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Border Crossings

  • Border Crossings

    Haazinu, Deuteronomy 32:1–52
D'var Torah By: 

We are at Rosh Hanikra, just meters from the Israel-Lebanon border. We go down to where the Mediterranean crashes through the caves it has carved out of the mountainside. Despite more conventional sources of excitementthe descent by cable car, a good shoot-'em-up story of how the Haganah blew up a bridge hereour young children are most captivated by the light and shadow; by the sea's pulsing blue and green; by nature's slow, smooth transformation of the cliffs into these magnificent colorful grottoes. Here, water meets rock, and both are forever changed.

This week's portion consists almost entirely of poetry. Haazinu is Moses' valedictory song: The stammerer whom we first encountered in the Book of Exodus has become the people's poet laureate. We read this portion each year, in the midst of our soul-searching and desire for repair, on Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Repentance and Return, which falls between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. The poem is didactic—a summing up of Israel's transgressions, God's power and love, and God's undying promise of divine deliverance. Moses begins with a stirring call: "Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;/ Let the earth hear the words I utter!/ May my discourse come down as the rain,/ My speech distill as the dew,/ Like showers on young growth,/ Like droplets on the grass." (Deut. 32: 1-2) God enters the poem in the next two verses in which Moses uses one of biblical poetry's stock metaphors, calling God "the Rock—whose deeds are perfect." (Deut. 32:4)

Rain and rock: How are we to make sense of these first verses? The common interpretation of our classical commentators is clear: Moses wants the people of Israel to receive his instructions as thirstily as the Land of Israel receives rain, to embrace the Torah as life-giving and essential. Moses issues the words that are meant to touch the people. The reference to God as the Rock seems to be unrelated to the rain image. It is just a common yet powerful way to describe God's unchanging steadiness and strength.

But Rosh Hanikra gives the poem a new dimension. There, by the border crossing, water meets rock and both are changed. And today, on the Sabbath of Repentance and Return, that summer day in the caves evokes the transformative and chutzpahdik hope that the waters of human prayer and yearning might touch the Rock and create beauty; that our tears have impact not only here where we shed them but in heaven; that we confess our sins before the Holy One of Blessing not simply to remind ourselves to do better next time but, as our sages taught, to propel God from the Throne of Judgment to the Throne of Mercy. A possibility and a promise: Namely, that the prayer that issues from the earnest human heart actually has the power to move God. Especially now, especially here, at the border crossing.

Calling for Justice
Davar Acher By: 
Deena Bloomstone

The summer is a time for relaxing, enjoying, traveling, being lazy, and feeling fortunate for what we have. It is a time of indulgence when we can go places, do things, and engage in activities we wouldn't necessarily do during the rest of the year. We can forget about the struggles we underwent to get to this point and our daily responsibilities. Hence, the month of Elula month of reflection and judgmentcomes at an opportune time. It brings to a close the carefree days of summer and invites us to reflect on what we have, how we got where we are, and our role as Jews. The month of Elul asks us to reflect on and makes us account for our lives and actions during the past year. It reminds us of who we are and what our purpose is. Thus, as we begin the year in our schools and congregations, it is appropriate that we find ourselves reading the concluding passages of the Torah.

Parashat Haazinu helps us put the carefree days of summer behind us and reminds us both to remember how fortunate we are to be God's people and to be active participants in our relationship with God. Haazinu contains two important stories: Moses' concluding poem to the people Israel and God's injunction to Moses not to enter the Promised Land. The two are tied together. The poem describes the rewarding relationship with God that the Jewish people will have as a result of their faith and observance, as well as the dire consequences they would suffer for their lack of involvement. The story of Moses' inability to enter the Promised Land illustrates the consequences of not listening to God.

The imagery of rain that Moses uses showers all with the proclamation of God's virtues. Moses goes on to extol God's greatness, to remind us that God has always been with us, has always been faithful to us. We, in turn, must be faithful to God by fulfilling the responsibilities for which we were chosen. We are reminded that being participants in the berit between God and the Jewish people means that we must carry out the observances (ritual, moral, and ethical) required of us. He reminds us that we are not masters of our own fate. If we don't do what we've been instructed, we end up destroying ourselves. The people are instructed, "Take to heart all the words with which I have warned you this day. Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching. For this is not a trifling thing for you: It is your very life; through it you shall long endure on the land that you are to occupy upon crossing the Jordan." (Deut. 32:46-47) Moses shows the people the bottom line. Jewish practice is life itself: Take it to heart, teach it to your children, and live your life accordingly. Jewish observance and faith are the keys to life's rewards.

At the end of the poem, the Torah tells us that because Moses broke faith with God (see Num. 20:12), he will go to Mt. Nebo to die—never to enter the land of Canaan. The connection is poignant: Despite all the good that Moses had done, he is judged by the same process he has described to the people because he, too, did not heed God. But Moses does not rebel. He knows he has erred, and he accepts his fate.

As we read Parashat Haazinu on this Shabbat Shuvah, may we be reminded of the great and wonderful relationship we have through our berit with God. May our year ahead see us live out our role as God's partners in this berit. For every good that comes our way, may we remember to be thankful. For every negative, may we take time to reflect. May we use this coming year to "take to heart all the words [and to] enjoin them upon [our] children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching."

Reference Materials: 

Haazinu, Deuteronomy 32:1–52
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,555–1,566; Revised Edition, pp. 1,398–1,412
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,251–1,270

When do we read Haazinu

2020, September 26
8 Tishri, 5781
2021, September 18
12 Tishri, 5782
2022, October 8
13 Tishri, 5783
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