S.A.L.T. - Parashat Haazinu

  • Rav David Silverberg
Motzaei Shabbat
            The Rama (O.C. 583:1) cites from the Avudraham the well-known custom to eat on Rosh Hashanah a sweet apple with honey and recite a prayer for a “sweet” year.  The Maharil (Hilkhot Rosh Hashanah) similarly writes that it is customary to eat sweet foods on Rosh Hashanah as a symbol of our wishes for a “sweet” year.
            Interestingly, the Maharil proceeds to suggest allusions in the Tanakh for the connection between the judgment of Rosh Hashanah and “sweetness.”  One such allusion, the Maharil writes, is the story of Mara, the place where Benei Yisrael arrived after crossing the Sea of Reeds and then finding no water source for three days.  In Mara, they came upon water, but the water not drinkable.  God showed Moshe a branch to cast into the water, and after he threw the branch into the water, “va-yimteku ha-mayim” – “the water was sweetened” (Shemot 15:25).  The verse then continues, “sham sam lo chok u-mishpat ve-sham nisahu” – “there He placed for them a statute and law, and there He tested them.”  While the precise meaning of this verse is unclear, and is discussed by the commentators, the Maharil notes the word “mishpat” in this verse.  This word is commonly associated with judgment, and indeed, according to Rashi, the word “mishpat” in this verse means that Benei Yisrael were commanded with regard to civil law.  The Maharil suggests that the connection in this verse between the concept of mishpat and the sweetening of the water of Mara alludes to the notion of “sweetness” in the context of the judgment of Rosh Hashanah.
            If the Maharil pointed to the story of Mara as a basis for the connection between our judgment on Rosh Hashanah and “sweetness,” then we might perhaps gain deeper insight into this cherished, time-honored practice of eating sweet foods on this occasion.  According to the Maharil, the model of sweetness which we commemorate through this custom is not simply a tasty food product, but rather the transformation of something bitter to something sweet.  After languishing from thirst for three days, Benei Yisrael finally chanced upon what they thought was the water resource they needed – only to discover that the water was undrinkable.  They were exasperated and in despair – but then, in an instant, their crisis was solved; their “bitter” condition was suddenly “sweetened.”  We might say, then, that according to the Maharil, we eat sweet foods on Rosh Hashanah to reaffirm our belief in God’s ability to “sweeten” the “bitterness” in our lives.  We anticipate not just “sweetness,” but a process of “sweetening.”  We trust that the Almighty can solve the difficult, seemingly intractable problems we face in our lives, that He can intervene to guide us towards the “branch” with which we can “sweeten” the “bitter waters.”  By eating sweet foods and recalling the sweetening of the waters of Mara, we show that we enter the new year with joy, hope, optimism and excitement, confidently looking to God to eliminate the “bitterness” and grant us the “sweetness” – the joy, contentment and fulfillment – that we crave.
            The Rama (O.C. 585:1) observes the widespread custom that the tokei’a – the one who sounds the shofar in the synagogue – blows the shofar from the bima, the table where the Torah is read.  The Mishna Berura explains that this is done so that the merit of our Torah study, represented by the bima, will assist us in our efforts to earn a favorable judgment on Rosh Hashanah.
            The Tolna Rebbe (Ori Ve-yish’i, Rosh Hashanah, 1) suggests a deeper insight into this custom.  The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, 507) tells of the time when the prosecuting angels in the heavens challenge God for extending special grace and favor to His beloved nation, Am Yisrael.  They will ask why Am Yisrael are deserving of such treatment, considering that they, like all nations, are guilty of various forms of wrongdoing.  God will then answer that Benei Yisrael deserve special kindness because they accepted the Torah, adding, “If this did not happen, where would My Kingship be?”  It was through Benei Yisrael’s acceptance of the Torah at Mount Sinai, the Midrash here teaches, that God’s Kingship over the world was established.
            What exactly does this mean?  Why did God truly become King over the world only once Benei Yisrael accepted the Torah?
            The Tolna Rebbe explains that the honor and prestige of a leadership position depends on the nature of the constituency.  The higher the stature of the people being led, the more impressive and prestigious the leadership post is.  The purpose of Matan Torah was for Am Yisrael to rise to an especially high stature by committing itself to strive to higher standards of morality and Godliness.  By accepting the Torah, we took it upon ourselves to reach for a higher plane, to elevate ourselves by following God’s laws and devoting ourselves to Torah learning.  In so doing, we bring honor and glory to God.  Even though we occasionally fail, nevertheless, the sincere commitment to adhere to the Torah’s standards has the effect of elevating us.  And when we elevate ourselves, we elevate God’s Kingship – establishing Him as not only King over the world, but King over a distinguished people, over people of stature.  Hence, through our genuine acceptance of the Torah, we bring greater prestige to the Almighty.
