By Rabbi David N. Goodman
Anyone hoping for a quick turn from the somber Days of Awe — with their self-analysis, self-criticism, self-denial and self-correction — to the joys of the fall harvest festival of Sukkot comes up against a harsh message in this week’s Torah portion.
Did you think you were off the hook after all the confessing, chest-thumping, the fasting of Yom Kippur? No such luck. The dying Moses has a tough message for the Israelites, calling them to account for their seemingly congenital inability to remain faithful to the God who did so much for them.
Parshat Haazinu (Deuteronomy 32:1-52) opens with Moses telling the people of God’s great faithfulness to God’s children, who prove themselves corrupt and unworthy of that Divine support.
In the poem known as the Song of Moses, the prophet says that God found Jeshurun (Israel) “in a desert land, in an empty place, a howling waste.” The Holy One “enveloped him, tended him, guarded him like the apple of God’s eye.” The Holy One cared for Israel like an eagle nurturing its young, spreading its wings over Israel and guiding it to a new home. The Holy One did this acting alone, with “no foreign god” to assist.
So the Holy One transported Israel to the fertile highlands, where they dined on the land’s rich produce. There, God fed Israel “honey from the rock, oil from the flinty stones, cows’ milk cream, milk from the flocks, prime lambs, rams from the Bashan highlands and he-goats; with the very best wheat. And you drank the vintage of blood-red grapes.”
But instead of showing gratitude, Israel “grew fat and kicked” like an untamed animal. The people abandoned the One who created and protected them and sacrificed to “demons, non-deities, unknown gods they’d never known, newcomer deities their ancestors never held in awe.”
So, Moses continues, God punished Israel with famine, disease and attacking enemies. God would have gone further, wiping out Israel, had the Holy One not feared losing the respect of Israel’s enemies by making them think God had forsaken Israel. So the Holy One steps in to defend and redeem Israel, even while mocking the people’s failed reliance on false deities that brought them to the brink of destruction.
“Look, now, for I — I am (God), there is no god beside me. I kill and I give life, I wound and I heal. By my oath, no one else can deliver,” the Holy One proclaims. “My arrows will drink blood, and my sword will eat flesh.”
This powerful work of biblical poetry seems a bit misplaced. What do these images have to do with the Israelites’ present situation as they mobilize to enter the Promised Land? Instead, it seems to leapfrog centuries ahead, to a time when the people are long settled in the land but now face powerful enemies that threaten to exterminate them.
In fact, the Song of Moses seems to point to the late history of the kingdom of Judah, when the Davidic monarchy was confronted with the overwhelming power of the Babylonians. It’s a thousand-year flash forward to the Sixth century BCE. Whether one reads this as a late insertion in the story or as Moses’ forward-looking prophetic vision, it speaks to the dangers of complacency, backsliding and loss of core values, to which we human beings are so vulnerable.
As such, this harsh poetic warning is a well-timed reminder to stick with the resolves we have made during the Days of Awe.
Does the message sound a bit harsh? A midrashic commentary on Deuteronomy sees a silver lining behind the dark clouds of God’s criticism of Israel — namely that the text calls them God’s children. The Holy One is still looking out for them.
Quoting a parallel passage in Isaiah 1:4 referring to the people of Judah as “corrupt children,” Midrash Sifrei Devarim says, “and if they were not corrupt, how much more so” would they be children of the Holy One?
As we struggle to be better versions of ourselves, may we remember that even in our imperfection, God holds us with an unending love.
David N. Goodman is rabbi of Nafshenu, a Reconstructionist community in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. The Board of Rabbis is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.