Divine Poetry

  • Rav Zvi Shimon

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA

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Dedicated by Rabbi Uzi Beer in Honor of Rachel Beer

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Dedicated by Joel Mandelbaum

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In Memory of Herbert Perlman, Chaim be Aryeh z”l by Vera Perlman

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PARASHAT HAAZINU

By Rav Zvi Shimon

 

 

Divine Poetry

 

            This week's Torah reading is one of the most remarkable in Scripture.  Its uniqueness stems, first of all, from its special literary style, for it is composed almost entirely of one extended poem.  However, it is outstanding not only in style but also in content.  Moses leaves the people with a poem which is to serve as a testament and warning to all future generations.  The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1274) concludes his commentary on the poem with a summary of its content:

 

"Now this Song, which is our true and faithful testimony, tells us clearly all that will happen to us.  It mentions first the mercy that the Holy One, blessed be He, bestowed upon us from the time He took us to be His portion.  He mentions the favors that He did for us in the wilderness, and that He caused us to possess the lands of great and mighty nations, and the abundant good, wealth and honor that He made us inherit there.  Yet despite the abundance of all good, they rebelled against God to worship the idols, and it mentions how He was provoked by them until he visited upon them in their country pestilence, famine, the evil beast, and the sword, and then He dispersed them in every direction and corner.  It is known that all this has been fulfilled, and it was so. ...

 

It is to this that Scripture alludes in saying, 'And Moses came and spoke all the words of this Song in the ears of the people.'  It mentions all ['all' the words] in order to indicate that the Song contains everything that is to come upon them although it is brief in words, for Moses explained its many subjects to them.

 

Now, if this Song had been written by one of the astrologers 'declaring the end from the beginning' it would have earned belief therein because all its words have been fulfilled by now, not one thing hath failed.  Certainly we shall continue to believe and look forward with all our heart for the word of God by the mouth of His prophet, the most trusted in all his house."

 

            The poem is composed of several parts. Following the prologue, the Torah recounts the benevolence of God towards the people of Israel in their travels in the desert, and in His bequeathing to them a rich and fertile land.  The second segment recounts the people's rebellion against God and their severe punishment and eventual exile from the land of Israel.  The poem then concludes with a promise of future redemption.  The poem is a synopsis of the history of the people of Israel.  The nation forgets all the good which God has bestowed upon them, rebel, are punished and then mercifully redeemed.  The Ramban marvels at the accuracy of the poem's predictions.  We would add that from our vantage point, the poem seems all the more impressive in its forecasts.  Not only have the first two segments transpired, God's bequeathing to the people the land, their wrongdoing and exile therefrom, but, we have been fortunate enough to witness the unfolding of the final section of the poem, God's restoration of the people to their homeland.  If the Ramban marveled at the precision of the poem's prophecies, all the more do we of later generations!

 

            In light of the fact that we presently find ourselves in the midst of the ten days of repentance, it is most fitting that we concentrate on the people's sin and rebellion against God.  How do the people forget all the good that God has bestowed upon them?  What causes the tragic deterioration from the first segment of the poem, God's benevolence towards Israel, to the second segment, the rebellion and punishment of the people?  Let us see how the Torah portrays this awkward chain of events:

 

            "Remember the days of old,

            Consider the years of ages past;

            Ask your father, he will inform you,

            Your elders, they will tell you: ...

            He [God] found him [Israel] in a desert region,

            In an empty howling waste.

            He encompassed him, watched over him,

            Guarded him as the pupil of His eye.

            Like an eagle who rouses his nestlings,

            Gliding down to his young,

            So did He spread His wings and take him,

            Bear him along on his pinions;

            The Lord alone did guide him,

            No alien god at His side.

 

            He set him atop the highlands,

            To feast on the yield of the earth;

            He fed him honey from the stone,

            And oil from the flinty rock,

            cheese of cattle and milk of flocks;

            With the best of lambs,

            And rams of Bashan, and he-goats;

            With the very finest wheat-

            And foaming grape-blood was your drink.

 

            So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked-

            You grew fat and gross and coarse-

            He forsook the God who made him

            And spurned the Rock of his support.

