The New Year is a Chance to Realign Our Actions with Our Values

Haazinu, Deuteronomy 32:1–52

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Max Chaiken

How can we hold ourselves accountable for our actions? How can we follow through with changing our own lives?

At this time of year, and in this week in particular, questions like these might weigh heavily on our minds. The Jewish tradition teaches us to engage in t’shuvahT'shuvahתְּשׁוּבָה"Return;" The concept of repentance and new beginnings, which is a continuous theme throughout the High Holidays. during the days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Often translated as repentance, t’shuvah more literally means returning – returning to our truest selves, returning to connection with the Divine, or returning to make amends with those we may have wronged. Broadly, it’s the kind of work we do to realign our actions to our values – to return to our moral compass. We contemplate all the ways in which our actions of the past year have missed the mark, and we pray for the strength to do better in the year to come.

The secular new year presents a similar opportunity in making “new year’s resolutions.” In marking a new year, we focus on our capacity for change, to get better, and to grow. But we also know that, even with the best intentions, holding ourselves responsible for our choices and changing our ways are never easy. Studies of resolutions from the secular new year demonstrate just how difficult it can be to commit to new behaviors and routines; according to Forbes, up to 80 percent of people give up on their resolutions by February.

The Torah portion we read this week on Shabbat ShuvahShabbat Shuvahשַׁבַּת שׁוּבָה"Sabbath of Repentance;" the Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. A special haftarah is read and traditionally the rabbi gives a sermon related to repentance. appropriately addresses the theme of accountability and responsibility for our actions. From its very first words, it calls the heavens and earth itself to be witnesses to the Israelites’ behavior and Moses’ charge to the people:

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 distilled as the dew,

Like showers on young growth,

Like droplets on the grass.  (Deut. 32:1-2)

These first words of Parashat Haazinu present Moses’ final “song” or “poem” to the people Israel. As our book called “Words” (D’varim in Hebrew) draws to a close, the prophet and ostensible narrator turns from sermons, speeches, and laws to poetry.

Biblical scholars understand the poem to be a foreshadowing of exile, as it metaphorically describes the “relationship gone awry” between Israel and the Divine (Bernard M. Levinson in The Jewish Study Bible, ed. Berlin & Brettler, note to Deut. 31:30-32: 44). It portrays the people Israel, who stray from the covenant made at Sinai and from God, who guided us through the desert even as we faltered and failed along the way (32:10-12, 15-18). A wrathful God exacts vengeance on the people Israel through “wasting famine, ravaging plague, deadly pestilence, and fanged beasts” (Deut. 32:24), among other punishments. The poem concludes with the hope that God will forgive Israel once again and avenge our tragedies and losses (Deut. 32:43).

The words that follow the poem remind us of some of the same core messages that the entire book of Deuteronomy teaches: Follow in God’s ways, aspire to holiness, and keep the commandments given in this Torah because Israel has made a covenant with the Divine (32:46-47). We are reminded to be accountable for our choices. When Moses begins the poem with a call to nature itself – the heavens and the earth – to serve as legal witness for his message, he does so “in the hearing of the whole congregation of Israel” (Deut. 31:30). When understood from a legal perspective, what appears to be a beautiful image without need of further interpretation is also an important part of the covenantal contract made with the Divine. Since our covenant is made with God directly, Moses can’t just warn us “with God as our witness!”

And so, we become the ones who must hold each other accountable for pursuing holiness in our lives, our communities, and our society at large. We can even look to nature itself – to the trees or the ocean, the sky and the rain – as witnesses to our behavior. This image was so captivating to our ancestors that toward the end of the poem, God again calls the heavens to witness (Deut. 32:40).

We cannot always control what plagues may attack us. Our world is sometimes cruel, and it may feel like God, or the world, is punishing us. Yet this season and this beautiful Torah portion remind us that we can always turn things around. T’shuvah is about choices we can make every day so that our lives can be a force for good.

While the forces of nature will continue “dealing death and giving life” (Deut. 32:39), we can strive to live in relationship to the words and the teachings of our Torah, bringing each of us the goodness of our Tree of Life.