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There Are No Good Old Days

  • There Are No Good Old Days

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

We have arrived finally at Parashat Haazinu, the last speech Moses will make to his people and the penultimate installment of his conversation with us from miles and centuries away. When we resume the plot of Deuteronomy on Simchat Torah (after next week's special festival reading for Sukkot), Moses's poetry will be little more than a thin wisp of air, propelling us backward to Genesis 1 and the beginnings of the cosmos.

We are preparing, then, to experience firsthand the strange paradox of Jewish time; moving forward from this parashah, the flow of time splits in two. After the end of Deuteronomy, the Israelites enter their Promised Land-but we, the readers, return home to Genesis.

Moses has hidden a related paradox for us in the verses of his song. The poem is a grim indictment of Israel's failings over the years and a plea for renewed fidelity to God. Moses insists that the only way for Israel to learn what it must is to look backward at its history. "Ask your parent, who will inform you," he tells the Israelites (Deuteronomy 32:7). The younger generations of Israel are the ones who have gone astray and corrupted their parents' piety, Moses explains, and salvation will only come if they change their ways and begin paying closer attention to their predecessors.

But then Moses changes his approach and abruptly reverses himself. In verse 46, he asserts that the hope for Israel's salvation lies primarily not in the elders of Israel but in its youngest generation. "Take to heart all the words with which I have warned you this day," he instructs. "Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching."

What has happened here, and which of Moses's positions is correct? Who offers more hope for redemption, our parents or our children? Is the progress of history bearing us closer to messianic redemption or is it carrying us inexorably farther away from our forebears' intimacy with God in earlier times?

These questions illustrate a classic dispute in Jewish thought: are we receding away from historic closeness with God or creeping gradually toward it? A strong case can be made for both conclusions and Jewish thinkers over the centuries have argued variously for one or the other. On one hand, Moses and the biblical patriarchs were as close to God as could have been imaginable for mortal human beings. But on the other hand, tradition also advises us that we are approaching a messianic redemption. The prophet Isaiah declares that during that remarkable time, "nothing evil or vile shall be done; for the land shall be filled with devotion to Adonai as water covers the sea" (Isaiah 11:9).

Today we find ourselves hemmed in between the great deeds of our ancestors and the great future foretold by our prophets. Here in this strange no-man's-land, we must ask, then: What are we? Are we "little less than divine" (Psalm 8:6), or are we "but dust and ashes" (Genesis 18:27)? What are we to learn about attaining closeness with God? Is such closeness even possible in the dim valley of our time?

Our parashah reminds us that all redemption stems from relationship. But surprisingly, Moses's poem seems to indicate that the relationship between God and humanity didn't peak-or even begin-with the matriarchs and patriarchs of Genesis. In fact, Deuteronomy 32:10 suggests that God didn't "find" Israel until our sojourn in the "wilderness," eretz midbar. This is a radical suggestion. Doesn't the biblical epic teach clearly that Israel's relationship with God began long before its Exodus from Egypt?

Nevertheless, Moses insists: covenantal relationship began in the wilderness because that was where God and Israel revealed themselves fully to each other. According to Moses's perspective, God's concern for Israel is made manifest only when each partner finds truthful and loving relationship with the other. The new beginning in the eretz midbar emerged from Israel's willingness to bind itself to the covenant proposed by God.

Moses's radical rewrite of Israelite history teaches that relationship with the Divine is always available to us, regardless of heroic ancestors or messianic redemption. Of course, as in all instances of honest and serious companionship, each partner in this relationship between God and Israel is vulnerable to being hurt if the other partner withdraws his or her company. Moses sternly warns us against abandoning the obligations of our relationship with God, lest God abandon us as well and decide to "hide My countenance from them" (31:17 and 32:20).

Perhaps the secret of Moses's poem, then, is this: Redemption is not bound to one period of history more than to any other. The holy is always accessible to us, just as it was to those who came before us. What it requires is not the good fortune of living in an era of spiritual virtuosity but the willingness to engage in loving and honest relationship.

The poetry of Parashat Haazinu calls out to us insistently, inviting us into ever-deeper relationship with the generations of our family, past and present. It urges us to remember our kinship with the entire people Israel. And it pleads with us to listen closely to hear the voice of God speaking to us from the words of our tradition.

As we approach the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, we pause to reflect on the peculiar whorls of Jewish time, uncoiling wildly from a heroic and glorious past even as it spins languidly toward a messianic future. We dwell in the strange territory between those two redemptions, and we cannot, nor should we, stop looking toward them for hope and inspiration. The heroic individuals in our people's past, and the peace and tranquility of the prophets' visions, can help us contemplate the heights of religious existence.

And yet this, too, is Moses's secret: There has never been a time richer in the potential of holiness than our own. Closeness to God, and the redemptive power of Jewish life, has never been more accessible. We need only to reach out, to open ourselves to the possibility of sacred relationship-with God and with our fellow human beings-so that our present times may become what our poets and prophets have sung about through the centuries of Jewish time.

Rabbi Oren J. Hayon is associate rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas. He received his undergraduate education at Rice University, and received rabbinical ordination from the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2004.

Living and Learning in Relationship to God and Others
Davar Acher By: 
Steven L. Mills

Rabbi Hayon observes in his d'var Torah, "Our parashah reminds us that all redemption stems from relationship." I remember a time nearly twelve years ago when my son was five; he made a poor behavioral decision and I chose to engage him in a role-play scenario to see if he could comprehend what he had done wrong. I really did not know if he understood the lessons in behavior that I was sharing with him, but the next day he wanted to talk some more about our role play.

This time he took on the role of the parent and I became the son. It amazed me how much he had absorbed from our earlier discussion. At one point he said, "Okay, now let's pretend that I am a daddy chicken and you are the son chicken." I said, "Fine." So he gave me his best "stern daddy chicken look" and said quite innocently, "I didn't like how you acted, boy chick." I managed not to laugh at that moment and I never forgot the lesson I learned from my "boychik."

This encounter could be viewed as simply a father and son talking about the right and wrong of a particular situation, but I believe it can be linked to our ancestors' biblical experience in this week's parashah. Moses reviews the history of God's love and care for the Israelites and also God's anger and disappointment in their behavior. Ultimately, Moses assures them that God will be a loving parent, always remembering and nurturing the people Israel in their growth and development. The wilderness journey that helped define and sculpt the character of the Israelites is much like the journey I have been on with my son for nearly 17 years; it is a journey of sacred relationship that helps incorporate the lessons of Torah in our lives.

Rabbi Steven L. Mills is the Congregational Network Rabbinic Director, Central.

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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