Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu laasok b’divrei Torah.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to engage with words of Torah.
In this week’s Torah portion, we listen in to receive this song from Moses which recounts the story of the Israelites to this point. Moses recounts how G-d made a covenant with them as a people, but also how they have been (and will continue to be) unfaithful, causing G-d to hide His face from them.
In the end, Moses ascends to the top of a mountain facing the Promised Land, and dies having not set foot within it.
Haazinu is about the identity at the core of Jewishness. The song speaks of our religious covenant with G-d, but it also reveals the nature of human experience in creation. One way to look at the entire relationship described here is through the lens of sin and punishment. The Israelites (including Moses) fail to live up to the standard of their covenant with G-d. As a result, G-d is at times hidden from them. G-d may also punish them by sending other people to destroy them, enslave or send them into exile.
However, another way to look at this passage is that this relationship between people and the covenant is one rooted in the struggles and limits of physical creation.
“Listen in you heavens, and I will speak; hear, you earth, the words of my mouth. Let my teaching fall like rain and my words descend like dew, like showers on new grass, like abundant rain on tender plants.”
(Deuteronomy 32: 1-2 NIV)
Moses’ song begins not with the story of our people, but with an appeal to heaven and earth, and a poetic metaphor engaging Torah as natural nourishment like rain or dew on tender plants. G-d is further described throughout the passage as a Rock, essentially the foundation upon which all this grows.
What is being shared here is the reality of physical creation.
We are each going to fail at something. Not even Moses, the great leader of the Jewish people, is exempt from this limitation. This is the nature of our story, a piece of our core identity being communicated here. It is in our nature to fail to live up to the perfect divine order of G-d. That’s what makes us people. That’s what makes us creation. That is how we are designed, how we are intended to learn, and how we are given the opportunity to grow.
Feeling shame about it is optional.
The leaders we are given to study under, Moses for instance, were flawed just as we are, but they are defined by their persistence in the face of that reality, and by their commitment to G-d despite countless opportunities to give up. Depending on our background, the passage may seem set up to describe Moses’ death as a punishment by G-d. I think a healthier way to look at this passage is to understand death and Moses’ preclusion from the Promised Land as consequences of the nature of physical creation.
We could drive ourselves crazy debating death and punishment as a matter of worthiness, but when we understand it as a matter of reality, and the consequences of a complex calculus of different actions, we are freed again to focus on our own actions, our own choices in the face of this reality.
G-d is at times seemingly very present in our lives. We are plugged in. We feel the presence. We feel the blessing and the favor. Everything seems to go our way, and we are hopefully grateful for that alignment. Other times, our relationship with G-d is seemingly strained and detached. It is as if G-d hides His face from us (or we are hiding ours from Him in shame).
Both are foundational to this experience we call life. There will be highs and there will be lows. There are times we must try hard to achieve greatness, and other times we enjoy the rewards of our effort. Like Moses, we may even be blessed enough to die devoting our lives to the very mission G-d has given us.
To some, this passage seems an invitation to just shrug. Why bother? Sin your heart out. You are doomed to fail anyway, and if this is the nature of reality, why fight it?
For the spiritually strong and courageous it is instead an invitation to doubly commit ourselves to the path and covenant we have chosen. Surely we are each as flawed as Moses. Failure before G-d and death are certain. But what shall we make of our lives then if that is the case? What stories shall we sing to our own descendants and by what deeds shall they remember us?
Listen in. The rain rises back to the sky, even though it will fall again.