Tag Archives: Ha’azinu

Ha’azinu: Rain On Me

rain2Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; Let the earth hear the words I utter! May my discourse come down as the rain, my speech distill as the dew, like showers on young growth, like droplets on the grass.

Deuteronomy 32:1-2 (JPS Tanakh)

God’s word is like rain in a dry land. It brings life. It makes things grow. There is much we can do of our own accord: we can plough the earth and plant the seeds. But in the end our success depends on something beyond our control. If no rain falls, there will be no harvest, whatever preparations we make. So it is with Israel. It must never be tempted into the hubris of saying: “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me” (Deut. 8: 17).

There is only one Torah, yet it has multiple effects. It gives rise to different kinds of teaching, different sorts of virtue. Torah is sometimes seen by its critics as overly prescriptive, as if it sought to make everyone the same. The midrash argues otherwise. The Torah is compared to rain precisely to emphasize that its most important effect is to make each of us grow into what we could become. We are not all the same, nor does Torah seek uniformity. As a famous Mishnah puts it:

When a human being makes many coins from the same mint, they are all the same. God makes everyone in the same image – His image – yet none is the same as another. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

-Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks
“Ha’azinu: Let My Teaching Fall Like Rain”
Commentary on Torah Portion Ha’azinu

Torah is a lot of things including its teachings being like rain and dew. It’s nourishing and helps living things grow. Without it, all life dies. I suppose it’s even possible to immerse in Torah and drown.

But although it is highly variable in purpose and use, it is for everyone.

Question: Why do the Jewish people needs a covenant/Brit with G-d. Why do we have to be commanded to follow his Mitzvos? Why is the commitment necessary? Please let me know if you have any suggestions on further readings as well.

Answer: The Talmud asks your question, in a way. First, note that the Torah gives commandments to Gentiles as well, so evidently it is the Torah view that all humans need these. In fact, Adam, the 1st man, was commanded.

Second, you have to define Mitzvah. What is a Mitzvah? You say it’s a “commandment.” I say that’s a fine 2nd-grade answer. An adult definition is “an opportunity to create a spiritual connection to God.”

So you ask, why do I need specific Mitzvot rather than just to create my own? Answers the Talmud: it gives you a greater connection when you are told what to do than if you create your own. This is due to human nature. It is human nature to resist instructions. If I have to overcome that resistance, the spiritual connection is greater.

-Rabbi Seinfeld
“Commandments and Covenants”

rain_on_meNo, I’m not saying that the Torah is applied to Gentiles in the exact same way as to Jewish people. Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks says we’re not all the same, and Rabbi Seinfeld says that we all need Torah to create a spiritual connection to God, but the Torah isn’t the same for everyone.

Rabbi Seinfeld admits that even we Gentiles need Torah. But in what way? Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks replies:

On this, Rashi comments:

Why is this expression (“God of the spirits of all mankind”) used? [Moses] said to him: Lord of the universe, You know each person’s character, and that no two people are alike. Therefore, appoint a leader for them who will bear with each person according to his disposition.

One of the fundamental requirements of a leader in Judaism is that he or she is able to respect the differences between human beings.

And the prophet Joel says:

It will come about after this that I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind…

Joel 2:28 (NASB)

The Apostle Peter quotes the Prophet in Acts 2:17 to describe the giving of the Spirit to the twelve who had been waiting. We also know that “all mankind” wasn’t limited to Jewish apostles and disciples:

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also.

Acts 10:44-45 (NASB)

But while Jews and Gentiles can equally receive the Holy Spirit of God, can we apply Rashi’s comments and the Torah in the same way? Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks states:

According to Maharsha, there are 600,000 interpretations of Torah. Each individual is theoretically capable of a unique insight into its meaning. The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas commented:

The Revelation has a particular way of producing meaning, which lies in its calling upon the unique within me. It is as if a multiplicity of persons … were the condition for the plenitude of “absolute truth”, as if each person, by virtue of his own uniqueness, were able to guarantee the revelation of one unique aspect of the truth, so that some of its facets would never have been revealed if certain people had been absent from mankind.

Judaism, in short, emphasizes the other side of the maxim E pluribus unum (“Out of the many, one”). It says: “Out of the One, many”.

The miracle of creation is that unity in Heaven produces diversity on earth. Torah is the rain that feeds this diversity, allowing each of us to become what only we can be.

RainOf course, that explanation may not be entirely satisfying to non-Jewish people in traditional Christianity, Hebrew Roots, Messianic Judaism, and all their variant streams. There’s a tendency, especially here in America, to strive to make everyone exactly the same. Equality means homogenization and cookie cutter duplication, with no variations allowed. It’s hard to contrast this with a society that says it also values diversity.

