On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - Haazinu: Between a Rock and Hard Place

Parashat Haazinu includes the word tzur, or rock, eight times. But in this case, tzur isn’t referring to just any rock; it’s referring to God, as the rock of Israel. Sometimes, a rock can have a positive connotation, like our friends that are always there for us. But other times, it can signify something that’s cold, unfeeling, and unbending. What can be understood about these conflicting implications of a rock when we’re talking about God and the High Holidays? Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, discusses Parashat Haazinu, and tzur yisrael, God as the rock of Israel.

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[URJ Intro:] Welcome to Episode 38 of On the Other Hand, 10 Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, we reflect on more than 2,000 years of Jewish wisdom in just 10 minutes with modern-day commentary on the weekly Torah portion. Of course, we think there are plenty of ways to interpret Torah. We want to hear what you think, so talk to us on Twitter. Our handle is @ReformJudaism. Or like us at facebook.com/ReformJudaism, and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

This week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism will teach us about Parashat Ha’azinu. He asks if there is a strength in knowing that there is always something to lean on, and he also wonders how slow change can soften us.

[Rabbi Rick:] This week we focus on Parashat Ha’azinu, literally “give ear.” It's the last parashah we read as part of the weekly cycle, and it's from almost the very end of the book of Deuteronomy. The very, very end we only read on Simchat Torah, when we literally go right from the end to the beginning of B'reishit.

Depending on when you're listening to this podcast, you may be listening to it just before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. You may be listening to it just after. It will affect probably how you are, and how you Ha’azinu, how you hear these words.

One of the things that's so defining about the day of atonement, liturgically, is the way in which we refer to, God and the number of times, and the number of images we use to try and give voice to the nameless one. Again we, call God the nameless one but the reality is, we have many names. Dozens and dozens of names for the Holy One.

In this week's parashah, Ha’azinu, we actually have one particular name that stands out. And the word tzur is found 30 times in the Hebrew Bible. Eight times it is found in this week's poetic portion, Ha’azinu. And tzur is simply, it can be referred to as a rock. It could be referring to God as tzur yisrael, the Rock of Israel.

And as an image, it's one of those images that's really tricky because on the one hand, a rock is something very positive. You know, my friend, he's a rock. He's so solid. You know my friend will always be there. Al achat, kamah v'kamah How much the more so for the creator. If God is a rock, God will be there in those difficult moments, as well as in those joyful moments.

But the negative about tzur yisrael, about the rock of Israel, it could also signal cold, and unfeeling, and unbending, and tough. And is that the Holy One that we yearn for on the high holy days? Do we not want a softer, more forgiving, more compassionate God who's not going to remember only the things that we did that were off the mark, that caused pain, but as well the things that gave blessing and joy to others?

So, what do we do with these words, these images? And what do they, in a sense, do to keep us outside of the inner experience of a spiritual life? I think sometimes the Jewish religion is God optional. I mean, you can find tremendous meaning in the Jewish tradition, even if your understanding, or our understanding of God, is very much in process.

And I think of the great story of the Hasidic rebbe. And the rebbe said to his followers, “You know, there's a purpose for everything in life.” And so, one very smart student said, “Really? Everything, Rebbe?” He said, “Everything.” He said, “What's then the purpose of atheism?”

And the rebbe paused. And the rebbe said to the disciples, “Ah, atheism, there's such a powerful purpose. When you see a needy person in the world, the rebbe said, at that moment, you should be an atheist. You should not believe that God will take care of that person. You should believe that only you have the power and the responsibility to care for that person.”

And if you do, you will make a difference in that person's life. If you say, you know what, the all-knowing one, the all-compassionate one, God will take care of this poor beggar. The world will be impoverished by that theological assumption.

So, wherever we are in that process of trying to understand ultimate reality, the oneness at the core of being, the one who may be we think of as hearing our prayers or way, way beyond the place of hearing individual words and individual petitions.

The tzur yisrael, the rock of Israel. Can we find, as Ha’azinu tells us, that there is a strength in that image? There's a strength in knowing that no matter how my life seems to be crumbling, I can hold onto that image.

There's an amazing story about Rabbi Akiva, one of the great Talmudic sages, and he was a late bloomer. I mean, Akiva didn't study a word of Torah till he was 40 years old. And at first, he was feeling pretty inauthentic. I mean, how am I going to learn Torah? I mean, other people have been at it since they were kids.

And there's a beautiful midrash about how Akiva came to really come to not only understand the power of learning at any stage, but the ability to really make changes. And the midrash talks about Akiva noticing that he was by a well, and there was a hole that was cut through rock.

And it occurred to him that the way that the rock was cut was not with a blast of dynamite, was not with a giant jackhammer, but the drip, drip of water, slowly but surely created that hole and literally worked away the hardness of that stone.

And he thought to himself, if water can soften something as hard as rock, how could not the words of Torah enter my heart and make my life a blessing? We think of the high holidays. We think of Yom Kippur, all of the hopes, all the prayers. And we wonder if our heart really is opened through those prayers, and we hope that our hearts will be open to forgive as well as to be forgiven.

How do we not let those hearts harden, as pharaoh's did, as ours can surely harden quickly? And I think of this juxtaposition between God is rock and God is water. We have in our image, in the Jewish tradition, mayim chaim is an image of Torah, of life-giving waters. And those life-giving waters of Torah, of wisdom, can literally soften even the hardest rocks.

So those are a lot of powerful images to think about all those ways in which the words that we speak, the words of Torah that we learn, can literally enter our hearts, can soften our hearts, can help us to understand the ultimate reality and give us ways of living, and of thinking, and of being.

So, we're pretty close to the end of our cycle. We'll have a little bit more with Simchat Torah and sukkot coming up in just a few moments liturgically. But in this moment of either preparing for Yom Kippur or trying to keep Yom Kippur cleansing experience with us in the coming weeks and months, let's think of the impact of that gentle drip of water on our hearts that could turn to stone. And our images of God, which could be both strengthening and inspiring, and sometimes off putting and alienating.

And let's also remember the Hasidic teaching that as we walk through life and as we try to wrestle with how we understand and live in relationship to God, that there are times when it's not such a bad thing to take full responsibility for the world and not defer and say, God, will take care. God will provide. God will bring food and nourishment. God needs us to be God's instruments of love and compassion.

So, if you are not yet in Yom Kippur, I hope it will be a g'mar chatimah tova. I hope you will be sealed for a life and a year of blessing. If Yom Kippur has just concluded and you can still hear the ringing of the shofar in your ear,

I pray that the impact, and the power, and the beauty of that day will keep your heart, and my heart, and our hearts soft and forgiving, and compassionate, as the all compassionate one and the all merciful one who we also call tzur yisrael, the rock of Israel, will be with us today, tomorrow, and every day.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah.” If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at www.reformjudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit www.reformjudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah” is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week – l’hitraot!