The Eternity of the Jewish People

  • Rav Michael Hattin

 

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA

 

 

PARASHAT HAAZINU

 

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In memory of our beloved father and grandfather
Mr. Berel Weiner (Dov Ber ben Aharon z"l).  
May the learning of these shiurim provide an aliya for his neshama.

 

Steven Weiner, Lisa Wise, Michael & Joshua

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Dedicated with respect and love

In memory of Rabbi Abraham Halbfinger, z”l and

In memory of Bracha Halfbinger Tal, z”l

By Marcy and Tsvi Lieber

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The Eternity of the Jewish People

By Rabbi Michael Hattin

 

 

Introduction

 

In a departure from the rest of Sefer Devarim, Parashat Haazinu is composed as a song.  It is Moshe's last exhortation to the people of Israel, and with it he concludes his review and explanation of the mitzvot.  The song of Haazinu contains no mention of commandments, no clarification of God's laws, no expressions of warning or promises of reward.  It is instead a testimonial document, describing in moving and sometimes obscure verse the broad sweep of Jewish history.  The dominant theme of the song is the singular relationship between God and the people of Israel, and Moshe traces that unique bond from the beginning of human history until its eschatological conclusion. 

 

In terse and measured words, Moshe details the pivotal events in the life of the nation of Israel.  He describes their election as God's special people, His providential care of them in the wilderness after the Exodus, and their entry and successful settlement of the land.  Moshe goes on to spell out the people's subsequent downfall, as they fall prey to a lethal combination of the land's material plenty, the Canaanites' spiritual deficiency and a resultant estrangement from God.  Setback follows, in the guise of enemy domination, conquest, exile and near extermination.  God stands aloof and remote, as His once-cherished people call out to their false gods for salvation, but to no avail.  Finally, He intervenes, crushing their enemies in order to vindicate the ideals for which Israel once stood.  At the end, the land, for so long desolate and deserted, achieves 'atonement' as the people of Israel return to it.

 

            Without a doubt, in this song Moshe invokes the 'prophetic' tense of time.  Although the people have yet to cross the Jordan, in his mind's eye Moshe can already see far into their future.  Their successful establishment in the land and eventual infidelity are writ large before him.  His dire predictions, so often intimated during the course of Sefer Devarim, are here spelled out as seemingly inevitable destiny.  In the Song of Haazinu, the distinctions between past, present and future blur and fade away, as the story of Israel's history is presented as a single continuum along a line that has but one underlying truth: the people of Israel can never cast off the onerous mantle of responsibility with which God has cloaked them.  They are His special people and, while in a unique position to enjoy the distinction of that appointment, they must also embrace its demands. 

 

Idolatry and Exile

 

            This week, we shall examine the implications of this startling fact, especially as they find expression in the eloquent words of the Ramban (13th century, Spain).  The context of his comments is the critical passage that describes the dire aftermath of Israel's forgetfulness of the God who 'gave birth to them': "God saw and was incensed by the infuriating conduct of his sons and daughters.  He said: 'I will hide My face from them and see their end, for they are a rebellious generation, children of no faith.  They have angered Me with false gods and have enraged Me with their vanities; I will discomfit them at the hands of an infamous nation and a barbaric people.  For a fire burns in My nostrils and engulfs even the netherworld, it consumes the land and its produce, igniting the foundations of the mountains'…I said: 'I will scatter them far and wide, and cause their memory to cease from among humanity.  But for My fear of the enemy, lest their tormentors turn to their false gods, lest they say that 'our hand is raised upright, and God has not done all of these deeds…' (Devarim 32:19-27).

 

These ominous verses, as does the rest of the Song, contain phrases whose meaning is doubtful and whose wording is unclear.  As a result, the commentaries offer a wide a variety of possible interpretations.  Nevertheless, there seems to exist a rough consensus concerning the broad outline: Israel will forget God and turn instead to idol worship and to its related system of corrupt values.  The Divine response, here anthropomorphically termed 'anger', will be a removal of Providential care and a distancing from their resultant plight.  Israel will be attacked by a foreign power for whom compassion and kindness are anathema, and they will be cruelly exiled.  God's 'desire', to scatter Israel to every corner of the globe and to bring about their demise, will be prevented, however, by the paradoxical exercise of His self-restraint.  As Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain) understands it, God will be 'afraid' to completely destroy the Jewish people, for to do so would only play into the hands of the nation's mistaken beliefs, who would erroneously ascribe their victory over Israel to their own strength and to the efficacious intervention of their false gods.

