Ha’azinu and Shabbat Shuva 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ha’azniu and Shabbat Shuva

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Ha’azinu/ Shabbat Shuva (Deuteronomy 32:1-52)

OVERVIEW

Parashat Ha’azinu is Moshe’s last speech to the Israelites- it is a powerful poem recalling the sacred history since the Exodus from Egypt, and warning the Israelites in the strongest terms not to stray from the path that God has commanded. At the end of the parasha, God tells Moshe that he will be able to see the Land of Israel, but will not be able to enter it.

The Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuva– literally the “Sabbath of Returning”- because of the special haftarot (readings from the prophets) which emphasize the theme of tshuvah, or repentance, characteristic of the High Holidays.

IN FOCUS

“Remember the days of old, understand the years of the generations. . .” (Deuteronomy 32:7)

PSHAT

At the beginning of his long, poetic, theological discourse, Moshe asks the current generation to consider the past, when the previous generations had done things that brought about God’s anger. Presumably Moshe is referring to the people’s complaining in the desert, the building of the Golden Calf, and other acts of apparent rebellion. As we make our choices in life, it’s important to consider and be open to learning the lessons of history.

DRASH

Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein, a Chassidic rabbi who lived in Poland in the late 19th century, makes a wonderful drash out of a wordplay on the word “years” in our verse above. “Years,” in Hebrew, is shanot; picking up on a comment by the medieval scholar Ibn Ezra, R. Bornstein relates this to the root of the word for changes, which in Hebrew is shinui. So he reads the verse like this: “understand the changes throughout the generations.”

For R. Bornstein, the highest point of the Jewish people was the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and we’ve been in slow spiritual decline every year since. So “considering the changes” in the generations, in his perspective, is a humbling experience- we might think that the latest, most technologically advanced age is the best, but perhaps the spiritual accomplishments of the previous generation were even greater than our own. We should humbly reflect on both the faults and achievements of those who came before us, and ask ourselves if we’ve really worked on improving the faults and living up to the achievements.

That’s not a bad idea to mull over at this introspective time of year, but we might take his midrash in a different direction too. Perhaps “considering the changes of the generations” means that we can reflect on the potential for change in every generation. I understand one essential element of Judaism as the teaching that people are never “stuck” in a spiritually dismal place- there is always the possibility of change, growth, forgiveness, reconciliation, and return to our best selves. All these would be elements of tshuvah, or “repentance,” but more literally understood as “returning” to that which makes us most fully human.

Thus on this “Shabbat of Returning,” we might understand Moshe’s poem as not only urging us to consider the mistakes of the past, and learn accordingly (which is hard enough), but also to consider that the past is not necessarily a prologue to the future. We are not doomed to repeat the errors of the past, either as individuals, communities, or nations- to me, Judaism is more optimistic than that. Consider the past, but don’t feel that you’re stuck in it; this is a central message of the holiday season.

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