Ha’azinu/ Rosh Hashanah: Painter of Creation

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ha’azinu

The Rock! ā€” His deeds are perfect,
Yea, all His ways are just;
A faithful God, never false,
True and upright is He
. (Deuteronomy/D’varim 32:4, JPS translation)

There is no holy one like the Lord,
Truly, there is none beside You;
There is no rock like our God.
(1 Samuel 2:2)

Dear Friends:

This Shabbat, after two days of Rosh Hashanah, we’ll be reading the Torah portion Ha’azinu, the penultimate parsha, in which Moshe recounts in poetic form how God brought the people from Egypt, yet they will betray the covenant in some future time. A recurring image of the poem is God as tzur, or “rock,” as above. In context, it probably connotes strength, immovability, and/or a sheltering presence.

Later on in the portion, Moshe rebukes the people for forgetting the “Rock that begot you . . the God who brought you forth.” (32:18) This image suggests Rock as First Cause, the Source of All, implying timeless strength in contrast to human fickleness. Maimonides has a lot more to say about this sense of the image, but in the meantime, one can compare this use of “Rock” to Psalm 95:1 and 92:16, both of which, perhaps not coincidentally, are part of the Kabbalat Shabbat service on Friday nights.

However, there is some dispute among the sages that tzur means “rock” in these verses; some see tzur as related to tza’yar, the one who forms or makes. That would also make sense for these verses; God formed the world and implanted justice within it, as per the opening of Ha’azinu, above.

In modern Hebrew, tza’yar is a painter, or artist, obviously related to the meaning of maker or one who forms. Yet thinking of God as artist implies something very different than simply “maker;” such a metaphor urges us to be open to the beauty and wonder of the cosmos as a whole, even if our particular piece of it contains pain or injustice. Compare the two verses above: the first, from Ha’azinu, is often recited at funerals, while the second comes from the haftarah for the second day of Rosh Hashanah. That’s the story of Hannah, who prays for a son and exults when she gives birth and eventually dedicates the boy to sacred service.

In other words, both at sad times and happy ones, we find the image of tzur, God as artist, making a universe which can be fearsome and which can be bountiful but is never less than beautiful. There is a timeless quality to the cycle of birth and life, death and renewal, which is awe-inspiring, wondrous and incomparable beyond our momentary experiences; this, to me, is the complex meaning of tzur. Over the Days of Awe, we attempt to grapple with issues of justice and mercy, judgment and forgiveness, the meaning of our lives and the inevitability of our deaths, and yet God is not only tzur, Rock, but tza’ar, Artist, the Source of extraordinary wonder among which we are blessed to live.

Experiencing that awesome beauty can help us see our lives as part of a greater tapestry, spread across time and cosmos. It’s humbling and uplifting and challenging at the same time, as is any spiritual experience.

Wishing you and yours a New Year of blessing, peace, beauty and wisdom,


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