As we near the end of Deuteronomy, prepare to begin the yearly Torah cycle anew, and celebrate the end of the fall holidays, we are poised for a remarkable spiritual climax. This week’s Torah portion, Haazinu, includes Moses’ dramatic theological poem—a powerful cry of the heart because he wants to ensure that the community understands the core principles of what it means to be an Israelite. At this climactic moment, with multiple orations at the finale of Moses’ life and leadership, this section expresses his own theology, which has broad implications. While much of Deuteronomy is an interpretive rendering of aspects of the Israelite civilization we already know, this oration entails a paradigm shift on five levels: Moses, the people of Israel, God, the universe, and ultimately us—contemporary readers. A dramatic shift begins at each level.
After repetitions of history and law; the details of setting up a priestly cult, courts, and judges; the renewing of the covenant; and much discussion of reward and punishment; suddenly the tone and the layout of the text shift—even the portrayal of God shifts paradigms. Moses desires an audience greater than the community of Israel or even God: he calls upon the heavens and the earth to hear his elegy and affirm the truths he has learned.
While for most of the book, God has been portrayed as the mighty redeemer, the supreme warrior who leads Israel into battle, and the One who reveals Torah with thundering skies and threats of a conditional covenant, Moses now employs a variety of powerful but gentle images to describe God’s words:
“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. 32:2)
The well-known medieval commentator Rashi teaches that these expressions are a poetic description of Torah as the source of life. Just as the grass needs the rain and the dew so do we need the words of Torah. God’s words nurture us and sustain us. The holiday of Sukkot emphasizes a similar theme: we are ultimately dependent on forces beyond our control. The warm houses and incredible technology many of us are fortunate to have may give us a sense of security and power and make us feel that we have infinite access to knowledge, but in fact we all are ultimately vulnerable. We live in total exposure and are in need of a more transcendent kind of protection and guidance.
At this critical juncture in the narrative, the Deuteronomist ascribes to God many new names and characteristics that become important in the later books of the Bible, such as the Book of Psalms, and in the liturgy and in the prayer books that emerged in the following centuries. God as the rock, the source of justice. Any imperfections or problems in the world are because of human imperfection and human error—not because of God (Deut. 32 4-5). God is the father, the creator, the nurturer, like an eagle caring for its youngest eaglets in their nests and carrying them on its back.
By definition, these images of God ascribe complementary characteristics to the Israelites. If God is the saving eagle, the Israelites are the eaglets in a desert wasteland. If God is a wise and perfect and nurturing father, we are imperfect, naïve, and unenlightened children in need of the moral and communal direction of the Torah and a new generation of leadership. Without this theological widening it might not be possible for Joshua to be accepted and for the community to move forward.
These verses also emphasize a core feature of Judaism; it is not only a religion, culture, and civilization unto itself, but also the story of the Israelite people, which has metaphysical significance. Moses’ oration also confirms Judaism’s connection not only to religious and legal doctrines, but also to a God that is part of a metaphysical reality extending from Creation to all of eternity. By calling on the heaven and the earth to hear him, Moses returns with pathos to many of the themes of the Creation at the beginning of Genesis. Moses calls upon the heavens and the earth to witness his theophany concept. And through this powerful sermon he returns the people of Israel to the foundational elements of Creation—to the first days when heaven and earth are first distinguished by God, before humanity was even created. This is essential for the consciousness that must remain with the Israelites even after Moses is gone. God undergirds all of existence. Remember that is not just God the giver of the law, the judge, the warrior who will continue to accompany the Israelites, but also God the Creator and the devoted, protecting parent who will remain with us forever. This knowledge is a central goal of this season, to reach the spiritual climax in which we shift our existence toward all the goodness and hope that the universe holds in store for us.
Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, Ph.D. serves Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion as the National Director of Recruitment and Admissions, and Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought and Ethics. She was also named President's Scholar in 2013. Prior to this appointment, she served as Vice President of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Rabbi Sabath earned a Ph.D. in Jewish Philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary and has co-authored two books and published numerous articles in the Jerusalem Post, the Huffington Post, the Times of Israel, and other venues. She is currently writing a book on covenant theology and co-editing a volume with Rabbi Rachel Adler, Ph.D. on ethics and gender.