Friday, September 6, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Ha’azinu/Shabbat Shuvah 5774-5774: A Torah Odyssey

A sampling from Ha’azinu:

Speaking of the Israelites, Moshe has G”d saying:

I will sweep misfortunes upon them,
Use up My arrows on them:
Wasting famine, ravinging plague,
Deadly pestilence, and fanged beasts
Will I let loose against them.
(Deut 32:23-24, new JPS)

And this is what G”d, after chastising Israel and then taking them back, will do to Israel’s foes

When I whet my flashing blade
And my hand lays hold on judgment,
Vengeance shall I wreak on My foes
Will I deal to those who reject Me.
(Deut. 32:41, new JPS)

Seriously? This was the last speech of Moshe? It’s no “I Have a Dream” speech.  It’s no “My G”d, it’s full of stars!” It’s certainly no “last words of David.”

That’s what I thought to myself. However, I realized I needed to double-check and see exactly what David’s last words really were. My memory of them is cloudy, and tainted by my encounter, at a very young age, with Randall Thompson’s classic choral setting. Seems Randall Thompson did a little picking and choosing. He used the King James Version biblical text:

He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God. And he shall be as the light of the morning, when the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds; as the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining after rain.
(2 Samuel 23:3-4, KJV)

The new JPS translation renders it

He who rules men justly,
He who rules in awe of God
Is like the light of the morning at sunrise,
A morning without clouds
Through sunshine and rain
[Bringing] vegetation out of the earth
(2 Samuel 23:3-4, New JPS)

(Which I find a better but still obviously tweaked translation.) But David’s last words actually go on.

Is not my House established before God?
For He has granted me an eternal pact,
Drawn up in full and secured.
Will He not cause all my success
And [my] every desire to blossom?

But the wicked shall all
Be raked aside like thorns;
For no one will take them in his hand.

Whoever touches them
Must arm himself with iron
And the shaft of a spear;
And they must be burned up on the spot.
(2 Samuel 23: 5-7, New JPS)

The KJV renders it thus:

Although my house be not so with God; yet he hath made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things, and sure: for this is all my salvation, and all my desire, although he make it not to grow.

But the sons of Belial shall be all of them as thorns thrust away, because they cannot be taken with hands:

But the man that shall touch them must be fenced with iron and the staff of a spear; and they shall be utterly burned with fire in the same place.
(2 Samuel 23: 5-7, KJV)

(Now, I know it’s not an entirely fair comparison. These aren’t the actual last words of Moshe. The final chapter, the final parasha, V’zot Ha-Berakhah, contains a blessing which he gave to the Israelites before he died. Yet if you look at the last verse of his last words, they too, are not so uplifting, though perhaps inspiring to a people about to go and conquer lands given to them by their G”d:

Your enemies shall come cringing before you,
And you shall tread on their backs
(Deut 33:29)

So those, are truly the last words of Moshe. Yet what we read this week is the end of Moshe’s final speech, so I think acceptable for me to compare them to David’s last words.)

So both Moshe and David start off with some nice, fluffy poetry, and then veer off into fire and brimstone, of a sort.

So just what is it with our ancestors? They had to go and ruin yet another potentially beautiful oration with more negative imagery. Agreed, David’s last oration is nowhere near as descriptive and negative as Moshe’s last words in Ha’azinu. Moshe gets downright ugly in describing what G”d will do:

I will make My arrows drunk with blood —
As My sword devours flesh —
Blood of the slain and the captive
From the long-haired enemy chiefs.
(Deut. 32:42)

And that’s but a small sampling of the horrific and negative imagery that pervades that latter slightly more than half of Ha’azinu. (The haftarah for Ha’azinu – which is not being read this year since it’s Shabbat Shuvah - is even worse. It’s also from 2 Samuel, chapter 22, just before chapter 23, the source of David’s last words. I wrote just two years ago about how even I, the champion of working to redeem irredeemable texts, had met my match with 2 Samuel 22. Thank goodness this year we don’t get to hear the haftarah for Ha’azinu, and do get, instead, the relatively comforting selections from Hosea, Micah, and Joel for Shabbat Shuvah.)

True, Moshe starts out heaping praise upon G”d. He quickly turns, however, to chastising the people. Oddly enough, Moshe’s chastisements seem more in keeping with the prophetic words to come centuries later (not at all surprising given the common scholarly perception that all of Deuteronomy is a much later addition to the canonical Hebrew bible.) It’s not entirely clear if Moshe is chastising the Israelites for all that happened over the last 40 years, or chastising generations yet to come for their failures. The descriptions of what happened could apply to both situations.

