In this week’
I tend to
In this week’
I tend to
As we near the end of Deuteronomy, prepare to begin the yearly Torah cycle anew, and celebrate the finale 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.
"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). Moses eloquently pleads to his community: Haazinu, “Listen.” He urges them to hear his sage counsel one last time before they make their way to the Promised Land without him.
In Haazinu, Moses recites a poem telling the people of Israel that they must give glory to God and be true to God whose ways are just. He instructs them to consult their elders and “remember the days of old.”
In his d'var Torah on Parashat Haazinu, Rabbi Marc Saperstein makes the case that Moses' request to “remember the days of old” (Deuteronomy 32:7) literally obligates the Israelites and us, their spiritual descendants, to engage in the study of our people's history. At the same time, he acknowledges that history is neither an absolute nor infallible science.
Redemption! Parashat B’shalach is a Torah portion of glory — glory in the Song at the Sea, the poetic celebration of liberation from Egyptian bondage, and glory in the details of the Israelites’ first steps out of Egypt.
The parashah begins with the verse that sets the scene for the entire next thematic section of the Book of Exodus, the Israelites’ early adventures wandering in the desert. Exodus 13:17 reads, “Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’ ”
Rabbi Bonnheim shows a particular, timely insight in her reference to the “Israelites’ anxiety about their new reality.” When we think of Parashat B’shalach, our first images often turn to the miracle at the Sea of Reeds, an explosion of rapturous song and joyful dance, and the celebration of the new-found state of freedom.
But not here.
This journey, with its dangling carrot of collective redemption, presents itself in alternating forms of paralytic panic, fear of the abyss, relentless struggle, and loss of control. A leave-taking moment, indeed.
Haazinu is one of the shorter sections of the Torah, and it is made up almost entirely of a breathtaking and chastening poem. The term "awesome" tends to be overused today, but this poem is truly awesome. Unfortunately, the power of the Hebrew rhythm and poetic style is lost in the English translation, but we can still sense some of the majesty.
The poem in Haazinu presents divine attributes, affirms God's providential care and bounty; the place of the Jewish people in relation to God and the world; divine wrath; punishment and chastisement; treatment of Israel's enemies, and hope for the future of Israel. All of these topics in such a small space echo Abravanel's view, "The words of Torah sometimes seem few in quantity, but they are great in quality" (ibid., Itturei Torah).
Traveling in Tanzania on safari, my husband pointed excitedly to a gazelle bending down in the tall grass. After a moment, I realized why he was so excited – the gazelle was standing over a wet, furry ball: a baby gazelle. Newborn gazelles are on their feet within a few days, but this calf was only hours old, still wet with amniotic fluid, and not yet able to stand on its spindly legs. The mother stood over her tiny treasure, nestling the baby in the grass. Then the mother moved away and viewed the baby from distance.
Our guide reassured us, the newborn gazelle was healthy. "The mother is moving away as way of protecting him," he explained. "By himself, the calf is very well camouflaged in the grass. Predators will have a hard time seeing him. But if the mother were to stand next to him, they would see her, and then would be more likely to notice the defenseless baby next to her. This way, any predators will see her, not the calf, and she can distract them should they come too close to where the calf is hiding."
In this week's Torah portion, B'shalach, our ancestors experience a similar moment of protection that must have seemed at first like a moment of abandonment.
The Israelites, newly escaped from Egypt, not yet across the Red Sea, have been led by God's Presence. As the Torah describes: "The Eternal went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, . . . the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people" (Exodus 13:21-22). All is well. The Israelites are journeying on their way defiantly, with no concern for the Pharaoh who had so long held them captive (see Rashbam on Exodus 14:8).
When we reach Parashat B'shalach, the cantors with whom I am lucky enough to work know that the greatest gift they can give me, on years that the stars align, is the gift of chanting Shirat HaYam, the Song at the Sea. If I get that chance, it is usually on the 7th day of Passover. Year after year, I am overcome with emotion watching the congregation rise around the Torah, chanting the words and the melodies that guide us through the sea.
When I am preparing a family for the funeral of a loved one, we meet privately to recite the phrase Baruch Dayan HaEmet, "Blessed is the True Judge," as we put a tear in the black k'ri
Imagine you're an Israelite camped out across the Jordan River, poised to enter the Promised Land, and you hear Moses final appeal and farewell.
As I started reading this week's portion, Parashat B'shalach, I could not believe its implication for what is currently happening in Israel.
Three years ago, my parents commissioned a sumptuous talit for my installation.
Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them, "Sing to Adonai…" (Exodus 15:20-21)