            Rosh Hashanah, of course, is about God’s Kingship, crowning Him anew as King over the world.  The Tolna Rebbe suggested that as part of this process, we must reaffirm our kabbalat ha-Torah – our acceptance of the Torah, like on Shavuot.  We are to bring glory to God not only by proclaiming our submission to His rule over the earth, but also by elevating ourselves through the acceptance of the Torah, whereby He becomes King over the special, distinguished nation that we become when we make a sincere commitment to observe and study the Torah.  Accordingly, recommitting ourselves to study and observance is important on Rosh Hashanah not merely as part of our effort to earn a favorable judgment, but also as part of our obligation on this day to celebrate God’s Kingship over the world – because by recommitting ourselves to Torah, we elevate ourselves and thereby bring greater glory to God.
            On this basis, the Tolna Rebbe suggests an additional reason for the custom to sound the shofar specifically at the bima, the place where the public, congregational Torah reading is conducted.  The bima represents kabbalat ha-Torah, our collective acceptance of the Torah.  Appropriately, then, it is there that we sound the shofar, through which we proclaim and celebrate God’s Kingship.  We accept upon ourselves not only God’s general rule over the world, but additionally, the Torah He gave us for the purpose of becoming His special, treasured nation.  And so we sound the shofar where the Torah is read, signifying the fact that as we crown God over the world, we recommit ourselves to the observance and study of His Torah, through which we bring Him greater honor and prestige.
            In his introduction to the poem of Ha’azinu, Moshe proclaims, “Ya’arof ka-matar likchi” – “May my teaching pour down like rain” (32:2).  The simple meaning of this analogy is that Moshe hopes that his words spoken in this poem will be effective in producing the desired result.  Just as rain is absorbed by the ground and then produces vegetation, Moshe calls upon the people to ensure to absorb his teachings in their minds and hearts so it will have the desired result of leading them to remain firm in their commitment to God.
            Rav Shmuel Borenstein of Sochatchov, in Sheim Mi-Shmuel, offers an additional insight into this comparison between Torah and rain.  The Torah in Parashat Bereishit (2:5) tells that when God first created the earth, no vegetation existed, “because the Lord God had not brought rain upon the earth, and there was no person to work the land.”  Rashi, based on the Gemara (Chulin 60b), explained this to mean that God did not bring rain because there were as yet no human beings working the land who understood the dire necessity of rain and would thus pray for it.  God brought rain only once there were human beings on earth who prayed for rain.  He created the world in such a way that people would need to rely on His grace and assistance for their livelihood, and thus turn to Him in prayer.  And it is in this sense, the Sheim Mi-Shmuel suggests, that Moshe here compares Torah teaching to rain.  Just as God expects us to pray for rainfall, for our physical sustenance, before He provides it, similarly, He expects us to pray for Torah knowledge and understanding.  Moshe speaks of Torah with the term “likchi,” a derivative of the word “lekach,” which denotes a possession, a valuable asset which one owns.  Torah wisdom can truly be a “mekach,” a treasured possession, but only if we long for it, if we yearn to acquire it, and we beseech the Almighty to enable us to obtain this precious commodity.
            Generally, we tend to strive and yearn only for “rain” – for material blessings, without also longing to achieve spiritual blessings.  The possessions we desire are physical objects, not “likchi” – Torah teachings.  The Sheim Mi-Shmuel challenges us to make spiritual success no lower a priority than financial success.  We ought to be yearning and praying for achievement in Torah learning and observance, no less than we yearn and pray for material comforts.  Rather than focus our attention and energy exclusively on the pursuit of money, we must strive also for spiritual excellence, to “acquire” the precious gift of Torah knowledge and of genuine, devoted service of God.
            Moshe pronounces in his introduction to the poem of Ha’azinu that his words shall “pour forth” like rain, adding “ki-se’eirim alei deshe” – “like storms upon grass” (32:2).  The Sifrei suggests reading the word “se’irim” in this verse as referring to the other meaning of this word – “goats.”  Moshe compares his teaching to goats, the Sifrei explains, to indicate that “just as these goats come for sins and atone, so do words of Torah atone for sins.”  Most sin-offerings required by the Torah for certain forms of transgressions were goats, and Moshe therefore compares his words to “se’irim,” to establish that learning Torah has the effect of atoning for sins just like sin-offerings.
