Ha’azinu: Turning Towards Compassion

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ha’azinu

Whew!

The Days of Awe are hopefully not “behind us,” but now part of us, and it’s time
to look
forward to concluding our yearly cycle of Torah readings and beginning again in
a few
weeks with Bereshit/ Genesis. This week’s parsha, Ha’azinu, continues the theme
of Moshe
offering his final words to the Israelites; the parsha is basically a poem
recounting the
history of the Exodus and extending into the future. The parsha ends with Moshe
being
told that he can see the Land, but not enter it- Joshua will succeed him as
leader of the
people in the next stage of national history.

I was thinking about this week’s parsha during the afternoon service of Yom
Kippur, just a
few hours ago. Probably because I was hungry and cranky from fasting, these
lines
(describing God’s rescue and blessing of the Israelites) stood out to me:

He set him atop the highlands,
To feast on the yield of the earth;
He fed him honey from the crag,
And oil from the flinty rock,

Curd of kine and milk of flocks;
With the best of lambs,
And rams of Bashan, and he-goats;
With the very finest wheat —
And foaming grape-blood was your drink.

So Yeshurun [= Israel ] grew fat and kicked —
You grew fat and gross and coarse —
He forsook the God who made him
And spurned the Rock of his support. (Devarim/ Deuteronomy 32:13-15)

The first “he” in these verses is God, and the second “him” is a poetic
personification of the
people Israel. (Yeshurun is another name for Israel.) These verses come in the
context of
the Exodus narrative, retold as a poetry: the people Israel were rescued and set
in a
wonderful Land, which gave them all the best things to eat and drink, but then
they forgot
God, the One who blessed them. (I’m reading these verses like Rashi does, just
for the
record.)

OK, so far, so good- Moshe is not only retelling history, but also making a
prophecy that
the blessings of the Land will be so wonderful that it will actually be a
spiritual problem,
inasmuch as they people will be so prosperous that they’ll forget to be grateful
to God.

I think, after Yom Kippur, that I take a slightly different message from these
words. First,
however, let me tell you a story from my hospital chaplaincy: I went to visit a
man who was
recovering from surgery, and as part of his recovery he had been unable to eat
or drink
anything by mouth for several days, maybe a week.

On the morning of the day that I saw him, he was finally allowed to have some
juice – and
as you can imagine, that little glass of apple juice was almost a miracle for
him. He was a
deeply religious man, and he told me of thanking God for the simplest things-
like some
apple juice, something the rest of us probably take for granted. It wasn’t just
the juice
itself, of course- finally being allowed to drink something also meant he was
recovering
from his surgery, and regaining his health. In the moment, however, that apple
juice
tasted like manna from heaven!

I’m telling you this story because many of us had a comparable moment a few
hours ago
at our break-fasts after Yom Kippur. The bagel or kugel that first hit our
mouths after 25
hours of standing and sitting and reading was probably the best food you ever
tasted! It’s
a wonderful thing to be grateful for the small pleasures, but as my stomach
growled and
my blood sugar hit the floor this afternoon, I also thought of the patient in
the hospital,
who had to abstain not out of religious privilege but out of medical necessity.

With that thought, my pride at fasting and a modest amount of self-denial felt a
little
foolish. I thought of how thirsty I was, and how much I wanted some juice, and
then I
realized that I probably hadn’t come close to appreciating what that man had
gone
through. Had I really tried to feel both his pain and his joy? Had I really
tried to
understand, to imagine, what he went through? If not, was my visit one of
spiritual
connection, or just religious socializing?

In other words, the point of our fasting is not only to regain our gratitude,
but also to
deepen our compassion for those who have not made the choice to suffer. That’s
the
message I see in our verses from Ha’azinu, too- the Israelites had everything
they wanted,
and ended up forgetting what it felt like to be wandering slaves. Once that
happened,
where does their compassion come from?

This, too me, is the larger point about what we’ve just gone through on Yom
Kippur-
fasting and putting aside vain things of the body aren’t just about developing
gratitude
(though that is a very good thing) but also about connecting, in a very small
way, with the
experience of those who don’t have enough to eat- and then doing something about
it. We
put aside our fancy shoes in order to stand in solidarity with all those people
who had to
leave all their possessions behind after the hurricane or earthquake – and then
we’re
supposed to do something about it. We may choose to forego washing for a day on
Yom
Kippur, but there are those who have no running water- so having imagined it,
what are
we doing about it?

Yom Kippur- and in a different way, Sukkot, coming up- ask us to step outside
our
ordinary life experience in not just for ourselves, but for others, as well. In
re-experiencing
our life from a different angle, from under the stars in the Sukkah or with a
grumbling
stomach on Yom Kippur, we give ourselves an opportunity to avoid the mistakes of
our
ancestors. They took things for granted and ended up forsaking their spiritual
purpose; we
put things aside, at least for a day, in order to feel more compassion for the
world, and
then to renew our partnership with God in healing the broken places.

Shabbat Shalom,

rnjl

PS- as per usual, you can read the text of the parsha and haftarah here:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/index.shtml

PPS: If you haven’t reviewed the practices of Sukkot recently, then do it Dr.
Suess style-
really!

Here is a rhyming introduction to the laws of building a Sukkah, with
illustrations:
http://www.beth-tzedec.org/home.do?ch=content&cid=4685

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