So the pattern repeats itself, over and over. G”d grants us blessing. We don’t follow G”d’s commandments, we turn to other gods. G”d takes vengeance, either directly or by allowing our enemies to wreak havoc upon us. Eventually, G”d takes us back in love and recognition of the covenant. (Yet, in this taking back of us, usually our enemies become bloody victims.) We seem to spend an awful lot of time in our biblical texts on the straying and vengeance parts.

Enough of this warrior G”d. Enough of the carrot and stick. Enough G”d-mandated genocide. Enough knowing we will be imperfect, stray from G”d, and reap bitter punishment as a result. Enough being told things will get so bad we’ll eat our children. Knowing that G”d will eventually take us back – surely a theme that connects with this time of year – is something to which we can cling. Yet I’m tired of clinging. I want off the roller-coaster ride.

Something has been out of sync for me for some time now. I am becoming increasingly troubled again by all the negativity one finds in our Jewish biblical texts. I have perhaps grown weary of spending so much time trying to redeem it all. This was not the sort of spiritual mood I wanted to find myself in during Elul, and now, in the Days of Awe.

So I find myself having to be disingenuous, and picking and choosing from the more positive bits of text to lighten my mood.

Ha’azinu has this interesting parallel with David’s last words:

May my discourse come down as the rain,
My speech distill as the dew,
Like showers on young growth,
Like droplets on the grass
(Deut. 32:2, New JPS)

Moshe gets off to a nice, flowery, praising G”d. Then right after that he starts in on us:

The Rock!-His deeds are perfect,
Yea, all His ways are just;
A faithful G”d, never false,
True and upright is He.
Children unworthy of Him-
That crooked, perverse generation-
Their baseness played him false.
(Deut. 32:4-5, New JPS)

From there, finding a pleasant piece of text becomes increasingly difficult. Go look for yourself. So I hunt around, looking for little bits of positive energy. Like these words describing how G”d treated our ancestors:

He found him in a desert region
In an empty howling waste,
He encircled him, watched over him,
Guarded him as the pupil of His eye.
Like an eagle who rouses his nestlings
Gliding down to his young,
So did He spread His wings and take him,
Bear him on his pinions;
(Deut. 32:10-11, New JPS)

Isn’t that a nice sentiment? Let’s just read that and skip the other stuff. Ah, but there I go. They very thing about which I have so often complained. Worse, perhaps, because I’m whitewashing our tradition for selfish reasons, and not with any broader interests or perspective at heart.

I have many things for which I must atone at this time of year. Given an already lengthy list, part of me rebels at having to add yet another item-my selfish whitewashing and picking and choosing to avoid confronting our texts head on. After all, doing that gets me to a better place, spiritually, does it not?  Tiptoe, hurriedly, through the worst, like we do with Ki Tavo. Yet I would not be writing these very words if I did not have some internal discomfort. I have done my share of confronting our texts for my years, and now is not the time to shirk that obligation.

What better time, then, to make a resolution for this new Jewish year, to recommit myself to tackling our ancient texts, warts and all, and finding ways to come to terms with them? I won’t make a promise I can’t keep, so I won’t promise to never do some convenient ignoring and whitewashing when it’s in my own spiritual best interest. I’m only human. However, I’m going to try my best, in this new year, to tackle Torah, Tanakh, Talmud and more with a renewed spirit and dedication to finding ways to redeem the irredeemable. This is my pledge to G”d, to you, and to myself. May it be G”d’s will that I am able to fulfill my pledge. May it be my will as well.

Unlike Bowman, I’m peering into the known, and not the unknown, yet I still hope and pray that when I peer into our Jewish texts, I’ll be filled with wonder and awe and exclaim, “My G”d, it’s full of stars.”*

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah,

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

*-see note below regarding this quote.

Other musings on this parasha:

Ha'azinu 5772 - An Insincere Hymn?
Ha'azinu/Shabbat Shuvah 5570-Our Prayers Aren't Bull
Haazinu 5766-Trifles (Updated from 5762)
Haazinu 5765/5763-How would It Look If...
Haazinu 5764-More Bull From Our Lips
Haazinu 5762--Trifles
Haazinu 5760-Bull from Our Lips

Note: The quote, “My G”d, it’s full of stars” is one of those mis-remembered quotes. It does not actually appear in the film 2001:A Space Odyssey! It does appear in the novel which Arthur C.Clarke wrote concurrent with the movie’s creation, and hurried into print to coincide with the movie’s appearance. There are a number of difference between the novel and the film. Some say the novel was Clarke’s way of countering some of the aspects of the film with which he did not agree artistically. The quote is used in the opening sequence of the sequel movie 2010:The Year We Make Contact.


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