Try Anyway Haazinu, Deuteronomy 32:1–52
We are nearing the end of the book of Deuteronomy. For 31 chapters, Moses has been retelling the story of the Israelites and offering them advice and rules to remember as they cross over the Jordan and into the Promised Land. Certainly, there have been moments where he has admonished them, reminded them that they are a stiff-necked people, and talked about the times they spurned the Eternal God. Still, the last few chapters we’ve read have been hopeful.
This week’s Torah portion, Haazinu, consists mainly of a poem or a song that Moses sings to the people as he nears his death. Considering how hopeful the last few chapters have been, one might have expected that this poem would continue the same line of thinking. However, the poem is more fatalistic.
To start, Moses explains that God chose the Israelites:
[God] found them in a desert region,
In an empty howling waste.
[God] engirded them, watched over them
Guarded them as the pupil of God’s eye.
Like an eagle who rouses its nestlings,
Gliding down to its young,
So did [God] spread wings and take them,
Bear them along on pinions. (Deuteronomy 32:10-11)
Because of God’s choice, Israel thrived, but then they took God for granted:
…They forsook the God who made them
And spurned the Rock of their support.
They incensed God with alien things,
Vexed [God] with abominations. (Deuteronomy 32:15-16)
Thus, God gets angry and punishes them:
The Eternal saw and was vexed.
And spurned these [children].
[God] said: I will hide My countenance from them,
And see how they fare in the end.
For they are a treacherous breed.
Children with no loyalty in them. (Deuteronomy 32:19-20)
However, God chooses not to destroy them because Israel’s enemies might think the Israelites’ destruction was the enemies’ doing:
But for fear of the taunts of the foe,
Their enemies who might misjudge
And say, “Our own hand has prevailed;
None of this was wrought by the Eternal!” (Deuteronomy 32:27)
Therefore, God will defeat Israel’s enemies on their behalf:
When I whet My flashing blade
And My hand lays hold on judgment
Vengeance will I wreak on My foes,
Will I deal to those who reject Me…
O nations, acclaim God’s people!
For [God] will avenge the blood of [God’s] servants,
Wreak vengeance on [God’s] foes
And cleanse the land of [God’s] people. (Deuteronomy 32:41, 43)
The poem clearly predicts that the Israelites will spurn God. The only hopeful aspect is that God will choose them over their enemies and make sure that Israel’s enemies do not prevail. However, this is so that other nations know that God is powerful and the only reason God’s people suffer is because God allowed them to suffer. This feels at odds with some of the hope we have seen expressed in other parts of Deuteronomy.
However, these are not Moses’s final words to the people. In V’zot Hab’racha, the portion that comes after Haazinu, whose last lines we read during Simchat Torah (when we read the last verse and the first verse of the Torah in one breath so there is no break in our Torah reading cycle), Moses offers one more poem, and this one is pure blessing.
Lover, indeed, of the people,
Their hallowed are all in Your hand,
They followed in Your steps,
Accepting your pronouncements. (Deuteronomy 33:3)
Moses then continues to offer a special prayer of well-being or statement of hope for each of the tribes, ending with a statement of Israel’s ultimate victory.
Thus, Haazinu is sandwiched between words of hope, empowerment, and blessing. Perhaps this portion follows the same flow of thought, resolution, realism, and promise that guides our own lives during this season. Since the beginning of the High Holiday season, we’ve spent a lot of time and effort talking and thinking about the choices we have made in the past and the choices we are going to make in future. As we head into Sukkot next week and then Simchat Torah, we end on a high note of joy and dancing. But in between, leading up to Yom Kippur, the realization might set in that we may not be able to be who we set out to be. We know from our past that we are likely to fall short of our highest aspirations. Tradition knows that as well, which is why we have a High Holidays season for return and repentance every year.
And yet, as the book of Deuteronomy ends on a note of pure blessing, we, too, will work toward our ideals anyway. We will do our best to follow the paths of life and blessing, knowing we will falter, knowing we will fall short. And that is the righteousness that lies within Haazinu, that even as we know that we will falter, we will try, anyway.