 

A Nation vs. A Religion

 

The Ramban elaborates on these ideas at length: "the expression that 'I will cause their memory to cease from among humanity' refers to our current state of exile.  We, the remnants of the tribes of Binyamin and Yehuda, have no renown among the peoples, and are not considered to be a people or a nation at all.  The verses here declare that according to the strict attribute of justice, we ought to remain in exile forever, were it not for the 'anger' of the enemy.  This indicates that in our present exile, the merit of our ancestors has been exhausted.  Our only hope of preservation and salvation from the hands of the nations is for God to act on behalf of His great Name.  So too says the Prophet Yechezkel, when God proclaims that 'I will gather you from the lands into which you have been scattered, and I will be sanctified through you in the eyes of the nations…and you shall know that I am God when I act with you for the sake of My name, and not in accordance with your evil ways and corrupt deeds, O House of Israel!' (commentary of Ramban to Devarim 32:26, quoting Yechezkel/Ezekiel 20:41-44).

 

As the Ramban explains, the verses of the Song that spell out exile and its torments, are a description of the state of the Jews after the destruction of the Second Temple up until the contemporary period.  Scattered and few in number, the Jewish people of Judea, already only a remnant of the former tribes, utterly lost their status as a nation as a consequence of being forcibly removed from their land.  No nation or populace exists without a land, and so the Jews became a 'religion', settled as small and powerless faith communities in often-hostile surroundings.  The respect and self-respect associated with nationhood was denied the Jewish people, who were henceforth subject exclusively to the whims of their host nations.

 

Willful Forgetfulness and Divine Response

 

And so it should have remained forever, for as the Ramban describes, the merit of our ancestors, the accrued reward of their trust and steadfastness in God, was insufficient to effect the redemption of their children from exile.  It seems that the People of Israel did not deserve eventual redemption on their own merits, while their ancestors' accumulated good deeds were already spent.  For the Ramban, the verses in Yechezkel are instructive.  In context, the Prophet addresses his harsh words to the People of Israel who dwelt comfortably in Babylonian exile and became completely oblivious to the eternally relevant mission of the Jewish people.  Instead, these expatriates forcefully voiced their desire to  'be like the other nations, the families of other lands, to embrace their gods of wood and stone!' (Yechezkel/Ezekiel 20:32).  The Torah, the word of God, the mission of the Jews to be a 'kingdom of priests and a holy nation' was rejected, as the people overcame the trauma of exile and quickly accepted their new status as a landless ethnic community.  For the Ramban, Yechezkel addresses not only the Jews of Babylon in the year 500 BCE, but also the thirteenth-century Jews of Spain, as well as every other exilic community in between, that severed their ties to the hope of one day being re-established as God's nation in the Land of Israel.  Under such circumstances, there is only one prospect for redemption: that God acts not for the sake of his people, but rather for the sake of His 'name'.

 

The Ramban continues: "Omnipotent God could care less about showing His power to the nations, who are regarded as frail and feeble in His sight.  Rather, God had created humanity with the hope that man would recognize his Creator and acknowledge Him.  He gave man the exclusive ability to choose good or evil.  When all of them willfully transgressed and denied Him, only one nation remained associated with His name.  Through them, God indicated by signs and wonders that He was indeed the Supreme God and the Ultimate Sovereign, and so He became known to all of the nations.  If God then acts to destroy the people of Israel, then the nations will forget His signs and deeds and will never recount them, and any historical success of the Jews will be regarded as passing fortune.  Thus, the purpose of creation and of man will be negated, for none will remain to acknowledge their Creator, but only to anger Him!  Therefore, it becomes necessary for God to preserve the people of Israel forever, for they are the closest people to Him, who acknowledge Him more than any other nation.  This is the meaning of the concluding verses: 'God will judge His people and reconsider His conduct to His loyal servants…' (Devarim 32:36), for then He will  compassionately remember that they have been His people from time immemorial.  He will remember their loyalty, for during the course of their exile, they suffered much oppression and torment on His behalf, as the verse says 'they are My people and loyal children…' (Yeshayahu/Isaiah 63:8).

 

God's Name and the Jewish People

 

What is God's 'name' that seems to so preoccupy Yechezkel and the Ramban alike?  Without presenting the issue at great length and in great detail, it is nevertheless possible to suggest that the so-called 'Name' is an expression for God's essence, for His reputation as it is revealed in human history.  It is the sum set of acts and deeds by which He is known, it is the attributes of His involvement in the affairs of men.  The 'Name' of God is associated with a particular people, those who first introduced it to a non-receptive world almost thirty-seven centuries ago.  Before the advent of the people of Israel, there was no concept of a Single, Incorporeal God, of a united humanity descended from a lone set of parents who bore the imprimatur of His image, of an Absolute moral code that obligated and held liable tyrant and serf alike and sought to elevate them both, of a world that could be the product of free, autonomous human will and loving, Divine concern rather than the impersonal playground of mercurial fates, and of the exalted conception that human life is invested with inestimable worth and infinite meaning.  These were new, revolutionary ideas that are still little appreciated in many corners of the globe.

