"You Forgot God Who Created You"

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

 

Adapted by Shaul Barth

Translated by Kaeren Fish

 

 

In the song of Ha’azinu, the Torah describes the process of Am Yisrael's betrayal of God:

 

He made him ride on the high places of the earth, and he ate the produce of the field; He nourished him with honey from the rock and oil from the flint stones; butter of cattle and milk of sheep, with fat of lambs, and rams of the breed of Bashan, and goats, with the kidney-fat of wheat; and of the blood of the grape you drank wine. But Yeshurun grew fat, and kicked – you grew fat, and thick, and vulgar – and abandoned the God Who made him, reviling the Rock of his salvation. They aroused His jealousy with strange gods, angering Him with abominations. They sacrificed to demons, non-gods, gods which they had not known, new arrivals of late, which your fathers never feared. You were unmindful of the Rock Who bore you, and forgot God Who created you. (Devarim 32:13-18)

 

We might understand these verses as describing a single phenomenon: Am Yisrael attains wealth and abundance, and it is specifically in this state that they abandon their faith in God and start believing in other powers. According to this understanding, the words "You were unmindful of the Rock Who bore you, and forgot God Who created you" are a summary of the process of Am Yisrael's betrayal of God.

 

However, a different way of understanding it is that the verses are describing two separate phenomena: the first is that economic prosperity causes the nation to abandon God; the second is that the practice of idolatry causes them to forget God. According to this understanding, the words, "And forgot God Who created you," come as a result of "They sacrificed to demons, non-gods." I shall focus on this understanding of the verses.

 

In parashat Ekev, the Torah gives a different description of betrayal: "And it shall be, if you will forget the Lord your God and follow other gods and serve them and prostrate yourself to them…" (Devarim 8:19). This description is different from the one in our parasha. Parashat Ekev describes a situation in which a person forgets God and therefore follows and serves other gods. This is certainly unacceptable, but it is understandable: could a person possibly offer sacrifices to "demons, non-gods" if he is aware of who God is? Is it possible that a person would know and recognize God's strength and power, and nevertheless choose to serve idols "which do not see, nor do they hear, nor do they eat, nor do they smell"? The only possible explanation for a person choosing to serve other gods is that it results from his forgetting the true God. In our parasha, however, the process is described in the reverse order: abandonment of God precedes and causes forgetting Him.

 

This teaches something about the essence of the betrayal of God as described in Parashat Ekev as opposed to the betrayal in our parasha. Parashat Ekev talks about idolatry in the usual, familiar sense – abandoning God and placing one's trust in idols and superstition. In this scenario, we are speaking of the regular sort of forgetting: a person who does not engage in Torah, but rather knowingly immerses himself in other things, will come to forget God's strength and power, and ultimately stops serving Him, out of complete forgetfulness.

 

However, Tanakh also provides a different concept of forgetting: "Can a woman forget her suckling child? … Yes, these may forget, but I will not forget you" (Yeshayahu 49:15-16). Is the verse talking about the regular sort of forgetting? Are we really concerned that a woman might forget that she has a baby? Obviously not. What the Torah means here is not the regular sort of forgetting, but rather existential forgetting – in other words, lack of attention. We do not imagine a woman forgetting her baby and being unaware of his existence; rather, the situation is one of her failure to respond to his needs, leaving him helpless, turning her attention elsewhere.

 

The forgetfulness described in Parashat Ha’azinu is of this latter sort. A person is aware of God's existence, but he does not follow through with the ramifications of this knowledge; his knowledge of God's existence has no influence on his lifestyle or his day-to-day activities. For this reason, the idolatry here is also not of the usual type: the Torah is not talking about someone who serves idols out of a conscious desire to abandon God; rather, it is talking about someone who is completely immersed in material matters – "And Yeshurun grew fat." This draws his attention away from any sort of spiritual reality – "and he kicked." This person knows that God exists – perhaps he would even profess to believe in Him – but his life is nevertheless considered one of "sacrificing to demons, non-gods." He serves success and prosperity, setting aside no time for developing a spiritual personality.

 

In a certain sense, modern man is faced with the problem of the forgetfulness of Ha’azinu. A modern person may be aware of God's existence in the general sense, and if prodded indications of His existence he might be able to shake layers of dust off his faith and answer. However, this shallow knowledge has no impact on his life or his behavior. Although he knows that God exists, he does not act accordingly. He ignores the Torah lifestyle and observance that this knowledge is meant to bring with it. This forgetfulness is especially prevalent, as described in the parasha, in the wake of economic achievement and success, which create the sense that one need not subjugate oneself to God.

 

People today are not stupid; they do not believe, as some once did, that "The Nile is mine; I made it" (Yechezkel 29:3). However, they are still prone to ignore the observance of mitzvot, and to "forget," in the existential sense, God's existence. The problem described in the parasha applies to the reality of our lives today just as it did at the time it was first uttered, to the generation of the desert: "You were unmindful of the Rock Who bore you, and forgot God Who created you."

 

(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat parashat Ha’azinu 5763 [2002].)