Ha-azinu:  Raining Wisdom

When Moses is 120, his main worry is that the Israelites and their fellow-travelers will continue to disobey their God.  So in last week’s Torah portion, Vayeilekh (“And he went”), before he climbs up Mount Nebo to die, he gives the people a written scroll called the Torah, and teaches them a song.  Both are intended to remind the people of how they ought to behave.  But while the Torah will be read out loud to the people, the song will become so familiar that the people themselves will sing it and teach it to future generations.

So God orders Moses:

by James Tissot

“And now, write for yourself this shirah and teach it to the Israelites; put it in their mouths, so that this song will be a witness against the Israelites.”  … And Moses wrote this shirah on that day, and he taught it to the Israelites.  (Deuteronomy 31:19, 22)

shirah (שִׁירָה) = song.  (Poem set to music.)

The portion Vayeilekh ends by referring to the song:

Then Moses spoke in the ears of the whole congregation of Israel the words of this shirah, until the end.  (Deuteronomy 31:30)

The song is the Torah portion Ha-Azinu (“Use your ears”), which falls this year of 5779 in between Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

Whenever I read the words, Ha-Azinu strikes me as a poor summary of the rules Moses laid out earlier in the Torah.  Instead it seems to be yet another long-winded warning that the Israelites will screw up again once they are living in Canaan.

Perhaps if I heard Ha-Azinu as a song, with its own ancient melody, it would have a different effect on me.  Perhaps the words and melody together moved the Israelites the same way that the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur moves me when we sing it to traditional melodies, even though I might find fault with some of the words.

And even without the melody, the introduction to this poem does stir my heart.

Use your ears, Heavens, and I will speak;

Listen, Earth, to what my mouth says.

May my insights drop like rain;

May my utterances drip like dew;

Like showers upon deshe,

And like downpours upon eisev growing plants.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:1-2)

deshe (דֶשֶׁא) = green sprouts, new grass.

eisev (עֵשֶׂב) = annual plants that grow during the rainy season; grass, herbs, vegetables, weeds.

In the first two lines, Moses is calling upon Heaven and Earth to witness his poetic address to the Israelites.  The next four lines (verse 32:2) express how Moses hopes his words will be received by his audience—both by the children of Israel assembled on the bank of the Jordan, and by everyone who will hear the song in the future.

Most poetry in the Torah is written in paired statements.  The second line may appear to be merely a repetition of the first line, substituting synonyms for some of the words, but actually it adds another shade of meaning.

What is implied by the pairing of rain and dew?  16th-century rabbi Obadiah Sforno wrote that wisdom from the Torah rains down on intellectuals, but even the common people benefit from the dew of some small knowledge of God.  (He sounds like a snob, but it is true that the more one studies a text, the more one can draw insights out it.)  According to the Zohar, a 13th-century kabbalistic work, the rain is the written Torah, given from heaven, and the dew is the oral Torah, our human interpretations here on earth.  19th-century rabbi S.R. Hirsch wrote that rain breaks up clods of dirt and prepares the soil of our minds to receive insights, while dew encourages and revives wilting spirits.

I think this couplet considers the two ways that plants get watered in the hills of Israel: by rain during the winter rainy season, and by dew after the rains have ended but there is still enough moisture in the air to condense on low plants overnight, then drip down into the ground.  After divine insights have watered people’s minds, additional bits of enlightenment continue to reach them.

The next couplet refers to effect of rain on annuals, the plants that spring up during the rainy season in Israel.  Rain showers make seeds sprout and send up green shoots; downpours water well-rooted plants so they can continue growing.

Like deshe and eisev, humans find it hard to grow in arid conditions.  A little dampness deep below the surface of the soil might suffice for a tree in the desert, but we need rain showers for our awareness to sprout.  Once we have reached one level of insight, we are ready for downpours, ready to be flooded with teachings, explanations, rules, stories, and poems.  As wise words continue to rain down on us, our souls can grow and stretch out branches and leaves, green with our own new wisdom.

May we all be thirsty for more teachings.

(An earlier version of this essay was published in 2011.)

Ha-azinu: A Hovering Bird

Might God help us learn to fly?

This Shabbat, the one between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we read Ha-azinu (Use your ears). Most of the Torah portion is a long poem predicting that even though that God brought the Israelites up from Egypt and protected them, God’s people will continue to do wrong and worship other gods. At one point, Ha-azinu compares God to an eagle teaching its fledglings to fly.

Like an eagle1 [God] rouses Its nest;

Over Its fledglings yeracheif.

It spreads out Its wings, It takes one;

It carries it up on Its wings.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:11)

yeracheif (יְרַחֵף) = it hovers like a bird. (A form of the verb rachaf, רָחַף = flutter like a bird.)

This verse may describe a parent eagle hovering nearby while its young are practicing short flights. If an eaglet falls, the parent swoops under it and catches the fledgling on its own wings. (Eaglets usually learn to fly without assistance. Yet this type of parental rescue has been observed in our own time with golden eagles.)

The verb rachaf occurs only three times in the Bible: here, in the book of Jeremiah, and in the book of Genesis. Jeremiah describes his anguish over the false prophets in Jerusalem this way:

My heart is broken inside me.

            All my bones rachafu.

            I have become like a drunken man,

            Like a strong man who passed through wine. (Jeremiah 23:9)

rachafu (רָחֲפוּ) = they tremble, flutter.

Jeremiah uses a form2 of the verb rachaf  to show that he is so overwhelmed, the bones that are normally stiff enough to hold him up are fluttering, trembling, unreliable.