 

Our ancestors, the Patriarchs and Matriarchs whose lives of struggle and trust in this God achieved for them great spiritual growth and concomitant reward for their descendents, embraced these ideas with enthusiasm and accepted the responsibilities that they entailed.  So God's name became associated with a family, a tribe, and finally a nation.  As the rest of humanity continued on its destructive path of relativism, slavery, and warfare in its embrace of polytheism and idolatry, Israel went down to Egypt.  In Egypt, Israel the nation was born and the Exodus was therefore its pivotal moment in history.  It was in many ways God's pivotal moment as well, for it revealed His presence in the world as an Omnipotent, Omniscient, and Omnipresent Being with a particular interest in human spiritual development and moral progress.  Henceforward His 'name' or perceived involvement was to be exclusively associated with the destiny of the people of Israel.

 

The Jewish People and their Association with the Name

 

According to the Torah, man has a mission.  That mission is to acknowledge God and thus to utilize his free choice to build a better world, a world that must be predicated upon moral and ethical conduct and recognition of higher meaning, if it is to survive.  The Jewish people, as the bearers of that truth, are therefore instrumental in this unfolding of human history.  Curiously however, the Jewish people remain bound up with the revolutionary and noble ideas of their founding even when they forget or willfully reject them.  Having become coupled with the concept of God, they cannot easily or ever cast off their elemental identity to instead embrace the numerous false gods that litter the path of human advancement and social progress.  Thus, even when the people of Israel stray far from their course, inviting Divine indifference to their plight and the scourge of exile, God cannot abandon them completely and allow them to be destroyed for their infidelity.  To do so would spell not only the end of Israel, but also the end of the God idea in the world. 

 

Of course, other concepts of this God might remain in the absence of the Jewish people, since Judaism has since given rise to newer 'great monotheistic faiths'.  No one was more aware of this than the Ramban who lived in a medieval Spain torn asunder by religious wars between Christianity and Islam.  But the UNIQUE conception of God the Creator as well as the Liberator, supremely transcendent and incorporeal but nevertheless near and immediate, Who champions an exalted belief and trust in Him but also demands a noble and all-encompassing code of behavior, Who nowhere requires the conversion of the uninitiated or else their slaughter as infidels, Who wins over the adamant human heart by reason and kindness and not by the tip of the sword, such a conception of God, the God of Israel, would perish with the demise of the Jews. 

 

The Eternity of Israel

 

Thus, God, so to speak, has no choice but to preserve us, until such a day as He glorifies His Name by redeeming His people, returning them to their land, and inspiring them anew to follow His commands.  In the meantime, as long as Jews survive, so will God.  As long as Jews suffer for their association with God's Name, though some of them may strive mightily to deny that ancient but never archaic identity, God's Torah will not be forgotten. 

 

In some ways, Ramban's perceptive words go far towards explaining the always troubling (at least for the Jews) and uncomfortable reality of Anti-Semitism.  Of course, the less pleasant but more accurate term of Jew-hatred, repackaged for modern consumption as anti-Zionism, is almost as old as the Jews themselves.  This is because, as Jewish tradition realized early on, hatred of the Jews has little to do with their wealth/poverty, power/weakness, influence/helplessness, education/ignorance, or any of the other myriad often mutually exclusive causes frequently advanced to explain it.  Hatred of the Jews is a function of something much more sinister, yet at the same time more elusive.  As our Sages concisely put it: "…whosoever arises against Israel, it is as if they arise against the Holy One Blessed be He…" (Mechilta, Chapter 6). 

 

In other words, the oft-stated goal of the dictator, the tyrant, or the chairman, to dispense with the Jews forever, is by any other name the subconscious hope to finally extinguish their idea of God so that His incessant demands for universal freedom, fairness, justice, goodness, and human kindness can be buried and forgotten for evermore.  In a world or region rid of Jews, repressive, undemocratic and totalitarian regimes can all sleep easier, unperturbed by their masses' stifled stirrings for liberty, equality, fairness and decency.  Those of us who have studied the Song of Haazinu, however, know better.  Israel will survive because it must, not only for our sake but also for God's sake.  Redemption will be completed and Israel will be restored, to at last complete its remarkable task.  Let us hope and pray that this New Year brings us, and all of humanity, peace, blessing and deliverance.

 

Shabbat Shalom