappointment that he will not be going with them. After everything he has done for them, they are not thinking of him, they are only thinking of the future. Without him, they are sure to make many. many mistakes. And he so wants to be with them when they do. It’s sad.
Then God reminds Moses that he is dying before he can go to Israel because of his own mistake in the desert. So perhaps Moses was only yelling at himself.
Another explanation of this poem is perhaps to be found in its placement in our calendar, occurring right after Yom Kippur. This year you get all of two whole days before your inner peace is shattered. This parsha is a direct challenge to any complacent serenity you may have managed to achieve. Have you repented of your sins? Is your slate clean? Is God smiling down on you? Well, don’t go counting any of those chickens, because you are bound to make many mistakes, sooner rather than later. Sin and repentence, happiness and grief, prosperity and recession, triumph and defeat, it never stands still.
In her sermons this year, Rabbi Lippmann’s overarching theme was, in many ways, change. Some things we change on purpose, some things change on us, but everything changes: Our economy, our political situation, our mortality. We can’t stop it, but our connection to our community and to the oneness that that we might call God, this may somehow save us, transformed though we may be by our suffering.
(Deut. 32:45-47) “And when Moses finished reciting all these words to all Israel, he said to them: Set your hearts upon all these words with which I bear witness against you today, that you charge your children with them to do all the words of this teaching. For it is not an empty thing for you, but it is your life”