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Watch the 2018 High Holy Day sermons!

 

Kehillat Israel Rabbi Emeritus
Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.
rabbireuben@ourKI.org

 

Click here to read Rabbi Reuben's new book A Year with Mordecai Kaplan: Wisdom on the Weekly Torah Portion

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Ha’azinu - Rock

Deuteronomy 32:1-52

“The Rock! – whose deeds are perfect,

Yea, all God’s ways are just;

A faithful God, never false,

True and upright indeed.”

- Deuteronomy 32:4

 

P’shat – Explanation

As the Israelites gather on the shores of the Jordan River preparing to cross over into the Promised Land, Moses recites/sings them a final song/poem invoking the history of Israel’s enslavement in Egypt and God’s love in liberating them and giving them the Torah. Just as Moses recited a song at the shores of the Sea of Reeds as the people crossed over from slavery to freedom at the beginning of their journey, so this poem at the end of forty years of wandering marks another transition to the unknown.

In this passage, and five more times throughout the poem, Moses refers to God using the Hebrew term tzur or “rock.” In offering an image of God that conveys strength, reliability, protection, power, and a constant, immovable source of refuge, Moses bequeaths the people with a metaphor they can fall back on in times of anxiety, distress, insecurity, and fear. God, as “Rock of Israel,” will always be there to guide, protect, and love Israel, God’s sacred partner in the eternal spiritual covenant made first with the patriarchs and matriarchs and subsequently reaffirmed at Mt. Sinai with the entire Jewish people.

Jewish tradition credits King David with composing most of the biblical Psalms. Like Moses, David was said to have used song and poetry to express his fealty and faith in God. As the Midrash on Psalm 139:2 recounts, it is written, “King David said: You, O God know that even when I was living with complete peace of mind, I did not forget you.”

From Moses and King David’s songs, we are told that God’s presence can be felt and is to be celebrated at all times: in moments of stress and fear when God is our Rock, and in the midst of safety and tranquility, when it is easy to forget the abiding presence of the sacred in our lives.

 

D’rash – Kaplan’s Insight

“The realities that count most in human life are generally intangible, invisible, imponderable; but they cannot be realities if they are ineffable. If we can say nothing about something except that we can say nothing about it, it can play no role whatever in our conscious life. It simply doesn’t exist for us. That is why we must avoid speaking of God as ineffable.” – Mordecai M. Kaplan

            Kaplan taught that the idea of God must improve the human condition if it is to mean anything in our lives. Like Moses, who in this portion identifies God as “the rock” to convey that God has substance and permanence, Kaplan believed that God must be real enough to us to compel us to act to make human life more fulfilling.

Also, much like Moses in this passage, Kaplan understood God as the fundamental source of order in the universe. The image of God as “rock” not only conveys the permanence of God’s presence in our lives, but also qualities of justice, truth and uprightness. God thus emerges as a force we humans can count on for stability. Even in the midst of chaos, God can inspire us to emulate the highest qualities we have traditionally associated with the Divine—justice, compassion, faith, strength, mercy, truth, and commitment.

“The idea of God is a map of the Cosmos,” Kaplan wrote. “It selects those features of the Cosmos that enable man to become fully human.”[i]

 

D’rash – A Personal Reflection

Songs of Hope and Freedom

Long ago, when I was just starting out as a religious school teacher before I became a rabbi, I realized that singing songs was an easy way to learn about Judaism. So I wrote songs about everything I could think of, from, “Hands Hold the Torah Way Up High” and “Shabbat Shalom Comes to Our Home” to “Kibbutz is Not the Last Car on a Railroad Train.” Kids seemed to like them and learn from them, and so over the years I wrote more songs to teach them about Jewish holidays and rituals, as well as ethics and values.

Three thousand years ago, Moses had pretty much the same idea.  As he led that bedraggled band of ex-slaves out of four hundred years of Egyptian subjugation, he sang them across the Sea of Reeds to quell their fears, bolster their spirits, and teach them that what this invisible God of the Hebrews demanded, perhaps more than anything else, was that people be free.  Moses’s “Song of the Sea” became the first number one hit song in Jewish history, and we still sing some of its lyrics at every service in the form of the Mi Ḥamoḥa.

Just as Moses began this forty-year desert drama by writing a song for his people, in this parasha he sings his farewell lament to signal the end of their wandering, teach them about God, and ready them for new challenges in their collective destiny. He seems to have written Ha-azinu as a way of reminding this generation about to enter the Promised Land of promises broken, promises kept, and God’s eternal love for the Jewish people.  He sings of the promises they broke along the way during their desert years – how despite the fact that God created them, enabled them to endure the hardships of slavery, freed them from bondage and prepared a precious inheritance for their future, they continually turned away to follow false gods, idols, and pagan “no-gods.”  Moses sings to remind them of the remarkable redemption they personally experienced under God’s protective wing (“like an eagle who rouses his nestlings, gliding down to his young” - Deuteronomy 32:11) and to warn them of the promises they will inevitably break in years to come.

He begins the poem by calling on heaven and earth to hear the words of his song. Only a portion ago he called on the same heaven and earth to witness perhaps the central spiritual challenge of the Torah – that good and evil, life and death, blessing and curse inescapably dangle before the eyes of us all, and the choice is always ours to make.

Ha-azinu is a kind of musical, poetic, ethical will from Moses to his children, as parents often leave not just their physical possessions for their children to inherit, but even more powerfully their ethics, values, and ideals. Like a loving parent whose child is about to go off to college or to live on her own, Moses on his deathbed gives the Children of Israel his last guidance, hoping they will remember all the ethics he tried to teach them during his lifetime. 

I was only four when my biological father died. How grateful I would have been then if, like Moses, my dad had left a written record of his thoughts and dreams, ideals and moral teachings for me to read and cherish as I grew. 

 

 

 

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Sat, September 26 2020 8 Tishrei 5781