Archive for Ha’azinu

Ha’azinu: Torah like Rain

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ha’azinu
 
May my discourse come down as the rain, my speech distill as the dew,
Like showers on young growth, Like droplets on the grass.  (D’varim/ Deuteronomy 32:2)

 
Good afternoon! 
 
I hope all who observed Yom Kippur this week had a good and introspective experience. 
The Days of Awe are observed together with many people, maybe hundreds or thousands, but at their best it’s a very individual experience as well, each one of us looking within to take stock and hold ourselves accountable to our higher ideals. 
 
This relates to a verse in this week’s Torah portion, Ha’azinu, which is Moshe’s penultimate discourse or sermon to the Israelites before he dies and they go on without him. The verse above is understood by the ancient rabbis to refer to Torah in general. The word translated as “discourse” can also mean “lesson” or “counsel,” so it’s easy to see why the rabbis would link the idea of Moshe’s “discourse” to the Torah that he has taught while serving as leader of the people. 
 
So why, they ask, is Torah compared to rain and dew? One text, quoted in the book Torah Temimah, says that Torah is like rain and dew because just as rain comes from one source, but waters each tree and plant which then produces fruit according to its individual natures, so too Torah is one, but each of us respond to it in a unique way. Torah “waters” each of us so that we may grow according to our individual capacity and talents. It is not meant to create robots or clones, but thinking, feeling, passionate people, each of whom will grow and act in Torah in in new and surprising ways. 
 
So too this season of the Days of Awe; we read the same prayers out of the same book, but have profoundly different experiences depending on challenges and setbacks and sins and triumphs of each individual life. Judaism can bring you to the edge of spiritual grown, but we all have to decide how to take the next step; nobody else can find your passion and bring forth your spirit. The rain waters grass and trees alike, but they grow differently; our teachings and  traditions need to be applied to the specific circumstances of each life, and only then will they bear fruit. 

Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 
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Ha’azinu/ Rosh Hashanah: Painter of Creation

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ha’azinu

The Rock! — 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,

RNJL

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Ha’azinu / Rosh Hashana: The Soul’s Thirst

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ha’azinu and Rosh Hashana

Right after Rosh Hashana is the Shabbat called “Shabbat Shuvah,” or
the “Shabbat of Returning/Repentance,” so called because (among other
reasons) the haftarah, or prophetic reading, calls upon the Israelites
to return to God. The Torah portion itself is Moshe’s final
impassioned plea to the nation, a plea for loyalty to covenant in the
new land. Moshe opens up his poem with a promise that he’s going to
say something significant:

” Listen, O heavens, and I will speak! And let the earth hear the
words of my mouth!
My lesson will drip like rain; my word will flow like dew; like storm
winds on vegetation and like raindrops on grass.”
(D’varim/Deuteronomy 32:1)

Our friend Rashi says that Moshe’s words of Torah are compared to
windy rain and dew because just as the rain and dew cause the plants
and crops to grow, so too words of Torah cause people to grow and give
life to those who hear them. From my perspective, it’s important to
note that “Torah” is to be understood here not only as the fixed words
of the Biblical text, but more widely as the Jewish conversation with
text and tradition. Torah is the words on the scrolls, but it’s also
the words of the prayerbook, the commentaries, and even- brace
yourself- the words of the teachings, sermons and meditations that
rabbis and educators and others prepare for the holy days.

Moshe compared his words to life-giving water. This image resonates
for me as I sit in a building with hundreds and hundreds of chairs set
up to accommodate the holy day crowds, who come because they are
thirsting for something- perhaps a sense of being part of a larger
community, perhaps a connection with personal or Jewish history,
perhaps a reminder that the soul needs attention as much as the body
or intellect. Like plants soaking up the water after a dry spell, our
communities soak up music, Torah, prayer, Shofar, and the very
experience of just being together, and with grace, the Days of Awe
give life, and sustain.

I thank you all for allowing me to share words of Torah in the past
year, and look forward to another year of learning together.

L’Shana Tovah U’Metukah- a good and sweet New Year-

RNJL

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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,

RNJL

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:

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

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

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/haazinu_index.htm

Here is a great kid’s parsha page:

http://www.beth-tzedec.org/home.do?ch=Canaan_Hora&cid=4692&state=detail

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

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/haazinu_ou5762.htm

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

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/index.htm?VI=580910060929

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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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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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