Golden eagle

But when the verb rachaf  refers to God, it is in a form3 that means hovering. Near the end of the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim, God hovers like a parent ready to rescue young birds learning to fly.

In a few weeks, on Simchat Torah, Jewish congregations around the world will read the last lines of Deuteronomy, then roll the Torah scroll back to the beginning and read about the creation of the universe in Genesis/Bereishit.

In a beginning God created the heavens and the earth. But the earth was a vacancy and a void and a darkness over the face of the deep, and the wind of God merachefet over the face of the waters. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:1-2)

merachefet (מְרַחֶפֶת) = was hovering (like a bird).

Before God even speaks light into being, the wind or spirit of God is hovering over the face of the water and darkness.  It seems as though God is watching, waiting to see if something will rise up, evolve on its own initiative.  When nothing arises, God has to take the next step and say “Let there be light”.

In this week’s Torah portion, almost at the end of the cycle of readings, God watches over human beings like a parent bird, waiting to see if we will evolve on our own initiative. If we are like eaglets, at first we simply eat the food (or live the life) that is given to us, without questioning it. Then we experiment, like fledglings flapping from branch to branch. Finally we are roused by ineffable longings, and we attempt to fly out into the blue.

When we get morally confused or mentally tired, we falter and fall. But the Torah says God is hovering over us, and catches us briefly so we can fly again.

This description may be true for people who feel a religious impulse and reach for the divine with open hearts and minds. Their religion can help to inspire awe and gratitude, and it can catch them when they begin to fall.

But all too often, purveyors of religion lose track of where God is. All too often we humans turn our religions into weapons instead of wings.  Then who, or what, will catch us and carry us back up to the light?

(An earlier version of this essay was published in September 2010.)

  1. nesher (נֶשֶׁר) = a general term for any eagle, vulture, or large bird of prey. In this case, the bird’s behavior indicates a golden eagle.
  2. The kal stem.
  3. The pi-el stem.



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.

Ha-azinu: The Tohu Within

Before Moses dies, he teaches the Israelites a long song.  The words are recorded in this week’s Torah portion: Ha-azinu (“Use your Ears”).

The two main messages in the song are that God is all-powerful, and that God wreaks vengeance on the Israelites when they worship other gods.  This is not news; the God-character portrayed in the Torah has no concept of modern educational methods.

Yet within the song are some gems of inspiration.  One of them employs the relatively rare word tohu.

[God] found it/him in a land of wilderness

And in the tohu of a howling desolation;

[God] surrounded it/him and gave it/him understanding,

[God] protected it/him like the pupil of [God’s] eye. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:10)

tohu (תֹהוּ) = chaos, nothingness, formlessness, unreality.

Hebrew prefixes and suffixes indicating the third person singular can be translated as either “it” or “him”.  So what or who did God find in the wilderness of chaotic, howling desolation?

One third-century commentary says God found, or encountered, Abraham there.1  But the book of Genesis/Bereishit states that God called to Abraham when he was living in Charan and told him to go to Canaan.2   Charan was a civilized town, not a howling wilderness.

Most commentaries take their cue from the preceding line of the song, Because God’s portion is [God’s] people, Jacob …  (Deuteronomy 32:9) and assume that “it” is the people named after their ancestor “Jacob” or “Israel”.  (The Torah often refers to a people, an ethnic or political group, in the singular.)

Yet in the book of Exodus/Shemot, God does not find Israel in the wilderness.  God notices the Israelite slaves in Egypt when God hears their cries of distress.  Then God leads them out of Egyptian civilization and into the wilderness.

Modern scholars who take the verse about tohu literally explain these discrepancies by attributing the poem in Deuteronomy and the stories in Genesis and Exodus to 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 points toward a more profound meaning.

This is only the second occurrence of the word tohu in the Torah.  The first use of tohu is in the sentence just before God says “Let there be light”:

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.  (Genesis/Bereishit 1:2)

vohu (בֹהוּ= a poetic extension of tohu, translated as “unformed”, “void”, “empty”.   (The word vohu appears only three times in the Hebrew bible, always paired with tohu; here, in Isaiah 34:11, and in Jeremiah 4:24.)

I think the meaning that best fits all 19 appearances of the tohu in the Hebrew Bible is “unreal” or “unreality”.

Translating tohu as “unreality” in this week’s Torah portion is awkward if you take our verse literally.  But if “wilderness”, tohu, and “howling desolation” all describe a psychological state, tohu as “unreality” makes sense.  When you feel desperate and desolate, as if there is no hope and you are utterly alone, you experience 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.

What if someone in a mental state of unreality and howling desolation encounters God?  What if God then encircles them, gives them understanding, and protects them until they pull themselves together and reorganize 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.

Atheists today might object that God itself is unreal, so believing that God is finding and protecting you is an indulgence in unreality.  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 the phrases “God finds you” and “you find God” mean the same thing.  I have found that if it happens when my life is falling apart, the connection really does protect me, stabilize me, and give me understanding.

These days, when my emotions begin to overwhelm me, I don’t wait for God to find me.  I take preemptive action by singing prayers, singing until the tightness in my throat relaxes.  Then my mind becomes calmer and clearer, and understanding becomes possible.

So here is my version of the verse from Ha-azinu, with different pronouns.  Maybe this interpretation 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 understanding came;

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

  1. Sifrei Devarim 313:1.
  2. Genesis 12:1-5.