Parashat Ha’azinu: Paradigm Shift

Moses' final dramatic message to the Israelites introduces some new names and characteristics of God.

Commentary on Parashat Ha'Azinu, Deuteronomy 32:1 - 32:52

Even the greatest book must come to a close.

Parashat Ha’azinu, the second to last book of the Torah, includes Moses’ final and dramatic theological poem, a powerful cry of the heart. While much of Deuteronomy retells the narrative of the Israelites, the tone of this section is one of even greater urgency because Moses wants to ensure that the community fully understands the core principles of what it means to be an Israelite. At this climactic moment, at the finale of Moses’ life and leadership, he expresses his own theology to an audience greater than the community of Israel or even God. He calls upon the heavens and the earth to hear his elegy and affirm the truths he has learned.

In this portion, after repetitions of history and law — the details of setting up a priestly cult, courts, and judges; the renewing of the covenant; and much discussion of reward and punishment — suddenly the tone and the layout of the text shift. Unlike Moses’ other orations, this one necessitates a paradigm shift on five levels: Moses, the people of Israel, God, the universe, and ultimately us—the contemporary reader. At each of these levels, we note a dramatic shift.

First, the portrayal of God is unusual here. For most of Deuteronomy, God has been seen as the mighty redeemer, the supreme warrior who leads Israel in battle, the one who reveals Torah with thundering skies and threats. Moses now employs a variety of different images to describe God that, while still powerful, are strikingly more gentle: “May my discourse come down as the rain,
 my speech distill as the dew, like showers on young growth,
 like droplets on the grass.” Deuteronomy 32:2

The medieval commentator Rashi teaches that these expressions are a poetic description of Torah as the source of life. Just as the grass needs the rain and the dew, so do we need the words of Torah. But what about wind, another way to understand the Hebrew word s’irim, translated above as showers? They might not be so gentle. But Rashi explains, quoting a midrash: “How is it with the winds? They strengthen the herbage and promote their growth! So, too, the words of the Torah promote the moral growth of those who study them.”

In other words, the intensity of the world as we experience it is an opportunity for moral growth. God’s words not only nurture and sustain us, but they challenge us and make us stronger, making our internal moral voice louder.

At this critical juncture in the narrative, the text ascribes to God many new names and characteristics that become important in the later books of the Bible and the prayer book liturgy that emerged in the centuries to come. God as the rock, the source of justice, the parent, the nurturer, an eagle carrying for its young in their nests and carrying them on its back.

By definition, these images of God ascribe complementary characteristics to the Israelites. If God is the eagle, the Israelites are the eaglets in a desert wasteland. If God is a wise and nurturing father, we are the naive and unenlightened children in need of moral direction — both from the Torah itself, and from a new generation of leadership that will follow Moses. Without this theological widening, it might not have been possible for Joshua to be accepted as the Israelite leader and for the community to move forward.

The holiday of Sukkot, which we celebrate just weeks after reading Parashat Ha’azinu, emphasizes a similar theme: we are ultimately dependent on forces beyond our control. The warm houses and incredible technology many of us are fortunate to have may give us a sense of security and power and make us feel that we have infinite access to knowledge. But in fact, we all are ultimately vulnerable. We live totally exposed and are in need of a transcendent kind of protection and guidance.

These verses also emphasize a core feature of Judaism; it is not only a religion, culture, and civilization unto itself, but also the story of the Israelite people. It matters whether we continue to hear the words of Torah or not, whether we continue to see ourselves as God’s people or not. What we do has metaphysical significance.

Moses’ oration also confirms Judaism’s connection not only to religious and legal doctrines, but also to a God that is part of a metaphysical reality extending from creation to all of eternity. By calling on the heavens and the earth to hear him, Moses returns with pathos to many of the themes we encountered at the beginning of Genesis. Through this powerful sermon, he returns the people of Israel to the foundational elements of creation—to the first days when heaven and earth were first distinguished by God, before humanity was even created.

This is essential for the identity and deep mindfulness that must remain with the Israelites even after Moses is gone. God undergirds all of existence. God is not just the giver of law, the judge, the warrior who will continue to accompany the Israelites. But also the creator and the devoted, protecting parent who will remain with us forever. Internalizing this knowledge is a central goal of this season, to reach the spiritual climax in which our existence is reframed. Now we understand ourselves to live with a deeper and broader purpose: to embody the goodness and hope that the universe holds in store for us and for all of humanity. It is on us to radiate that goodness, that hope and that love.

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