Commentary on Parashat Ha'Azinu, Deuteronomy 32:1 - 32:52
Parshat Ha’azinu is Moses‘ last speech to the Israelites–it is a powerful poem recalling the sacred history since the Exodus from Egypt, and warning the Israelites in the strongest terms not to stray from the path that God has commanded. At the end of the parasha, God tells Moses that he will be able to see the Land of Israel, but will not be able to enter it.
“Remember the days of old, understand the years of the generations. . .” (Deuteronomy 32:7).
At the beginning of his long, poetic, theological discourse, Moses asks the current generation to consider the past, when the previous generations had done things that brought about God’s anger. Presumably Moses is referring to the people’s complaining in the desert, the building of the Golden Calf, and other acts of apparent rebellion. As we make our choices in life, it’s important to consider and be open to learning the lessons of history.
Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein, a Hassidic rabbi who lived in Poland in the late 19th century, makes a wonderful drash (explanation) out of a wordplay on the word “years” in our verse above. “Years,” in Hebrew, is shanot; picking up on a comment by the medieval scholar Ibn Ezra, R. Bornstein relates this to the root of the word for changes, which in Hebrew is shinui. So he reads the verse like this: “understand the changes throughout the generations.”
For R. Bornstein, the highest point of the Jewish people was the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and we’ve been in slow spiritual decline every year since. So “considering the changes” in the generations, in his perspective, is a humbling experience–we might think that the latest, most technologically advanced age is the best, but perhaps the spiritual accomplishments of the previous generation were even greater than our own. We should humbly reflect on both the faults and achievements of those who came before us, and ask ourselves if we’ve really worked on improving the faults and living up to the achievements.
That’s not a bad idea to mull over at this introspective time of year, but we might take his midrash in a different direction too. Perhaps “considering the changes of the generations” means that we can reflect on the potential for change in every generation. I understand one essential element of Judaism as the teaching that people are never “stuck” in a spiritually dismal place–there is always the possibility of change, growth, forgiveness, reconciliation, and return to our best selves. All these would be elements of teshuvah, or “repentance,” but more literally understood as “returning” to that which makes us most fully human.
Thus on this “Shabbat of Returning” (the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), we might understand Moses’ poem as not only urging us to consider the mistakes of the past, and learn accordingly (which is hard enough), but also to consider that the past is not necessarily a prologue to the future. We are not doomed to repeat the errors of the past, either as individuals, communities, or nations–to me, Judaism is more optimistic than that. Consider the past, but don’t feel that you’re stuck in it; this is a central message of the holiday season.
Provided by KOLEL–The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada’s Reform movement.
Pronounced: roshe hah-SHAH-nah, also roshe ha-shah-NAH, Origin: Hebrew, the Jewish new year.
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.