Ha-azinu & Vezot Habrakhah: Upright, Devious, and Struggling

Does it matter what the group you belong to is called? Would you rather be known as God-Strugglers, Heel-Grabbers, or Upright-Ones?

Yisra-el (“Israel” in English) is the most common name in the Hebrew Bible for the people that God and Moses lead out of Egypt, instruct on God’s laws, and bring to the land of Canaan. Occasionally the bible also refers to the people as Ya-akov (“Jacob” in English), and a few times as Yeshurun (“Jeshurun” in English).

Yisra-el = He struggles with God.

Ya-akov = He grabs a heel; he supplants; he takes advantage.

Yeshurun = Upright ones; those on the level, straight, honest, law-abiding.

Yisrael and Ya-akov are the two names of the patriarch in the book of Genesis who fathers the twelve sons whose names become the names of the twelve tribes. His first name, Ya-akov, refers to his devious efforts to pull down his brother Esau and replace him as the “firstborn” who will inherit not only twice as much wealth, but also God’s blessing and covenant. Ya-akov wins a second name, Yisrael, after wrestling all night with an angel of God, refusing to let go until the angel blesses him.

I find it significant that the Hebrew Bible does not call the twelve tribes after Abraham, or Isaac, but after the patriarch who began his career as a deceitful heel, and had to struggle with God to become the legitimate conduit for the divine covenant. At the end of the book of Genesis, Jacob-Israel is more straightforward and law-abiding than at the beginning of his story, but still far from perfect.

The name Yeshurun appears in the Torah for the first time in the long poem of Ha-azinu (“Use your ears”), the portion we read this Saturday, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Purportedly a prophecy written by Moses, the poem describes how after Moses has died and the Israelites have conquered and settled Canaan, God made them prosperous, but then they forgot the source of their wealth.

…[God] suckled them with honey from a rock,

And oil from a flinty boulder,

Sour cream from cattle and cream from sheep,

With the fat of lambs, and rams from Bashan, and he-goats,

With the fat of kernels of wheat,

And the blood of the grape you drink fermented.

And Yeshurun fattened, and it kicked;

You fattened, you became thick, you became gorged,

And abandoned the god who made him,

Dismissed as foolish the Rock who rescued him. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:13-15)

The ingrates in this poem are anything but upright.  The 16th-century rabbi Obadiah Sforno explained that the Israelites kicked like an animal that kicks the person feeding it. Their love of material pleasures, indicated by the rich foods, made them too “thick” to understand subtle truths.

The 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch added that God made the Israelites prosperous in order to show the world that it is possible to enjoy material pleasures and still lead a spiritual and moral life. When you are well-fed, Hirsch wrote, the correct behavior is to be more active and accomplish more. But the people who were supposed to be the Upright-Ones got lazy and fat instead.

In the last Torah portion of Deuteronomy, Vezot Habrakhah (“This is the blessing”), Moses calls the Israelites Yeshurun two more times, just before and just after his poetic prophecies for individual tribes. Here Moses uses the name Yeshurun without irony.

First he recalls the Israelites’ peak moment, when all the tribes gathered at Mount Sinai and pledged themselves to God.

He became king among Yeshurun,

When the heads of the people gathered themselves,

All together, the tribes of Yisra-el. (Deuteronomy 33:4)

Commentators disagree on who “he” is in this verse, Moses or God. According to Rambam (12th-century rabbi Moses Maimonides), the Israelites honored Moses like a king. This would make Moses the head of the Upright Ones. But according to the Talmud, the Israelites accepted God as their king. This would make them the Upright Ones who unite to obey God’s laws (even though it is a struggle, yisra, to serve the divine king).

After giving prophecies for individual tribes, Moses makes another positive statement about the Israelites as a whole.

There is none like the god of Yeshurun,

Riding through heavens as your rescuer,

…And Yisra-el will dwell in safety,

The well of Ya-akov left alone. (Deuteronomy 33:26, 33:28)

Ultimately, God will help the people, even though sometimes they are upright, sometimes struggling for God’s blessing, and sometimes they are devious supplanters.

After these three uses of Yeshurun at the end of Deuteronomy, the name occurs only once again in the whole Hebrew Bible:

Thus says God, your maker and your shaper,

Who helps you from the womb on:

Do not fear, My servant Ya-akov,

And Yeshurun whom I have chosen. (Isaiah 44:2)

I think Isaiah means that the descendants of Ya-akov, who grabbed his brother’s heel and used devious means to supplant him, need not fear as long as they serve God. If Ya-akov had pursued only the firstborn’s double portion of wealth, God would not have helped him. But since Ya-akov also pursued the firstborn’s blessing of the covenant with God, God gave him more chances to make good.

And Yeshurun, the upright ones, need not fear as long as they live up to the role God chose for them: to be the model of a nation that obeys God’s laws.

Do you identify with the God-Struggler (Yisra-el), the Heel-Grabber (Ya-akov), or the Upright One (Yeshurun)? Or perhaps a fourth name?

Personally, my default is to be law-abiding, probably because I grew up feeling the safest when I went unnoticed. That kind of uprightness is hardly a great model. Fortunately I also have a stubborn moral sense, so when I discover I have accidentally done something that might be devious, I rush to make amends. I do not want to be a heel-grabber, even when that seems to be the only means to a good end.

I think my highest self is a god-struggler, wrestling with the question of what God is, and how I can have at least a relationship, if not a covenant, with this mystery called God.

And I pray that all humans may find the names that they need to grow into.

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