Commentary for Ha’azinu

3 Sep

This week’s parshah, mostly a long, prophetic poem by Moses, describes the future of the Jewish People. They will forsake God, forgetting all he has done for them, and ignore his commandments in favor of worshipping foreign gods. Then God will become angry and punish them with plagues, famines, invaders, and other terrible things, before eventually relenting in his punishment of Israel, punishing their enemies, and saving them. It is interesting to note that the punishment of Israel’s enemies and the salvation of the Jewish People are two separate events. God might punish Israel’s enemies for their abuses, but just because the enemy, too, has earned God’s wrath does not earn the Jewish People deliverance by default. Some other event, a positive action on the part of the Jewish People is necessary to get on God’s good side. As to what that act might be, the parshah is vague, only stating that Israel must somehow demonstrate to God that they understand that He has been the power behind all that has befallen them, both the good and the bad.

One of the hermeneutic principles used by the Rabbis to help them understand the Bible is the Gezeirah Shavah, which is the use of the instance of words or phrases in one location to help interpret a second situation with similar words or phrases. This week’s parshah opens with a very distinctive phrase: “Ha’azinu hashamayim va’adabeirah, v’tishmah ha’aretz imrei fi- Give Ear, O heavens, and I will speak, may the land hear the words of my mouth (Deut 32:1).” The only place in the Bible that a similar phrase is found is in Isaiah 1:2, which says “Listen, heavens, and take ear, land, for God is speaking.” This verse is from the haftarah for Devarim, which is always read on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av. That haftarah shares a similar theme with this week’s parshah. The Jews have been forsaking God and acting badly and Isaiah is giving them a Divine warning to change their ways or else face God’s wrath. In that haftarah, God prescribes a method of penance for the Jews assuage his wrath. “Put away your evil doings from My sight. Cease to do evil; learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged, uphold the rights of the orphan, defend the cause of the widow (Isaiah 1:16-17).” If these things are done, then “Zion shall be redeemed with justice, her repentant ones with righteousness (Isaiah 1:27).”

As we pray for Divine mercy in this time of repentance, we must remember that it is not enough to recognize that we have done wrong. In order to atone we must change our behaviors for the better.

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