Saturday, October 22, 2005

Parashat Ha'azinu - The Song of Creation

BS”D

And so the Torah has been given. Moshe, having charged us to “Be strong and brave”, prepares to take his leave on this, the last day of his life. Before he departs, he has one final gift for us. Having given us the Torah, Moshe now shows us how to use it. In this brief and intensely powerful poem, Moshe gives us the entire history of the cosmos, as seen from the perspective of ‘Am Israel.

As the Torah itself begins with Ma’aseh Bereshit, the Act of Creation, so Moshe’s song begins with a recap of the first week.

Bereshit 1:1 – G-d creates Heaven and Earth. Day One.
Ha’azinu – Shemot 32:1 – “Give ear, Heavens… and the Earth shall hear…”
Bereshit 1:6 – “And G-d separated between the Waters and the Waters…” Day Two.
Shemot 32:2 – “My doctrine will drop like Rain, my speaking distill like Dew; as light rain on Grass, and as showers on the Herb.” The Waters Above, and the Waters Below.
Bereshit 1:11 – G-d commands the Earth to put forth Grass and Herbs. Day Three.
Shemot 32:2 – “… on Grass… on Herb”
Bereshit 1:14 – “To be Days and Years…” Day Four.
Shemot 32:7 – “Remember the Days of the world; consider the Years generation by generation…”
Bereshit 1:20 – G-d creates birds of flight. Day Five.
Shemot 32:11 – “As an Eagle stirring up the nest…”
Bereshit 1:24 – G-d creates wild beasts and cattle. Day Six.
Shemot 32:14 – “Cattle… sheep… Lambs… Rams… Goats…”
Bereshit 1:26 – “Let us make Humans in our image…” Day Six.
Shemot 32:14, 15 – “… and the blood of the grape – you drank the best wine.”; “And Yeshurun grew fat…”

Note that the association of humans is negative from the beginning. Does G-d not observe, in Parashat Noach, that our inclination is wicked from the outset? The sins of the first humans, and the first leaders of humanity – of Adam and of Noach – were sins of appetite, were a kind of drunkenness. The sin of Noach comes from drunkenness – as does the sin of Lot and his daughters, itself a min-replay of the story of Noach and his sons. The Gemara, arguing on the identity of the fruit eaten by Eve and Adam, puts forth one opinion that it is the grape – wine. Further, the name Yeshurun has in it the particle “Y /SH/ R” meaning upright. Homo erectus.

Upright, in the physical sense. Now the challenge is to become Yashar – morally upright. Nehama Lebowitz quotes the Zohar saying that the opening image, in Pasuk 2, of rain and dew is a metaphor for the Written Torah (Rain) and the Oral Torah (Dew). The one comes down from Heaven, the other manifests on Earth. The Written Torah has been transcribed and handed to us by Moshe. At the same time, he has shown us the way to “do” Oral Torah – all of Sefer Devarim is Oral Torah, in the sense that it is Moshe’s own telling / re-telling of the second, third and fourth books of Torah. It is our task to reunite Heaven and Earth, to fuse them into a whole – to make the Universe whole again.

But we must also recall that Division, Differentiation, Separation (Hevdel) is itself one of the fundamental acts of Creation. How then are we to undo what G-d has put in place? Or is that our assignment?

The task of unification is not of undoing G-d’s own work – as though that were within our power to accomplish. Rather, it is to drill down to the fundamental level where the underlying unity of G-d’s universe emerges. Torah is one. Not Written and Oral. Not Written but not Oral. Not Written versus Oral. Just Torah.

We shall return to this theme in a moment. First, let us dwell for a moment on the message of Moshe’s Song.

For Moshe is telling us of a terrible fate that appears to await us. It is, he says, our ineluctible destiny. This is the destiny which G-d feared to reveal to Abram at the Brit Bein Ha-Betarim – the Covenant Between the Pieces. When G-d told Abram that his descendants would be enslaved, but would ultimately triumph and be led out into freedom and with great wealth. Having said as much, G-d immediately hastens to reassure Abram that he will live a long life, a good life, and will fie a good death. Who could ask for more?

Now, though, Moshe is giving it to us straight from the shoulder. We will suffer, he says. We will suffer great tragedy. We will be scattered and will come near to total extinction. In a brief passage, Moshe gives us our entire future tragic history in a nutshell. Do we still want to be Jews? But unlike G-d, who was lulling Abram with sweet promises, Moshe is rubbing our faces in the reality. It may be a reality we are unprepared for. The Midrash says that Moshe keeps begging G-d to allow him to live forever. Human desires for immortality aside, Moshe recognizes that, without his leadership, we may be doomed. Indeed, without Moshe to intercede, G-d may come to destroy us in a fit of peevishness. And this is the greatest looming tragedy of all.

