Ha-azinu: A Hovering Bird

September 18, 2017 at 10:55 pm | Posted in Bereishit, Ha-azinu | Leave a comment

Might God help us learn to fly?

This Shabbat, the one between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we read Ha-azinu (Use your ears). Most of the Torah portion is a long poem predicting that even though that God brought the Israelites up from Egypt and protected them, God’s people will continue to do wrong and worship other gods. At one point, Ha-azinu compares God to an eagle teaching its fledglings to fly.

Like an eagle1 [God] rouses Its nest;

Over Its fledglings yeracheif.

It spreads out Its wings, It takes one;

It carries it up on Its wings.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:11)

yeracheif (יְרַחֵף) = it hovers like a bird. (A form of the verb rachaf, רָחַף = flutter like a bird.)

This verse may describe a parent eagle hovering nearby while its young are practicing short flights. If an eaglet falls, the parent swoops under it and catches the fledgling on its own wings. (Eaglets usually learn to fly without assistance. Yet this type of parental rescue has been observed in our own time with golden eagles.)

The verb rachaf occurs only three times in the Bible: here, in the book of Jeremiah, and in the book of Genesis. Jeremiah describes his anguish over the false prophets in Jerusalem this way:

My heart is broken inside me.

            All my bones rachafu.

            I have become like a drunken man,

            Like a strong man who passed through wine. (Jeremiah 23:9)

rachafu (רָחֲפוּ) = they tremble, flutter.

Jeremiah uses a form2 of the verb rachaf  to show that he is so overwhelmed, the bones that are normally stiff enough to hold him up are fluttering, trembling, unreliable.

Golden eagle

But when the verb rachaf  refers to God, it is in a form3 that means hovering. Near the end of the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim, God hovers like a parent ready to rescue young birds learning to fly.

In a few weeks, on Simchat Torah, Jewish congregations around the world will read the last lines of Deuteronomy, then roll the Torah scroll back to the beginning and read about the creation of the universe in Genesis/Bereishit.

In a beginning God created the heavens and the earth. But the earth was a vacancy and a void and a darkness over the face of the deep, and the wind of God merachefet over the face of the waters. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:1-2)

merachefet (מְרַחֶפֶת) = was hovering (like a bird).

Before God even speaks light into being, the wind or spirit of God is hovering over the face of the water and darkness.  It seems as though God is watching, waiting to see if something will rise up, evolve on its own initiative.  When nothing arises, God has to take the next step and say “Let there be light”.

In this week’s Torah portion, almost at the end of the cycle of readings, God watches over human beings like a parent bird, waiting to see if we will evolve on our own initiative. If we are like eaglets, at first we simply eat the food (or live the life) that is given to us, without questioning it. Then we experiment, like fledglings flapping from branch to branch. Finally we are roused by ineffable longings, and we attempt to fly out into the blue.

When we get morally confused or mentally tired, we falter and fall. But the Torah says God is hovering over us, and catches us briefly so we can fly again.

This description may be true for people who feel a religious impulse and reach for the divine with open hearts and minds. Their religion can help to inspire awe and gratitude, and it can catch them when they begin to fall.

But all too often, purveyors of religion lose track of where God is. All too often we humans turn our religions into weapons instead of wings.  Then who, or what, will catch us and carry us back up to the light?

(An earlier version of this essay was published in September 2010.)

  1. nesher (נֶשֶׁר) = a general term for any eagle, vulture, or large bird of prey. In this case, the bird’s behavior indicates a golden eagle.
  2. The kal stem.
  3. The pi-el stem.

 

 

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Ha-azinu & Vezot Habrakhah: Upright, Devious, and Struggling

September 3, 2013 at 2:02 pm | Posted in Ha-azinu, Vezot Habrakhah | Leave a comment

Does it matter what the group you belong to is called? Would you rather be known as God-Strugglers, Heel-Grabbers, or Upright-Ones?

Yisra-el (“Israel” in English) is the most common name in the Hebrew Bible for the people that God and Moses lead out of Egypt, instruct on God’s laws, and bring to the land of Canaan. Occasionally the bible also refers to the people as Ya-akov (“Jacob” in English), and a few times as Yeshurun (“Jeshurun” in English).

Yisra-el = He struggles with God.

Ya-akov = He grabs a heel; he supplants; he takes advantage.

Yeshurun = Upright ones; those on the level, straight, honest, law-abiding.

