Minutes of Torah

This week’s Torah portion of Ha’azinu is comprised mostly of a poem by Moses — one of the last things he says to the Israelites before he dies, and they enter the Promised Land. Our parasha represents the beginning of the end of Moses’ poetry. One more Torah portion after this, and we hear his voice no more. 

Poetry has the capacity to serve as a ‘witness.’ It can bear witness to and evoke the immediacy of the human experience. Or a poem is as close as you can get to putting the present into words before the present slips away into the past.

Moses opens his poem, Ha’azinu, with the words:

“Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; Let the earth hear the words I utter!”

In the last moments of his life Moses’ poem speaks in the present. Yet, it carries a timeless message, calling upon heaven and earth — presumably, as permanent residents of this world who can be summoned at any time to bear witness to his message. In these final moments, Moses reminds the people of how God has been there for them, steady as a rock, and how God has cared, carrying them like a mother bird. He prophesies that the Israelites will stray and reject God — that they will forget God. God will threaten to hide God’s face from them, but ultimately, God will take revenge on Israel’s enemies and vindicate Israel.

This poem is what Moses leaves to the world as a bridge to his experience, over thousands of years ago. He has a message for us, borne out of the difficulty of what he has lived through, and he wants his experience and his feelings to resonate in us. Moses clearly wants to inspire fear in us, as he prophesies our massive failure. But he also wants to arouse gratitude within us for how God took us out of Egypt, guarded us, fed us, and brought us to the land. Ultimately, his message is hopeful. Even though God will hide God’s face from us for a time, God will eventually turn back towards us.

In Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell’s commentary on this parasha that appears in the Reform Chumash, she asks us, “What would you say to those you care about if you knew you were about to die?” In this moment in our calendar, as we stand on the threshold between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, this is a great question to ask.

Every year, as we approach Yom Kippur, the experience is meant to give us a taste of what it will be like to face our own death. We ask ourselves what words we want to offer to our loved ones, to those whom we have wronged, or to those who may have hurt us. What words do we want to leave with others, to bridge the space and time between us?

Words form the bridge between our inner and outer worlds. When our words bear witness to our experience of the present moment — the pain, the joy, the fear and the hope — if they come from a heart that is open, if they come first from a place of deep listening, then they have great potential to transform relationships, to inspire others to action, and to change the world, even after we are gone.

In this week’s Haftarah, which includes God’s beckoning to us to return to God, the prophet Hosea reassures us that when we allow our heartfelt words of turning to simply emerge, God responds:

“I will heal their affliction. Generously will I take them back in love; For My anger has turned away from them. I will be to Israel like dew; He shall blossom like the lily, He shall strike root like a Lebanon tree.”

But this raises the question. Three verses earlier we are told that Moses has instructed the Israelites to perform teshuvah, to return to God, but here God seems to be saying that He will heal their affliction without their having to do anything? To this the prophet answers that what we have here is a reciprocal movement of the people towards God and of God towards the people. The patient must take the first step before the physician can intervene, but only after the patient has called out.

So as we approach the Yom Kippur day, consider the myriad number of times you have reached out to God without success, but know that one day God will reciprocate your attempt and a meeting will be had.

Shabbat Shalom and Gmar Hatimah Tovah — May you be sealed in the book of Life!

Rav Julius Rabinowitz
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