December 2022 Bulletin ref1

D’var Torah for Oct. 7, 2022: Haazinu (Deuteronomy 32:1-52) by Libby Liebschutz

This week’s Torah portion is Haazinu.  We’re almost at the very end of the Torah; Moses is at the very end of his long speech to the Israelites; he’s about to ascend Mount Nebo, where he will die.  He composes a song, a poem, and the Torah says he teaches it to all the Israelites.  It’s supposed to be an easy way for them to remember all that he has told them.

The song is arranged in an unusual form.  It looks like two columns, but you just read the lines across both columns, so that each line is a pair of couplets.  In a little over a week, on Erev Simchat Torah, when we unroll the entire scroll, I’ll look for the Song of the Sea, as I always do.  It’s easy to pick out, with its distinctive pattern, like an openwork brick wall.  Somehow, I’ve never paid enough attention to this parshah, which is the other song of the Torah attributed to Moses and which is also distinctive looking.  This year I’ll be looking for it, too.

The poem has some distinct sections.

It begins with praise of God, ascribing to God the qualities of God as a Rock, as a father and as an eagle who cares for its young, setting them safely on high on a mountain.  God is described as establishing the boundaries of the world with reference to the people of Israel, making sure they occupy the land and live well on it, are well fed and well taken care of.

Then the poem envisions Israel growing fat and happy, forgetting about God and neglecting their duties to God.

God becomes vexed by the people’s behavior and punishes them with disease, famine, plague and enemies.

BUT – God will not let any of these threats wipe out Israel entirely.  The reason given is that God doesn’t want Israel’s enemies to believe that their gods are superior or otherwise that the God of Israel fails to protect His chosen people.  So, rather than God allowing enemies to overrun Israel, God will vindicate his people and his status and will destroy those who don’t believe in God.  In the poem, God says,

“When I whet My flashing blade
And My hand lays hold on judgment,
Vengeance will I wreak on My foes,
Will I deal to those who reject Me. 
I will make My arrows drunk with blood –
As My sword devours flesh—
Blood of the slain and the captive
From the long-haired enemy chiefs.”  (Deuteronomy 32:41-42)

(Apparently this passage was the basis for Julia Ward Howe’s lyrics in the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” when she wrote, “He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword.”)  The poem concludes with a final set of couplets,

O nations, acclaim God’s people!
For He’ll avenge the blood of His servants,
Wreak vengeance on His foes,
And cleanse His people’s land.  (Deuteronomy 32:43)

Like Jacob, who wrestled with the angel, I struggle with this passage.  Yes, in many ways it’s incredibly comforting and wonderful to think of God as specifically watching out for the Jewish people as the chosen people, making sure we never die out as a people, even if we stray and suffer.  But – do we really think God is up there dealing with the world like a giant Risk game board, moving armies and boundaries around, making sure our “enemies,” whomever they may be, are smitten and defeated?  Are we comfortable with a vision of God wielding “His terrible swift sword”?  Are we even comfortable with the notion of being “chosen”?

The tension in Judaism between a universal God, who is the God of all peoples, on the one hand, and the particular, parochial God who watches over a chosen, anointed people, goes back pretty much to the beginning.  On the one hand, as we just read in our prayer book, we’ve always revered God as the creator of the world, light and dark, the waters, the earth and the heavens.  All peoples of the earth were descended from Adam, and therefore all peoples of the world were and are “b’tzelem Elohim,” created in the image of God.  So, God is one, the earth is one, all peoples are children of God.  On the other hand, we have countless passages, both in Torah and elsewhere in the Tanakh, of God’s special relationship with us as the chosen people, always preferred over a host of less worthy enemies who fail to recognize God or worship as we do.  This week’s parshah is only one typical, summary example.

Traditionally, I think this tension gets resolved through the concept of covenant.  God is the God of all the earth and all the people, but if you sign up to believe in the Torah and agree to follow its commandments, you get special attention.  The covenant of the Jews was made at Sinai, where all the people assembled say, in one voice, “All that the Eternal has spoken we will do.” (They say that before they’ve even heard the rules, Exodus 19:7, but they repeat it again after Moses has relayed and explained all the law received on the mountain, Exodus 24:3, Exodus 24:7.)  We believe all the Jewish people were at Sinai and that the covenant was made for all time and for all Jews, past, present and future.