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Moshe is telling us. G-d is vengeful, Moshe says. G-d is capricious, he says, and will turn on you in a heartbeat. I had to tell you this story – all of Sefer Devarim – so that you would truly understand how many times you came to the brink of destruction, only to be rescued at the last minute by my intercession. Now, says Moshe, you no longer have me to step between you and the wrath of G-d. Beware, says Moshe. Study this Torah and take it to heart, and watch as the tragedy and suffering foretold in this, my Song, unfold throughout the generations of your future history.

And yet… In Chapter 32, verse 26, the text uses the words “Amarti af’eihem” – translated as “I thought [or Said] I will make an end of them…” Moshe reports G-d saying that G-d intended to make an end of us. But many commentators have picked up on the structure of the word Af’eihem – from the root PEH ALEPH HEH, from which is derived the word meaning Corner. Rashi, for example, says “I will scatter them into corners” as a punishment. The Sforno says “I will leave over of them only a corner.” But, with his breadth and profundity of insight, coupled with his unique historical perspective, the Abarbanel comes with the following interpretation.

The fate of Israel, says G-d, was to be cornered, to be driven into a corner and there to be destroyed. But I, says G-d (says Moshe), I will take mercy upon them at the last moment and instead, I will scatter them across the earth and there, spread throughout the lands and the peoples of the broad, wide world, ‘Am Israel will continue to exist, so that in all lands and in all places, in all times and in all conditions, they will continues to carry Torah among the nations.

For those who see in the cycles of history nothing but the repeated attempts of the Nations to destroy the People of Israel, the cynical response might be to quote Hemingway’s great and grand and bitter line: “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”

And then, of course, there are those who fervently believe that G-d acts at all times and in all ways in our direct best interest.

Which brings us back to the question of: What is the Torah really saying?

The argument over literal versus homiletical interpretation of Torah is a Klutz Kashe – a meaningless distinction, and a misleading one. The argument over Creationism versus Science has been much in the news lately. This is not an argument over whether to accept or reject the Bible. It is, rather, a dispute over whether to encourage people to embark on their own spiritual quest, or to tyrannize them with a form of spiritual fascism, enslaving them in the name of a god that is certainly not Divine.

The Torah speaks in the language of humans. If we did not have Rashi and Rambam to explain this to us, it would nonetheless be obvious by virtue of the mere fact that the Torah is written in Hebrew, in a language. A language spoken by humans. And even if we take the position that G-d created the cosmos by a First Utterance that was, itself, in Hebrew, we still are trapped in the reality of human use of language. In short: we can not claim that Torah only and always means precisely what it says, because the nature of language is such that there can never be universal consensus on the meaning of language.

Do I need Rambam to explain to me that the words “And Elo-k-im said ‘Let there be light!’, and there was light”, are a metaphor? Or am I to envision a large, transparent man with a white beard opening his mouth and uttering the formula? And just how large is this man? And what is he wearing – or is he naked? How do I know it was a man, and not a large, transparent woman? The Hebrew language gives gender not only to things, but to actions. Which drives us philosophically into a corner. There is not neutral gender in the Hebrew language. Every actor must be a male or female – and even each action is either a masculine or feminine action. Talk about a loaded situation!

Call me a heretic, but I am more comfortable setting aside the notion of a large, transparent human being – of either gender – as the Primum Mobile of the cosmos.

The great commentator Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin – the Netziv – writes that the Torah is a poetic text, and even the prose in Torah must be read with a poet’s sensibility. Poetry – allusive and elusive, figurative and vague – must be interpreted, and not merely “read.” Thus, the Netziv seems to be saying that the homiletical meaning of the Torah is the Pshat – the plain meaning.

As has been quoted here before in the name of Rabbi Daniel Shevitz – and as Moshe plainly teaches us by giving us Sefer Devarim – the greatness of Torah is not what it does mean, but all the infinite things it can mean.

Which is why Moshe begins his Song with the recap of Creation. For it is up to each of us to re-Create, to make anew, to participate again and renewingly and constantly and while there is the least breath of life in us – to actively strive to be G-d’s partners in the ongoing Act of Creation whereby the world continues to exist. More – as we have seen – we often must stand in for G-d and keep the spheres turning, even when G-d seems to have left the scene.

And, while we may never be able to say for certainty what the Torah means – nor should we desire so narrow an outcome – we are blessed, as the Abarbanel has it, by being the vessels by which this eternal quest continues to be carried on. Even in the darkest times that have – or shall – come upon us, there is this: the Torah was given for all humankind. Yet it is only Israel that possesses it. This is not merely a gift, but a great responsibility, for we must store it up and care for it and keep it very much alive until the time comes when the rest of the world flocks to its Truth.

Yours for a better world.

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