By Rabbi Joshua Waxman
A podcast by political reporters that I regularly listen to recently found the contributors stepping back and reflecting on this tumultuous moment in American political life in which we find ourselves. It’s a powerful and humbling responsibility, they acknowledge, to digest and report these events as the news is breaking — “to write the first draft of history.”
That phrase stuck in my mind — the idea of responding to events as they are taking place around you and presenting them in a form that you hope will both provide insight and also lift up the crucial episodes, ideas and themes that readers need to understand.
Moses has a similar set of concerns in this week’s parshah but on a far grander, even cosmic, scale. On the last day of a long and illustrious life, Moses is trying not only to recount the people’s history but to locate their experiences in a definitive framework that will continue to support and guide them after his death — not only in the difficult weeks and months to follow, but for millennia afterward. In framing and giving enduring meaning to the Israelites’ experience, Moses is trying to provide the last draft of history.
In his parting words to the people, Moses seeks to convey the entire sweep of history, from God’s creation of the world — “when the Most High gave nations their homes and set the divisions of humankind” (32:8) — to the very end of time when God will act on the people’s behalf so they know “There is no other god beside Me” (32:29).
In one dramatic chapter of poetry, Moses relates those critical events that have shaped — and will shape — the Israelites’ understanding of their place in the world and underscores the larger lessons they need to remember: that God is constantly present, that God demands the people’s faithfulness and will ultimately act on their behalf after they suffer abuse and subjugation at the hands of foreign nations.
While journalists and reporters scramble to provide an accurate accounting of rapidly shifting events and breaking news, Moses’ project involves stepping back from a particular moment in time to frame the larger themes and teachings that will continue to guide the Israelites long after he is gone. While it is critical that he “gets his facts right,” he needs to find a way to transcend the timely to leave the people with a narrative that is truly timeless — one whose core messages and truths cannot be undone or undermined by any subsequent historical events or competing accounts.
To put it differently, Moses wants to make sure the Jewish people won’t be so consumed by the events taking place around them each day that they lose sight of the larger cosmic drama of which they are a part. We are supposed to walk through this world with all its opportunities and dangers with our eyes focused always on the big picture.
In that vein, it’s striking that this parshah, grounded in the theme of what is permanent and enduring, introduces a new name for God that has never before appeared in Torah. In the span of a few verses Moses refers to God four times as Tzur — Rock (a name that may be familiar from the Chanukah song “Ma’oz Tzur” — literally “Fortress Rock”).
The image of God as Rock underscores the unshakable and unchanging nature of the Jewish people’s relationship with God that Moses seeks to convey and, by extension, of God’s promises to them. In the long sweep of history, Moses is reassuring the people that God is truly the bedrock of existence, the ground of being in which all of us are anchored and can find shelter and support.
It is striking that Ha’azinu, with its emphasis on solidity and its introduction of God as Rock, is always the last weekly portion we read before Sukkot, the holiday in which we eat outside in flimsy, temporary booths and read Ecclesiastes’ admonition that everything in this world is fleeting. Sukkot, more than any other observance in the Jewish calendar, lifts up the idea of impermanence in recognizing the fragility of the walls and roofs that we depend on to keep us warm and safe.
But the messages of Ha’azinu and Sukkot complement each other powerfully. As we celebrate the coming holiday — referred to in liturgy as z’man simchateinu, time of our rejoicing — we are encouraged to realize that true security and joy do not come from status and possessions, both of which can be taken away at any time.
Instead, we leave our homes and go outside precisely to reorient ourselves to the resources and blessings that are most indispensable — the deeper values and purpose in which our lives are anchored, those meanings and connections which are far more lasting and unshakable than strong walls and sturdy locks.
In a world whose pace feels more hectic than ever and where each draft of history is being rewritten before the ink even dries on the previous one, Parshat Ha’azinu and Sukkot encourage us to take a step back from the distraction and the noise and consider what relationships, ideas and values form the rocks of our lives.
Rabbi Joshua Waxman is rabbi emeritus of Or Hadash: A Reconstructionist Congregation in Fort Washington. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.