The Master said that the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike (Matthew 5:45), but he didn’t say that the rain always means the same thing to each person upon whom it falls. We are all grafted into the same root and fed by the same sap, but that doesn’t mean the branches from the wild tree (Gentiles) transmutate into branches identical to the civilized tree (Jews). Children from different nations, races, and ethnicities could be fed by the milk of a single mother, but that doesn’t mean all of the children would become identical in national, racial, and ethnic origin to the mother.

What it does mean is that God all loves us with impartiality, even the unjust, for he feeds and waters them as well. If God did not love them, then there would be no hope for any of us, as no person ever came to God clean and unsullied by sin. In this season of repentance and renewal, we should not complain because we are different, but rejoice because we are all equally loved by our Father Who is in Heaven.

Only love,
Can make it rain,
The way the beach is kissed by the sea.
Only love,
Can make it rain,
Like the sweat of lovers laying in the fields.

Love, Reign o’er me.
Love, Reign o’er me, Rain on me.

-Peter Townshend
“Love Reign O’er Me” (1973)
from The Who’s “Quadrophenia” album

When Messiah returns, he will be able to treat us all with love and to respect us as Jews and Gentiles, and as human beings all created in God’s image, and yet with no two of those “images” being exactly alike.

One of the fundamental requirements of a leader in Judaism is that he or she is able to respect the differences between human beings.

Wishing you a good and sweet new year.

19 Days.

Ha’azinu: Between Heaven and Earth

Why did Moshe address the earth as well as the heavens? And why did Yeshayahu address the heavens as well as the earth? Why did they not confine themselves to speaking to the realm closest to them?

The answer to these questions depends on a fundamental tenet of Judaism: we must relate to both earth and heaven. For material and spiritual reality are meant to be connected, instead of being left as skew lines. Judaism involves drawing down spiritual reality until it meshes with worldly experience (Moshe’s contribution), while elevating worldly experience until a bond with the spiritual is established (Yeshayahu’s contribution). (see Rambam, Commentary to the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 10:1), the seventh and eighth of the Thirteen Principles of Faith)

Indeed, the two initiatives can be seen as phases in a sequence. By revealing the Torah, Moshe endowed every individual with the potential to become “close to the heavens.” Yeshayahu developed the connection further, making it possible for a person to experience being “close to heavens” while “close to the earth” involved in the mundane details of material life.

-Rabbi Eli Touger
“Close To The Heavens”
From the “In the Garden of Torah” series
Commentary on Torah Portion Ha’azinu

This is something like what I’ve been trying to say in my Jesus, Halakhah, and the Evolution of Judaism series. There is a dynamic tension in Judaism between Heaven and earth; between God and man, between the Spiritual ideal and the practicality of performing the mitzvot in the secular world. Heaven never changes, but the world in which we live in changes all the time. As we see from Rabbi Touger’s commentary on this week’s Torah portion, we might very well say that a Jew has one foot anchored in Heaven and the other planted firmly on earth.

The Master said it this way:

But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. –John 17:13-19 (ESV)

Just as Jesus was, at that time, in the world but not of the world, this is how he characterized his disciples, who were set apart; sanctified for holy service to God. This is also a good understanding of what I see in Rabbi Touger’s commentary on what the Song of Moses was and is trying to teach the descendents of Jacob and the children of Israel.

And as Christians, this is a lesson we must learn as well.

But it isn’t easy. There’s a very delicate balance going on here. It would be very simple to slip too far one way or the other. If we go too far into the spiritual realm, we might have to leave the world altogether. More often than not though, we would probably just lose our way, walking off of the true path and into realms that involve excessive, arcane spiritual and mystic philosophies that are often mistaken for “mysterious truths” by people who are never satisfied with what God has given them. To go too far in the opposite direction (and this is the mistake most of us make) is to become too much of the world, bending our theologies and philosophies to the demands of a politically correct western culture, and believing that God has not prepared for us His enduring principles and values.

But how do you know if you’re biased too far in one direction or another? How can you tell if you’ve struck the right balance between adhering to eternal truths and adapting your religious practice to the needs of the current generation?

You almost never can tell until you, or someone around you, has gone to one extreme or the other, and then it becomes all too obvious.

How do you steady yourself on the path? That’s not easy, either. But it’s done by surrounding yourself with stable companions in the faith; men and women who are “grounded in the Word” and who have spent much time with God, men and women of prayer, grace, compassion, and acts of charity and kindness. Think of them as there to assist you in the occasional “course correction” that must be made during your journey between birth and God.

Unfortunately, there are always wrong communities that will support and encourage problems:

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. –2 Timothy 4:3-5 (ESV)

This is a well used and well-abused set of verses because almost everyone in every type of Christian denomination, sect, and variant believes their group is the only one that possesses “sound teaching” and that everyone else who differs from them have “itching ears.” Indeed, the Messianic Jewish and Gentile Hebrew Roots movements are often characterized in the latter category by the mainstream Christian churches, since the focus on Hebraic and Jewish thought is contrary to what most churches teach.

