Of all Biblical poetry, the verses of Parashat Ha’azinu that contain some of Moshe’s last words to the Bnei Yisrael are among the most beautiful and meaning laden. Often this Parasha is not focused on as often as others due to its proximity to Yom Kippur and Sukkot. Let us cherry-pick some nuggets of wisdom and insight that have relevance to our experiences and our era.
“May my teaching drop like rain” (32:2) – Rashi explains the simile of rain to be an indication of the life-giving properties of the Torah that he is teaching them. Just as physical activity is advantageous to our physical health, spiritual activity is advantageous to our spiritual and emotional health. Human beings are hard-wired with unique capacities. We can learn the lessons of history, we can make virtuous choices, and we can think about what gives our life purpose and meaning – all abilities that contribute to our spirituality. If we become preoccupied with and distracted by the mundane and the ephemeral to the extent that we neglect to exercise these special capacities, our peace of mind and happiness are adversely affected. Without that happiness and peace of mind we cannot live life to the fullest. The Torah is the spiritual foundation stone of the Jewish people. Perhaps it is this ability of the Torah to fulfil the spiritual needs essential for an emotionally and spiritually full life that led Moshe to refer to the Torah as life giving rain.
“You ignored the Rock that gave birth to you” (32:18). The type of ignorance that is referred to in this passage is a type of patently absurd ingratitude. “The Duties of the Mind,” the medieval work of Jewish theology and ethics, writes that the best motivation one may have to observe the Torah is gratitude. The gratitude that we should feel towards the Almighty who created us and constantly sustains us should motivate us to wish to never deviate from His vision for humanity. It’s the very least we could do. We don’t want to live according to that vision out of a primitive, self-interested fear of Divine wrath or punishment if we don’t. We want to live in consonance with the Divine mandate because we are afraid of committing the cardinal sin and unsophisticated folly of ingratitude. We don’t want to use the gift of life in a way that is an insensitive and crass slap in the face of the generous Giver.
“They would slaughter to demons which are [in reality] not gods, [and also slaughter to] gods whom they knew not, newcomer [gods], recently arrived, whom your ancestors did not dread” (32:17). This passage prophetically criticizes Jews that will have strayed from the Torah to pagan worship. It emphasizes the contrast between the two options. Whereas the Torah and the Creator that it introduces to mankind are well-known to the Bnei Yisrael and part of a long national tradition, the pagan alternative was something that they had no experience or acquaintance with whatsoever. It is remarkable and unfortunate that today for too many of our youth the opposite is true. Only a few generations ago the basics of Judaism were imbibed by merely growing up as part of the shtetel. In today’s society it appears to be natural to know more about other philosophies of life instead. In this playing field, Judaism itself could be described as the “newcomer, recently arrived.” It is interesting to note that the Dali Lama, who is an address for many spiritual seekers, has reportedly told many Jews to study their own tradition before investigating others. As a community we must find a way to restore the historical balance by educating and engaging our youth.