Ha-Azinu: Raining Insights

September 26, 2011 at 8:35 pm | Posted in Ha-azinu | Leave a comment

The book of Deuteronomy (Devarim) consists of a long series of speeches Moses makes to the Israelites just before he dies and his people cross the Jordan River into Canaan. Besides retelling the history of the last 40 years, Moses reviews the laws given earlier in the Torah.  Then, just before he gives the people his final blessing and climbs up a hill to die, Moses teaches the people a song.

The song is this week’s Torah portion, Ha-Azinu (Use your ears).  The Hebrew calendar is arranged so that Ha-Azinu falls during the Days of Awe, in between Rosh Hashannah (“Head of the Year”) and Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”) ten days later.  This puts Moses’ poem in the spotlight.

Yet whenever I read Ha-Azinu, it strikes me as a poor summary of the principles Moses laid out earlier in the Torah.  It also strikes me as yet another long-winded warning that the Israelites will screw up, rather than an inspiration to do the right thing and walk with God.

But this year I noticed that Ha-Azinu is called a shirah, a song.  As I prepare for the Days of Awe, going over old melodies Jews use only at this time of year for traditional liturgy, I remember how every year at services the melodies themselves move my heart and make my whole body feel different.

So perhaps if I heard Ha-Azinu as a song, with its own ancient melody, it would have a different effect on me.  Perhaps the words and melody together moved the Israelites in a way I cannot imagine.

However, even without the melody, and even with my jaundiced view of the overall message, I am stirred by some of the poetic images embedded in this long poem–including Moses’ introduction:

Use your ears, Heavens, and I will speak;

Listen, Earth, to what my mouth says.

May my insights drop like rain;

May my utterances drip like dew;

Like showers upon green sprouts,

And like downpours upon growing plants.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:1-2)

Commentators agree that in the first two lines, Moses is calling upon Heaven and Earth to witness his address to the Israelites.  The next four lines (verse 32:2) express how Moses hopes his words will be received by his audience—the children of Israel assembled on the bank of the Jordan, and everyone else who will hear or read his song in the future.

Most poetry in the Torah is written in paired statements.  The second line may appear to be a repetition of the first line, using synonyms, but it actually adds another shade of meaning.

What is implied by the pairing of rain and dew?  The 16th-century rabbi Obadiah Sforno wrote that wisdom from the Torah rains down on  intellectuals, but even the common people benefit from the dew of some small knowledge of God.  (He sounds like a snob, but in fact the more one studies, the more one can draw insights out of a text.) According to the Zohar, a 13th-century kabbalistic work, the rain is the written Torah, given from heaven, and the dew is the oral Torah, our human interpretations here on earth.  The 19th-century rabbi S.R. Hirsch wrote that rain breaks up clods of dirt and prepares the soil of our minds to receive insights, while dew encourages and revives wilting spirits.

The next pair of lines both refer to effect of rain on annuals, the plants that spring up during the rainy season in Israel, including  grasses and vegetables.  Rain showers make seeds sprout and send up green shoots; downpours water the new green plants so they can continue growing.

The implication is that people are more like vegetables than trees.  We find it hard to grow in arid conditions.  A little dampness deep below the surface of the soil might suffice for a desert tree, but we need raindrops. rain showers, downpours.  We need to be flooded with teachings, explanations, rules, stories, poems, insights, sayings.  Then our deeper selves, our souls, can send up sprouts.  And as the words of wisdom continue to rain down, we can grow branches and leaves, green with new life, new awareness.

May we all be thirsty for more teachings and more insights.

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