            Rav Meir Simcha Ha-kohen of Dvinsk, in his Meshekh Chokhma, boldly suggests that the Sifrei here actually puts a limit on the ability of Torah study to bring atonement.  Namely, only those who can achieve atonement through the offering of se’irim can achieve atonement also through Torah learning.  This is to the exclusion of the kohen gadol, who, as we read in Parashat Vayikra (4:3), must offer a bull as a sin-offering, instead of a goat.  The Sifrei stated that Torah learning can bring atonement just like se’irim to teach that only regular citizens can earn atonement through learning, but not the kohen gadol.  Rav Meir Simcha explains that when the kohen gadol sins, he creates a grave chilul Hashem – defamation of God’s Name – which cannot be atoned through Torah study.  The damage caused by a religious leader’s offenses to the reputation of the Jewish People and the Jewish faith magnifies the severity of the misdeed, such that much more is required to achieve atonement than in the case of an ordinary person who sins.
            The Meshekh Chokhma in this context references the source in the Gemara for the concept of earning atonement through Torah study – the Gemara’s comment in Masekhet Rosh Hashanah (18a) concerning the sins committed by Chofni and Pinchas, the sons of the kohen gadol, Eli.  God proclaimed to the prophet Shemuel (Sefer Shemuel I 3:14) that Chofni and Pinchas’ sins could not ever be atoned through sacrifices, and the Gemara remarks that although their sins could not be forgiven through sin-offerings, they could be forgiven through Torah study.  The Meshekh Chokhma cleverly suggests that this is why God took the kehuna gedola (position of the high priesthood) away from the house of Eli – to enable them to earn atonement through Torah learning.  Denying them the privileges of the high priesthood was, in truth, a great blessing for the members of Eli’s family, as this enabled them to achieve atonement, something which would have been impossible had they retained their special status, which would have made their wrongdoing particularly severe.
            Moshe begins the poem of Ha’azinu by comparing the words he would speak to rain: “Ya’arof ka-matar likchi” – “May my teaching pour forth like rain.”  As Rashi cites from other verses, the verb a.r.f. is occasionally used in reference to falling rain.
            Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch offers an explanation for the connection between this meaning of the verb “a.r.f.” and the word “oref,” which means “back of the neck.”  Rav Hirsch writes that the neck joint is “the most responsive, most mobile joint of the body, the movement of which is quickest to obey direction of the will.”  For this reason, Rav Hirsch writes, the expression “keshei oref” (“stiff-necked”) is used to refer to obstinacy, because the stubborn person does not bend even the most easily bent “joint,” refusing to acquiesce even when acquiescence is intuitively called for and warranted.  This word is used in reference to rain falling on the ground, Rav Hirsch writes, because the rain loosens the hard surface of the ground.  It makes the ground soft and receptive, like the mobile neck joint.
            Moshe uses this analogy, Rav Hirsch explains, because Moshe understands that his teachings must become ‘likchi” – which means, in Rav Hirsch’s words, “taken into…the hearts of the people,” and “the soil of their minds and hearts which had so long remained become softened” must be “loosened, so that the seeds of light and warmth, of knowledge and life could come up and shoot forth…”  The allegorical image of “ya’arof ka-matar likchi,” of Moshe’s teaching reaching the people’s hearts like droplets of rain falling to the ground, indicates that the hearts must be “softened,” and become receptive to his words.
            In order to be affected and molded by the wisdom of the Torah, our minds must be receptive to being affected and molded.  Too often, we “harden” our minds and our hearts, feeling firmly set in our ways, and preferring the comfort of our familiar routines and habits to the challenge of change.  We must not wait to hear words which will, like rain droplets, have this “softening” effect.  We must be prepared to enthusiastically absorb the “droplets” of Torah wisdom which we learn so that they will have the desired effect of molding our characters and helping us realize our full potential and become the people who we are capable of being.
            Parashat Haazinu presents the famous poem foreseeing the time when Benei Yisrael would abandon God and then be punished, serving as a testament to the fact that God would not abrogate His covenant with His people, but would punish them for their misdeeds in anticipation of their return.
