Shabbat Shuvah/Yom Kippur: Poetry of the Heart

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ha’azinu and Yom Kippur

The rain is hard and cold today- maybe it’s a good day to stay inside
and prepare for Shabbat Shuvah and Yom Kippur. Shabbat Shuvah- always
the Shabbat between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur- gets its name from
the opening verses of the haftarah (prophetic reading), in which the
prophet urges to return to God- “shuvah” being the same root word as
“t’shuvah,” or “repentance” which is really “returning.” However, the
regular Torah portion, which this year is Ha’azinu, also contains
themes of turning away and turning back, forgetting and remembering.

We are nearing the very end of D’varim/Deuteronomy, and thus we are
also nearing the very end of Moshe’s life and leadership. In these
penultimate words to the nation, Moshe recites a poem about the
covenant between God and the people Israel, a poem which will serve as
a “witness” against them should they go astray in the future. ( I.e.,
should they turn from God, the poem can be recalled as proof of
warning and proper instruction.) However, what’s interesting to me is
the variegated imagery in the poem, depicting God as a parent, an
eagle, a fire, and even a rock:

“You neglected the Rock that begot you,
Forgot the God who brought you forth.” (Dvarim/ Deuteronomy 32:18)

The grammar of this verse is difficult (there is a link below to a
fuller explanation of the various interpretations), but for today, I’m
just interested in the contrast between a “Rock” and “begot you,” a
birth image. A rock is the very definition of inert, lifeless, static,
unchanging, and “begot you” is an image of birth, new life, vitality,
and joy. To put it another way, “Rock” is not the metaphor one might
expect before the phrase “begot you,” unless one is talking about
bricks and sand!

This verse is not the only place that God is called “Rock” in this
parsha; I can only imagine that the image of “Rock” has to be
understood in the context of the travels through the wilderness. To
weary travelers, a rock might be something one leans on, or finds
shade or shelter under- my sense is that it’s an image which connotes
safety and security. Yet God is also that which brings us forth into
the world of life, with all of its bruises and detours and learning
and sorrow.

Thus, to me, the poetic image of the Rock who brings us forth is a
terse statement of a profound theological truth: that there is no
single image which can contain the essential nature of the Holy One of
Blessing. God is a sheltering Presence when we need something greater
than ourselves to lean on, and God is the force inside us which
propels us forward into our life’s potential. Both are true, and
neither cancels each other out- it’s only the limitation of human
imagination and language which has a problem with the Rock who begot you!

So what does all this have to do with Shabbat Shuvah and Yom Kippur?
Perhaps we can take from this poetic verse the reminder that the
images of God we encounter in the long liturgies of Yom Kippur- God as
Judge, King, Forgiver, Shepherd, Beloved, Potter, to name just a few-
are just that: images from poetry, put there to elicit feelings and
restore relationship, not to teach systematic theology. When we call
God Rock, we are naming a relationship which implies sheltering and
support; when we call God Judge, we are naming God as the source of
our highest ideals, to which we must be held accountable. God is not a
Rock, nor a Judge, nor a King, but we use these words to describe
aspects of our experience of that which is ultimately beyond language.

For those of you going to synagogue on Yom Kippur, I urge you to read
the prayers as poetry, and ask yourself what feelings the images
evoke- then pray out of that feeling! The prayerbook is not prayer,
just like a cookbook is not dinner; but both help us get beyond our
individual limits. Poetry expresses what prose cannot; it is a
language of the heart, the language of love, and Yom Kippur is nothing
if not a day of celebrating the love of God for humanity.

May you all be inscribed for a good year,


PS- OK, let’s get the serious links out of the way before we get to
the Yom Kippur humor links. The first link is to the texts of the
Torah portions for this Shabbat and Yom Kippur:

This is your summary (suitable for family learning) and further

Here is a great kid’s parsha page:

and here is a detailed grammatical analysis of this week’s verse:

If you want to learn more about Yom Kippur- its history, themes,
rituals, etc, you’ll find a wealth of knowledge here:

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