            They incensed Him with alien things,

            Vexed Him with abominations.

            They sacrificed to demons, no-gods,

            Gods they had never known,

            New ones, who came but lately,

            Who stirred not your fathers' fears,

            You neglected the rock that begot you,

            Forgot the God who brought you forth."

            (Deuteronomy 32:7; 10-18)

 

            Following the description of God's care for the people in the desert, the poem recounts the richness and abundance characterizing the Israelite's existence.  The commentators interpret this section in reference to the land of Israel.  "He set them atop the highlands" refers to the mountainous region in the center of Israel.  Following the praise of the fruitfulness of the land, the Torah describes the rebellion of the people with the words "So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked."  What is the meaning of this obscure phrase?  The Sforno (Rabbi Ovadia Sforno, Italy, 1470-1550) offers the following interpretation:

 

"'But Jeshurun grew fat and kicked.' Behold, even those who are the scholars and philosophers among them who are called Jeshurun acted as animals that kick those who give them food.

Behold, you Jeshurun, the congregation of Torah adherents and men who are scholars and philosophers, have turned to material pleasures and grown thick, (incapable) of understanding subtle truths, as it says, 'But these also reel through wine and stagger through strong drink, the priest and the prophet' (Isaiah 28:7).  [You are also] covered with fatness as it says, 'for He has shut their eyes that they cannot see and their hearts that they cannot understand' (ibid. 44;18)."

 

            According to the Sforno, the word Jeshurun refers to the wise, to the intellectual leaders of the people of Israel.  It stems from the root 'shur,' to see (see Numbers 23:9), and refers to the people of vision within the community.  The leaders who are supposed to set an example for the nation have regressed to materialistic lifestyles.  They are so preoccupied with the pursuit of physical pleasures that they are no longer capable of maintaining a spiritual existence.  Priest and prophet, scholar and philosopher, have chosen wine over wisdom.  They are like a fat animal who kicks the one who feeds it, lacking even the most basic gratitude.  They are completely immersed in corporeal pleasures and have forgotten God who has provided them with all.

 

            The Sforno's interpretation concentrates on the conflict between the physical and the spiritual.  He who is totally preoccupied with material quests inevitably stifles his spiritual progress.  This interpretation echoes the approach of many of the classical philosophers and is reminiscent of the Renaissance milieu within which the Sforno lived.  While the ideas expressed in the Sforno's interpretation are undoubtedly true, it is questionable whether his interpretation uncovers the full significance of our verse.

 

            As previously stated, the structure of the poem is such that it begins by recounting God's kindness to the people and then continues with the people's rebellion against Him.  However, a close inspection of the poem reveals a direct relationship between the two sections.  The Torah describes the people's rebellion as a direct outcome of God's benevolence!  The key verse signaling the shift from the description of God's kindness to the people's wrongdoing is "So Jeshurun grew FAT and kicked."  The act of rebellion is depicted as a kick.  The cause of the rebellion is Jeshurun's fatness.  How did Israel become fat?  The answer appears in the preceding verses.  God provides the people with the fattest of foods!  Let us return to the poem's description of the fruitfulness of the land to which God brought the people of Israel:

 

            He set him atop the highlands,

            To feast on the yield of the earth;

            He fed him honey from the stone,

            And oil from the flinty rock,

            cheese of cattle and milk of flocks;

            With the best of lambs,

            And rams of Bashan, and he-goats;

            With the very finest wheat-

            And foaming grape-blood was your drink.

 

            This lavish description is reminiscent of other verses in the Torah which describe the bountifulness of the land of Israel.  "Honey from the stone" and "milk of flocks" remind us of the description of Israel as a land "flowing with milk and honey" (Numbers 13:27).  Likewise, the mention of honey, oil, wheat and grape recall the verse describing the fruits of the land: "It is a land of wheat, barley, grapes, figs and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey" (Deuteronomy 8:8).

