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AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Ha'Azinu

Parashat Ha’Azinu

Tishrei 8, 5780 – September 26, 2020

Torah Reading: Deuteronomy 32:1-52

Haftarah: Samuel II 22:1-51

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Ha’Azinu, which is Hebrew for “give ear” or “listen.” Technically, this is not the last Torah portion, although it is the final parashah read on a weekly Sabbath. The yearly cycle will conclude, in just over two weeks, on Simchat Torah, with a reading of the fifty-fourth and truly final portion: Parashat Vezot Haberachah. But, here, for now, our attention is on Shirat Haazinu – a beautiful 43-verse song commonly known as “The Song of Moses.” This song, this poem, constitutes most of the parashah and tells of a troubled relationship between Hashem and Israel.[1] It is a song that tells a story with an expected pattern – Hashem establishes a special connection with the Jewish people, looks out and extends a kind hand for them, and then the Jewish people disrespect that kindness by turning to other deities and engaging with inappropriate practices. Shortsightedness, ingratitude, and rebellion are themes that characterize the sins of Israel, which ultimately invokes the wrath of Hashem.[2] But instead of destroying the Jewish people absolutely, Hashem relents so that the other nations won’t mistake Israel’s collapse for their own power. Rather than inflicting divine punishment, Hashem turns his anger onto the persecutors of Israel calling them “My enemies.” (32:41) Hashem instructed Moshe to write down this song, and recite it to the people, to serve as a testimony for future generations about the consequences of errant behavior. After the poem, the parashah concludes with Moshe’s “imminent death”[3] and the inevitable transference of leadership that will be passed to Joshua.

As we are nearing the end of the Torah, it’s important that we begin reflecting upon the previous year and all of the things that we’ve learned. After reciting the song, Moshe says: “Apply your hearts to all the words that I testify against you today, with which you are to instruct your children, to be careful to perform all the words of this Torah, for it is not an empty thing for you, for it is your life…” (42:36-37) When we read these portions they’re not simply stories – they should come alive in our heads and our hearts and have some very real application in our lives. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi once said: “One must live with the times,”[4] meaning one must live entirely immersed in the world of the weekly portion and find some way to relate its meaning, and its essence, to the experience of our daily lives. In this way, the Torah is not “an empty thing,” but a teaching that “drop[s] like the rain…[and] flow[s] like the dew.” (32:2) However much you can absorb and integrate into your life is the perfect amount – the wisdom of the Torah is individuated and will meet you in your right place. That may be a fierce deluge or a gentle stream of rain. Either way, the synchronicities between the weekly portion, the energies of the Jewish calendar, and the happenings of our lives is an ecological triangulation. It keeps us attuned to the phases of the moon, the seasons, and the ebbs and flows of time. The ark of Jewish history is wedded to an ecological landscape, which are both inevitably tethered to the literal and metaphorical significance of the Land of Israel. These elements of an ecological consciousness sit as seeds in the Torah, which tell the stories of the human soul, the power of the human imagination, and the details of human suffering.

In a section of the poem where Israel is accused of insubordination and idolatry, the tone shifts after the Jewish people ungratefully turn to the worship of foreign deities.[5] “You became fat, you became thick, you became corpulent” (32:15) is a verse we read describing the inflated position Israel adopts after being in the Land and reaping all of Hashem’s gifts. Throughout Sefer Devarim, Moshe “repeatedly expressed his concern that once the people have settled in the Land and ‘eaten their fill,’ they foolishly will attribute their success to their own actions and not acknowledge [Hashem’s] role in their success, which will then [cause] them…to turn to other deities.”[6] There is an inherent boorishness to Israel’s actions, but underlying their disrespect is the idea that too much prosperity can be destructive. Or, put another way, the wrong variety of success can compromise the nation’s moral standing which is certainly a premise that characterizes the Anthropocene. Our modern comforts come at the expense of the earth and to the detriment of other species. This can most assuredly be improved – for example, widespread, renewable energy infrastructure is certainly feasible with the existing technology that we have now. But this section of Shirat Haazinu is also warning about the relationship between gluttony and ingratitude. This is a condition that extends beyond comfort into the realm of the absurd. In the United States, obesity and other associated conditions – such as type 2 diabetes, stroke, and heart disease – are common and serious conditions.[7] This is something Michael Moss addresses in his book Salt Sugar Fat, and the horrendous way that food industry giants used these ingredients to manipulate consumer tastebuds and extort the obesity crisis. This is a circumstance that echoes throughout “The Song of Moses,” where the nation’s elite – in pursuit of money and senseless profit – drive the decline of the general population. This is a phenomenon coupled to environmental destruction and moral compromise. In times such as these, in the oppressive face of a capitalist corporatocracy, we must resist the inclination to indulge in certain pleasures – even if we have the resources to do so. Our participation with comforts that have corrupt, and immoral, origins has a direct effect on our capacity to express gratitude for Hashem. Good fortune is a gift, not a right, and our ethics – our integrity – depends upon our ability to make the distinction. In the Mishnah (Pirkei Avot 6:4) we read: “Thus is the way of the Torah: Eat only bread with salt, drink water in small measure, sleep upon the ground, live a life of deprivation and in the Torah you will toil.” This is not so much about asceticism, but rather an appeal for moderation. The way of the Torah is the middle road, a path of moderation, a separation from extremes, and a call to find the balance between life and death.

In Moshe Rabbeinu’s introductory invocation, he beseeches the heavens and the earth to serve as his witnesses. Like we learned during the Song of the Sea, after the Israelites fled from Egypt, a song is an “unusual spiritual phenomenon”[8]that “express[es] recognition of the total harmony of Creation.”[9] Songs often coincide with liberatory events because they emerge during moments when clarity, not conflict, typifies the variety of insight. In Hebrew, the word for heavens,shamayim, can also mean sky.[10] In a sense, Moshe is appealing to the spheres of this world – the biosphere and the atmosphere – which envelop the human experience and imagination. Rashi and Ibn Ezra pose this question: “Moshe wanted witnesses that would outlive his and later generations; otherwise, who could reproach the Jews of the future if they were to deny that they ever accepted the covenant? Therefore, Moshe appointed heaven and earth, which are eternal. Furthermore, if Israel were to be found guilty of violating the covenant, these witnesses would take the lead in administering the appropriate punishment, for heaven would withhold its rain and the earth would withhold its produce.”[11] During a time when we are pumping pollutants into the atmosphere, degrading the quality of our top soil and mining deep into the ground for oil, this invocation is all the more powerful. Moshe is calling upon the whole of the earth, a being who will outlive him and later generations, to bear witness to his testimony, to administer punishment, and to endure throughout the future generations. As Moshe is nearing the end of his life, we – too – must ask ourselves if we are living within that reality: where the earth and the heavens have begun exacting their punishment. What will we do to correct our ways and express a sincere, and serious, desire to defend the harmony of creation? What will we do to write our own song?

Thank you all for listening. That’s all for now, and I’ll catch you next week.

Topics Include: The wisdom of Torah watering the seeds of life, song as liberatory moments, and defending the harmony of creation


Eskenazi, Tamara Cohn, and Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss, eds. The Torah: a women's commentary. CCAR Press, 2017.

Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).

[1] Eskenazi, The Torah: a women's commentary, p.1252 [2] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.1101 [3] Eskenazi, The Torah: a women's commentary, p.1251 [4] [5] Eskenazi, The Torah: a women's commentary, p.1258 [6] Eskenazi, The Torah: a women's commentary, p.1258 [7] [8] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.375 [9] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.1000 [10] [11] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.1000

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