Yisrael and Ya-akov are the two names of the patriarch in the book of Genesis who fathers the twelve sons whose names become the names of the twelve tribes. His first name, Ya-akov, refers to his devious efforts to pull down his brother Esau and replace him as the “firstborn” who will inherit not only twice as much wealth, but also God’s blessing and covenant. Ya-akov wins a second name, Yisrael, after wrestling all night with an angel of God, refusing to let go until the angel blesses him.

I find it significant that the Hebrew Bible does not call the twelve tribes after Abraham, or Isaac, but after the patriarch who began his career as a deceitful heel, and had to struggle with God to become the legitimate conduit for the divine covenant. At the end of the book of Genesis, Jacob-Israel is more straightforward and law-abiding than at the beginning of his story, but still far from perfect.

The name Yeshurun appears in the Torah for the first time in the long poem of Ha-azinu (“Use your ears”), the portion we read this Saturday, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Purportedly a prophecy written by Moses, the poem describes how after Moses has died and the Israelites have conquered and settled Canaan, God made them prosperous, but then they forgot the source of their wealth.

…[God] suckled them with honey from a rock,

And oil from a flinty boulder,

Sour cream from cattle and cream from sheep,

With the fat of lambs, and rams from Bashan, and he-goats,

With the fat of kernels of wheat,

And the blood of the grape you drink fermented.

And Yeshurun fattened, and it kicked;

You fattened, you became thick, you became gorged,

And abandoned the god who made him,

Dismissed as foolish the Rock who rescued him. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:13-15)

The ingrates in this poem are anything but upright.  The 16th-century rabbi Obadiah Sforno explained that the Israelites kicked like an animal that kicks the person feeding it. Their love of material pleasures, indicated by the rich foods, made them too “thick” to understand subtle truths.

The 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch added that God made the Israelites prosperous in order to show the world that it is possible to enjoy material pleasures and still lead a spiritual and moral life. When you are well-fed, Hirsch wrote, the correct behavior is to be more active and accomplish more. But the people who were supposed to be the Upright-Ones got lazy and fat instead.

In the last Torah portion of Deuteronomy, Vezot Habrakhah (“This is the blessing”), Moses calls the Israelites Yeshurun two more times, just before and just after his poetic prophecies for individual tribes. Here Moses uses the name Yeshurun without irony.

First he recalls the Israelites’ peak moment, when all the tribes gathered at Mount Sinai and pledged themselves to God.

He became king among Yeshurun,

When the heads of the people gathered themselves,

All together, the tribes of Yisra-el. (Deuteronomy 33:4)

Commentators disagree on who “he” is in this verse, Moses or God. According to Rambam (12th-century rabbi Moses Maimonides), the Israelites honored Moses like a king. This would make Moses the head of the Upright Ones. But according to the Talmud, the Israelites accepted God as their king. This would make them the Upright Ones who unite to obey God’s laws (even though it is a struggle, yisra, to serve the divine king).

After giving prophecies for individual tribes, Moses makes another positive statement about the Israelites as a whole.

There is none like the god of Yeshurun,

Riding through heavens as your rescuer,

…And Yisra-el will dwell in safety,

The well of Ya-akov left alone. (Deuteronomy 33:26, 33:28)

Ultimately, God will help the people, even though sometimes they are upright, sometimes struggling for God’s blessing, and sometimes they are devious supplanters.

After these three uses of Yeshurun at the end of Deuteronomy, the name occurs only once again in the whole Hebrew Bible:

Thus says God, your maker and your shaper,

Who helps you from the womb on:

Do not fear, My servant Ya-akov,

And Yeshurun whom I have chosen. (Isaiah 44:2)

I think Isaiah means that the descendants of Ya-akov, who grabbed his brother’s heel and used devious means to supplant him, need not fear as long as they serve God. If Ya-akov had pursued only the firstborn’s double portion of wealth, God would not have helped him. But since Ya-akov also pursued the firstborn’s blessing of the covenant with God, God gave him more chances to make good.

And Yeshurun, the upright ones, need not fear as long as they live up to the role God chose for them: to be the model of a nation that obeys God’s laws.

Do you identify with the God-Struggler (Yisra-el), the Heel-Grabber (Ya-akov), or the Upright One (Yeshurun)? Or perhaps a fourth name?

Personally, my default is to be law-abiding, probably because I grew up feeling the safest when I went unnoticed. That kind of uprightness is hardly a great model. Fortunately I also have a stubborn moral sense, so when I discover I have accidentally done something that might be devious, I rush to make amends. I do not want to be a heel-grabber, even when that seems to be the only means to a good end.