 

            The Torah contrasts the desert which is described as "an empty howling waste" with the lushness of the land of Israel.  After entering the promised land the nation grows fat, forsakes God and turns to idolatry.  Instead of the desert description, "the Lord alone did guide him, no alien god at His side" we find "They sacrificed to demons...gods they had never known."  This development is a direct outcome of settling in the land of Israel.  The problem did not exist in the desert!  The question arises, if the opulence of the land of Israel is the cause of the people's rebellion, then why did God lead them there?  Is not God to blame for the fattening of Jeshurun?  Rabbi Hirsch (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Germany, 1808-1888) relates to this specific point in his illuminating commentary:

 

"Here for the first time we meet the name Jeshurun.  It designates Israel after the ideal of its moral calling, which in 'yashar' - straight, never deviating in any way from the straight path, corresponds to this name...God wishes that Israel ascend the summit of the dual heights of human aims, the highest material good fortune and the highest spiritual and moral perfection. For Israel is to show the world an illuminating example of how a life devoted entirely to spiritual moral duties by no means entails a renunciation of bright earthly happiness, on the contrary, how the highest degree of morality fits in very well with the highest amount of earthly happiness and all material wealth and earthly enjoyments can be turned into moral deeds and spiritual achievements.  But when the destined Jeshurun-people get an abundance of all the good things on earth for the purpose of fulfilling this mission, when it has come out of the wilderness into the land of milk and honey, then it became fat and "kicked out."

'You grew fat and gross and coarse' is an address in parenthesis made to the people present with Moses and to all future readers of the words of the poem.  It contains the quintessence of the whole of Jewish history.  In suffering, the Jewish people have mostly proved themselves splendid.  But it has seldom been able to stand good fortune.  'As often as it has become fat, it has become corpulent and overgrown with fat,' literally: 'covered.' ... The sense of the passage is: - the more strengthening, the fatter, the food which is given to the body is, the more should the surplus be used up in energy and work, the higher should the activity and achievements be.  Then the person masters the abundance and remains bodily and mentally healthy and fit, and by his greater achievements increases his moral worth.  But if he neglects to use it, then the surplus material stores itself up in his body, he becomes corpulent, obese, and instead of mastering the abundance, he, his real spiritual active self, becomes overcome by the fat, and sinks.  That is the history of Israel.  It did not use the abundance and surplus with which it was blessed to increased spiritual and moral achievements, not the fuller carrying out of its mission.  Its moral improvement did not keep pace with its material good fortune.  It did not understand how to remain master of its riches and good fortune, did not know how to use them for the purpose of fulfilling commandments, it allowed itself to be overcome by riches and good fortune, and its better, spiritual moral self to be ruined by it."

 

            Rabbi Hirsch interprets the word "Jeshurun" differently from the Sforno cited earlier.  The Sforno interpreted the word "Jeshurun" as stemming from the root 'shur,' to see, and understood it to be referring to the wise and the learned of Israel.  Rabbi Hirsch suggests that the word "Jeshurun" stems from the root 'yashar' - straight and refers to the whole nation of Israel.  The nation which was to exemplify uprightness has become crooked and has turned away from God.  They have become fat from the abundance of the land of Israel.

 

            Why then did God bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey?  Rabbi Hirsch explains that this is the ultimate mission of the people of Israel.  According to the Torah, spirituality does not negate material wealth.  In contrast to other religions, Judaism does not preach or glorify asceticism.  Spirituality is not achieved by living a reclusive life in the desert.  The Torah is to be observed in the land of Israel with its material richness.  However, here lies the major challenge and danger confronting the nation of Israel.  They must use their material wealth for the accomplishment of spiritual ends.  Material well being is meant to assist moral growth.  This is where the nation fails in its mission.  That which was meant to be a tool turns into the essence.  Material wealth develops into materialism, a way of life.  In such circumstances, spirituality can no longer exist.  The people grow "fat," and "kick" and rebel against God.  God responds by sending the people into exile and bringing upon them horrible suffering.  If the nation does not know how to use the blessings of the land of Israel for positive ends, then they forfeit their claim to it.

 

            The land of Israel presents the nation with the opportunity for great spiritual growth but also with the danger of moral disintegration.  It is the ultimate mission of the people of Israel to utilize the "highlands" of the land of Israel for accomplishing their higher spiritual mission.  It is only thus that we may realize the full potential of the land flowing with milk and honey.