            In describing Benei Yisrael’s betrayal of God, the Torah speaks of how God miraculously sustained and cared for Benei Yisrael in the desert, and, later, granted them material blessings in the Land of Israel.  It then says, “Va-yishman Yeshurun ve-yiv’at” – “Jeshurun grew fat and kicked… It abandoned the God who made it…” (32:15). The common understanding of the term “Yeshurun” is that it is another name for Benei Yisrael. Ibn Ezra suggests that this name is associated with the word “yashar” (“straight” or “upright”) and thus speaks of Am Yisrael’s special stature of piety.  Secondly, Ibn Ezra cites those who view “Yeshurun” as derived from the term “shur,” which means “see,” such that it speaks of Benei Yisrael’s having beheld God’s miraculous salvation.  This verse thus speaks of Benei Yisrael “kicking” – betraying – the God who had granted them financial success and enabled them to “grow fat.”
            Seforno advances an entirely different interpretation, suggesting that this name – which, as mentioned, can be understood as related to the word “yashar” – refers specifically to the nation’s scholarly, righteous elite.  In Seforno’s words, this word speaks of “kehal tofsei ha-Torah u-ba’alei ha-iyun” – those who devote themselves to the study and analysis of the Torah.  The Torah here foresees the time when the scholars will compromise their commitment to learning by excessively occupying themselves in physical and material delights.  As a result of their inappropriate preoccupation with worldly pleasures, the verse continues, “It abandoned the God who made it” – which Seforno explains to mean that the rest of the nation betrayed God.  The spiritual leaders’ substandard commitment to Torah set into motion a “ripple effect” of sorts, triggering a general trend of spiritual decline that culminated in the widespread abandonment of Torah.
            Seforno’s comments remind us that our conduct can have a more considerable impact than we might think.  A sinful act is not only inherently wrong, but also damaging to the general spiritual wellbeing of our nation and of the world.  Conversely, the good deeds we perform are not only intrinsically valuable, but also beneficial to Am Yisrael and the world at large.  When we work to improve and elevate ourselves, we in effect improve and elevate the world.  The mitzvot we observe, as well as our general behavior and demeanor, have a significant impact.  We are to continuously strive to grow and improve not only to realize our own spiritual potential, but so that we can have the most significant and meaningful influence upon the world that we can.
            In the middle of the poem of Haazinu, the Torah says, “Ki goy ovad eitzot heima ve-ein bahem tevuna” – “For it is a nation bereft of counsel, and it has no understanding” (32:28).  Different opinions exist as to whether this refers to Benei Yisrael, and God here describes why He needed to punish them with exile, or if this refers to the enemy nation that persecuted Benei Yisrael, whom God promises to punish for its foolishness in mistreating Benei Yisrae.
            Regardless, Chida, in his Nachal Kedumim, finds it significant that the Torah describes this nation as both “bereft of counsel” – incapable of determining effective solutions and appropriate responses, and “ein bahem tevuna” – a nation without “understanding,” that is bereft of wisdom.  The implication, Chida insightfully notes, is that a person (or, in this case, a nation as a whole) can be wise but still “bereft of counsel.”  After all, even after bemoaning this nation’s lack of “counsel,” the Torah then emphasizes, “it has no understanding” – that the people are not wise.  This emphasis is necessary, Chida asserts, because conceivably, one can be wise but still incapable of finding answers and solutions.
            Chida references in this context the Gemara’s account in Masekhet Megilla (12b) of the events that transpired during the time of the Purim story, after Queen Vashti refused the king’s order to appear at his feast.  As we read in Megillat Ester, King Achashveirosh consulted with his legal scholars to determine the appropriate response to the queen’s defiance.  The Gemara adds, however, that Achashveirosh first consulted with the Jewish sages – the members of the Sanhedrin.  The sages found themselves in a bind, figuring that if they ruled in Vashti’s favor, the king would be angry at them, but if they ruled that she deserved execution, then later, after the king’s rage subsided, he would hold them responsible for his queen’s death.  They therefore declined to issue a ruling, explaining to the king that once the Temple was destroyed and the Jews were driven into exile, they lost the authority to rule on capital offenses.
            Chida points to this story as an example of how wisdom sometimes expresses itself specifically by the lack of an answer or solution.  In some instances, the intelligent response is to acknowledge that one has no “counsel,” that the problem cannot, at present, be satisfactorily resolved.  As in the case of the Sanhedrin which was consulted by Achashveirosh, a thorough analysis of the situation reveals that there is no good option, that it is best not to give a definitive answer.  And thus the Torah added that the nation described here in Parashat Haazinu was not only “bereft of counsel,” but also “without understanding” – because it is entirely possible for wise people to be “bereft of counsel,” as sometimes, acknowledging there is no solution is a far more intelligent response than offering an ineffective or wrong solution.