I think my highest self is a god-struggler, wrestling with the question of what God is, and how I can have at least a relationship, if not a covenant, with this mystery called God.

And I pray that all humans may find the names that they need to grow into.

Ha-azinu: The Tohu Within

September 19, 2012 at 11:17 am | Posted in Ha-azinu | Leave a comment

The week between the Jewish holy days of Rosh Hashannah (“Head of the Year”) and Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”), the Torah portion is a long poem: Ha-azinu (Use your Ears). The Torah says Moses teaches it to the Israelites as a song, so they will remember it after he dies.

The overall theme of the song is that God is all-powerful, and wreaks terrible vengeance on the Israelites when they turn and worship other gods. This is not news; God as portrayed in the Torah has no concept of modern educational methods. But within the song are some gems of inspiration. This year, I am focusing on the verse below. Since Hebrew uses third-person singular forms not just for male humans, but also for objects, for concepts, and for God, my translation uses “IT” when the third-person form refers to God, and  “it” when the form refers to the group of people called the children of Israel.

     IT found it in a land of wilderness

     And in the tohu of a howling desolation;

     IT surrounded it and made insight;

     IT protected it like the pupil of ITS eye. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:10)

tohu = chaos, nothingness, formlessness, unreality

This is one literal translation of the verse.  If your interpretation is also literal, the verse seems to conflict with the whole book of Exodus/Shemot. How can the song Ha-azinu claim that God found the children of Israel in a desolate wilderness, when Exodus clearly states that God heard their cries when they were slaves in Egypt, and then led them out of Egypt and into the wilderness?

Some rabbinic commentary explains that God knew about the descendants of Israel all along, and paid attention to them when their suffering in Egypt increased. But in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, where the people embraced God’s covenant, God  “found” them to be even more precious.

Literal-minded modern scholars, on the other hand, explain the discrepancy between the story in Exodus and the reference to God finding the people in the wilderness as a reflection of two different myths explaining the origin of the Israelite people.

But why get stuck on a literal reading? The Torah often uses metaphor and analogy, especially in its poetry. I think the word tohu  in this verse from Ha-azinu points toward a more profound meaning. This is only the second occurrence of the word tohu in the Torah.  The first use of “tohu” describes the mystery of what came before God said Let there be light. The second sentence of  Genesis/Bereishit is: And the earth was tohu and vohu, and darkness over the face of the deep, and the wind/spirit of God hovering over the face of the deep.

Scholars have not yet established the etymology of the word tohu, and guesses as to its meaning range from “chaos” to “emptiness”. I think the meaning that best fits all 19 appearances of the word in the Hebrew Bible is “unreality”.

Translating tohu as “unreality” in this week’s Torah portion is awkward if you take our verse literally.  But if the wilderness, tohu, and howling desolation describe a psychological state, it makes sense. When you are lost in desperation or desolation, there is an inner howling, and your mind no longer anchors itself in familiar habits and beliefs. You wander in a mental wilderness, and your former world-view seems unreal.

Maybe sometimes God finds, or connects, with people when they are in a mental state of unreality and howling desolation. Then God encircles them, and gives them insight, and protects them until they pull themselves together and move forward, reorganizing their lives to fit their new outlook. During this process, God protects the person’s soul as if it were the pupil of an eye, which can perceive reality and apply insights only if it is both uncovered and unharmed.

I can imagine atheists today objecting that God is unreal, and believing that God is finding and protecting you is an indulgence in unreality. And I don’t blame them.  I am an atheist myself, if you define God as either the anthropomorphic jealous king who lives in the sky, or as the omni-being of medieval theologians. But many people, including me, use the word “God” for something else, something we have no better word for in English.  Something that defies a clear definition, a mystery that we experience or intuit.

Connecting with this holy mystery is a real experience, one in which “God finds you” and “you find God” mean the same thing. And I have found that if it happens when my life is falling apart and I am in a mental state of howling desolation, the connection really does protect me, stabilize me, and give me insight.

These days, when my emotions begin to overwhelm me, I don’t even wait for God to find me. I take pre-emptive action by singing prayers, singing through the tightness in my throat until it relaxes. Then my mind becomes more calm and clear, and I become able to receive insight.

So here is my version of the verse from Ha-azinu, changing the pronouns and adding  a few words at the end to explain the pupil of the eye. Maybe this version will ring true for you.

     I found God in a land of wilderness

     And in the unreality of a howling desolation;

     God surrounded me and I found insight;

     God protected me like the pupil of an eye, and I saw.

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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