Commentary for Ha’azinu

25 Sep

This week’s parshah, like many in Deuteronomy, is a warning to the Israelites from Moses. The first six aliyot comprise a song that tells about how great things are when God is happy with us, and how bad they will be if make God angry by turning away and worshiping false gods. The seventh aliyah starts out with a warning to the Israelites that this is not something to be taken lightly.

The maftir portion of the seventh aliyah takes a very different tone. It is a personal message from G-d to Moses, commanding him to climb Mount Navo today, where he will die, not being allowed to enter the Promised Land because he did not give God the proper credit when he struck the rock at Kadeish in the Wilderness of Zin (Num. 20: 1-13).

The Torah begins this last section with the puzzling phrase “And The Lord spoke to Moses on that very day, saying: (Deut 32:48).” On which very day? Surely if the date was important, the Torah would have just given the date as it often does. If this was to teach us that God was ordering Moses to ascend Mount Navo on the very same day that God gave Moses these instructions, when surely God’s instructions to Moses would have included the fact that he go up today. Instead, the phrase is only found in the verse used by the text to introduce the instructions.

The phrase “on that very day (b’etzem ha-yom ha-zeh)” appears very rarely in the Torah. It is used in Gen. 7:13 to describe Noah and his family boarding the ark after the rain starts to fall, in Gen. 17:23 and 26 to describe Abraham circumcising himself and all of his household, and in Ex. 12:17 to describe the impending exodus of the Israelites fro Egypt. It is also used in Lev. 23:21 to describe Shavuot and in 23:28,29, and 30 to describe Yom Kippur.

What all of these moments have in common is that they are moments from which there is no turning back. When Noah’s family stepped onto the ark, they decided to put their trust in God that this was not just a normal rainstorm, and that God would protect them throughout it. When Abraham circumcised himself and his household, he was declaring that this monotheism thing was not just a phase. It was a permanent relationship with God for which he and his adherents were willing to make lasting, irreparable marks on their bodies. When God brought the Israelites out of Egypt it changed them from a people to a nation and demonstrated God’s power to the world in an undeniable way not seen since the flood. The revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Torah on Shavuot cement the signing of a covenant between God and every Jew who will ever exist, obligating us to God to fulfill the commandments given in the Torah.

In this week’s parshah, the words “on that very day” mark the moment that Moses’ fate was sealed. From that time on, Moses would have to accept his punishment that he would never see the Promised Land. At the end of each Yom Kippur, we face a similar moment. Our fate for the year is sealed, and we begin to work on ourselves. We take what we have discovered about ourselves during the High Holiday season to heart and we begin trying to correct out behaviors. The same warning that Moses gave to the Israelites in this week’s parshah still applies to us today: we can do what is good in the eyes of God and God will be happy with us, or we can spurn God and face the consequences. Yom Kippur is over, and we must now start working to make our next year better than this one.

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