To those who see this singling out of a people as offensive, as an essentially racist, exclusive club, some commentators say, “But the club is open to anyone who agrees to accept the covenant!”  Indeed, this is the vision of Isaiah – when he prophesizes about a world where all the peoples will beat their swords into plowshares and “learn war no more,” he envisions all the nations coming together to an elevated mountain of Adonai, “to the house of the God of Jacob; that He may teach us His ways and that we may walk in His paths.’”  (Isaiah 2:2-3)

Does that concept have continuing validity in the modern age?  Do we continue to hope for a world where all the nations accept Torah as the one true path?  Do we believe that God will pick winners and losers in battle or plague or famine based on who has or hasn’t adopted the ancient Sinai covenant?  Or even based on who follows the ethical mores of the Torah?  Or who is naughty or nice?  The Haazinu poem says God will preserve the Jews even if we fail to follow in God’s ways.  We will presumably perpetually be given another chance to repent and reform.

Modern Jews and certainly the Reform movement have struggled with the concept of chosenness.  Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, a founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, rejected the idea.  According to Kaplan, “The idea of the Chosen People was justifiable religious doctrine in ancient Judaism, but today it is not merely untenable, but also detrimental to a normal adjustment of the Jew to his environment.”  (Sefaria: Kaplan on Chosenness, October 14, 1945).

The concept of the universality of a God for all people resonates with us as modern, progressive Jews.  It’s consistent with our tenets of tolerance of people of all nations and races and faiths; our efforts to make the world a better place for them as well as us.  We pray for peace and add “v’al kol yosh’vei tevel,” “for all who inhabit the earth.”

And the concept of a universal God also resonates as we move away from the concept of an anthropomorphic God, a white-haired guy in the clouds, a being with a face to show or hide from us, who wields a flashing blade.  Instead, some of us envision God as a sort of energy force field, the source of creativity in the universe.  On Yom Kippur morning, we read, of God, “Your Oneness is the life of the cosmos.”

But many other scholars see chosenness, or at least the covenant, as essential to maintaining Judaism as a coherent, unique religion.  Indeed, if you take the oneness of God in the universe to its logical extreme, you are faced with a host of questions:  If God is everywhere, in everything and everyone without any differentiation, shouldn’t you have a special relationship with God simply by virtue of being born?  If we’re all the children of God, all connected to the life force of the universe, what’s the point of being a Jew?  Especially for those of us who weren’t already born Jewish?  If we agree to follow the mitzvot, but there’s no reciprocal obligation on God’s part, what kind of covenant is that?  Does Judaism lose its coherence without the foundational underpinning of covenant?

I’m not prepared to give any answers today.  Indeed, I might propose that our Adult Education Committee consider offering a whole course on the topic of chosenness.  (I know Rabbi Weisbrot will be teaching a class in December on “The Jewish Family Tree” in which she will explain some of the history of the different Jewish movements, and this topic may end up being covered a bit in that context.)

I’m grateful for the giving of the Torah, whether it was delivered in a cloud on a mountain or evolved over centuries among the people of the ancient Near East.  I’m grateful for and proud of the Jewish tradition that preserved and publicized the ethics and values of the Torah, which was an incredible contribution to the advancement of civilization.  Indeed, I am one of many who have affirmatively thrown in my lot with the Jewish people because I liked the idea of living my life in accordance with the mitzvot of the Torah and the ethics of Judaism.  I don’t need any special favors from God to convince me that it’s a way of life that’s both constructive and meaningful.

In the meantime, I will continue to wrestle with our foundational texts.  The wrestling forces me to think, to consider my values, to examine my place in the universe.  It was Socrates who said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”  May we all then, find worth in living by examining our lives in light of our heritage of Torah and our relationship with God, whatever that may be.

B'nai Sholom Albany NY