Ha-azinu: The Tohu Within

September 19, 2012 at 11:17 am | Posted in Ha-azinu | Leave a comment

The week between the Jewish holy days of Rosh Hashannah (“Head of the Year”) and Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”), the Torah portion is a long poem: Ha-azinu (Use your Ears). The Torah says Moses teaches it to the Israelites as a song, so they will remember it after he dies.

The overall theme of the song is that God is all-powerful, and wreaks terrible vengeance on the Israelites when they turn and worship other gods. This is not news; God as portrayed in the Torah has no concept of modern educational methods. But within the song are some gems of inspiration. This year, I am focusing on the verse below. Since Hebrew uses third-person singular forms not just for male humans, but also for objects, for concepts, and for God, my translation uses “IT” when the third-person form refers to God, and  “it” when the form refers to the group of people called the children of Israel.

     IT found it in a land of wilderness

     And in the tohu of a howling desolation;

     IT surrounded it and made insight;

     IT protected it like the pupil of ITS eye. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:10)

tohu = chaos, nothingness, formlessness, unreality

This is one literal translation of the verse.  If your interpretation is also literal, the verse seems to conflict with the whole book of Exodus/Shemot. How can the song Ha-azinu claim that God found the children of Israel in a desolate wilderness, when Exodus clearly states that God heard their cries when they were slaves in Egypt, and then led them out of Egypt and into the wilderness?

Some rabbinic commentary explains that God knew about the descendants of Israel all along, and paid attention to them when their suffering in Egypt increased. But in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, where the people embraced God’s covenant, God  “found” them to be even more precious.

Literal-minded modern scholars, on the other hand, explain the discrepancy between the story in Exodus and the reference to God finding the people in the wilderness as a reflection of two different myths explaining the origin of the Israelite people.

But why get stuck on a literal reading? The Torah often uses metaphor and analogy, especially in its poetry. I think the word tohu  in this verse from Ha-azinu points toward a more profound meaning. This is only the second occurrence of the word tohu in the Torah.  The first use of “tohu” describes the mystery of what came before God said Let there be light. The second sentence of  Genesis/Bereishit is: And the earth was tohu and vohu, and darkness over the face of the deep, and the wind/spirit of God hovering over the face of the deep.

Scholars have not yet established the etymology of the word tohu, and guesses as to its meaning range from “chaos” to “emptiness”. I think the meaning that best fits all 19 appearances of the word in the Hebrew Bible is “unreality”.

Translating tohu as “unreality” in this week’s Torah portion is awkward if you take our verse literally.  But if the wilderness, tohu, and howling desolation describe a psychological state, it makes sense. When you are lost in desperation or desolation, there is an inner howling, and your mind no longer anchors itself in familiar habits and beliefs. You wander in a mental wilderness, and your former world-view seems unreal.

Maybe sometimes God finds, or connects, with people when they are in a mental state of unreality and howling desolation. Then God encircles them, and gives them insight, and protects them until they pull themselves together and move forward, reorganizing their lives to fit their new outlook. During this process, God protects the person’s soul as if it were the pupil of an eye, which can perceive reality and apply insights only if it is both uncovered and unharmed.

I can imagine atheists today objecting that God is unreal, and believing that God is finding and protecting you is an indulgence in unreality. And I don’t blame them.  I am an atheist myself, if you define God as either the anthropomorphic jealous king who lives in the sky, or as the omni-being of medieval theologians. But many people, including me, use the word “God” for something else, something we have no better word for in English.  Something that defies a clear definition, a mystery that we experience or intuit.

Connecting with this holy mystery is a real experience, one in which “God finds you” and “you find God” mean the same thing. And I have found that if it happens when my life is falling apart and I am in a mental state of howling desolation, the connection really does protect me, stabilize me, and give me insight.

These days, when my emotions begin to overwhelm me, I don’t even wait for God to find me. I take pre-emptive action by singing prayers, singing through the tightness in my throat until it relaxes. Then my mind becomes more calm and clear, and I become able to receive insight.

So here is my version of the verse from Ha-azinu, changing the pronouns and adding  a few words at the end to explain the pupil of the eye. Maybe this version will ring true for you.

     I found God in a land of wilderness

     And in the unreality of a howling desolation;

     God surrounded me and I found insight;

     God protected me like the pupil of an eye, and I saw.

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