So what do you do? How can you be so sure of yourself?

The scary answer is that, if you are at all honest with yourself and with God, you can’t be too sure. In fact, a little self-doubt is probably healthy. Taking other people’s criticisms to heart, at least temporarily, lets you look at yourself from a different point of view and ask the question, “what if I’m wrong?” I spent about a year on a different blog asking myself that question in many different ways, and my current perspective on this blog is the result. Just two weeks ago, I admitted I was wrong in response to a critic’s complaint, and I started a journey to investigate what the Bible really says about a Christian’s covenant connection to God.

If you assume that you’re never wrong, then you are almost certain to be walking away from God. I’ve met people like that, both in the blogosphere and face-to-face and believe me, they’re scary.

But what can we do when information overload hits, when the words and the texts and the spiritual pronouncements get to be too much? What do you do when you feel like you are about to fall off the tightrope, or that you are running on the edge of a razor blade, in imminent danger of being sliced to ribbons? As the saying goes, you need to “get back to basics.”

My soul thirsts for You; my flesh pines for You.

Psalms 63:2

One Yom Kippur, after the Maariv (evening) services that ended the 25-hour fast, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berdichev exclaimed, “I am thirsty! I am thirsty!” Quickly someone brought him water, but the Rabbi said, “No! I am thirsty!” Hastily they boiled water and brought him coffee, but again he said, “No! No! I am thirsty!” His attendant then asked, “Just what is it you desire?”

“A tractate Succah (the volume of the Talmud dealing with the laws of the festival of Succos).” They brought the desired volume, and the Rabbi began to study the Talmud with great enthusiasm, ignoring the food and drink that were placed before him.

Only after several hours of intense study did the Rabbi breathe a sigh of relief and break his fast. The approaching festival of Succos with its many commandments – only five days after Yom Kippur – had aroused so intense a craving that it obscured the hunger and thirst of the fast.

It is also related that at the end of Succos and Pesach, festivals during which one does not put on tefillin, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok sat at the window, waiting for the first glimmer of dawn which would allow him to fulfill the mitzvah of tefillin after a respite of eight or nine days.

Today I shall…

try to realize that Torah and mitzvos are the nutrients of my life, so that I crave them just as I do food and water when I am hungry or thirsty.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Tishrei 11”

The “Torah and mitzvos;” Heaven and earth are the nutrients of life. We crave them like food and water. To extend the metaphor, we need a “balanced diet” to stay healthy. I adopted the name and philosophy for my blog from something written by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman that was based on the letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson:

When you get up in the morning, let the world wait. Defy it a little. First learn something to inspire you. Take a few moments to meditate upon it. And then you may plunge ahead into the darkness, full of light with which to illuminate it.

When you find yourself poised between Heaven and earth, try to balance yourself as much as possible, and then pick up a Bible or perhaps some text produced by a learned sage. Learn one thing that inspires you, that fills you with energy, and prompts you to seize the day…meditate upon it, question it, question your own understanding of it and of yourself for a time. Then start walking forward on your path toward the dawn and let yourself be the light that provides illumination.

I am gratified that this lesson has extended outward a little from my humble blog.

Good Shabbos.

The Garden of Ha’azinu

Hands of the GardenerAt every moment, your Creator must decide, “Should I put up once again with this little creature’s imperfections and blunders, or is it time to measure things by the scale?”

Then He looks at the scale you use to measure others. And with that same measure, He measures you.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Reciprocal Tolerance”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.1 Corinthians 3:5-9

The First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) commentary on this week’s Torah Portion Ha’azinu compares the teachings of the Torah given to the Children of Israel to the acts of the Apostles spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ to the people of Corinth. Paul was the first to bring the Gospel message to the Gentiles there, but if he “planted the seed”, then he credits Apollos with “watering” it. Yet the seed, the water, and the growing of the plants all come from God.

And look what we’ve done with what He’s provided. I don’t necessarily say that as a compliment to humanity.

Rabbi Freeman shows us that perhaps God considers our lives each day and ponders about whether or not to extend our existence into tomorrow. This is based on the measure of how we show or fail to show kindness and grace to others. What a terrible way to judge us.

Rosh Hashanah begins at sundown this coming Wednesday (1 Tishrei), and it is believed in Judaism, that at the “head of the year”, God opens the Book of Life, in which are inscribed the names of those who will be extended into the coming year. From Rosh Hashanah, it is said that we have ten days until Yom Kippur to be inscribed into the Book of Life. Perhaps God does “reconsider” our existence from time to time, or at least annually.

That may not fit your view of God or your view of your continuing life, particularly if you are a Christian. In Christ, we believe that we have been redeemed once and for all, thanks to the gift of God’s grace through the atoning death of Jesus. Nevertheless, this does not mean we cannot fail the Creator and it does not mean that we can’t be better tomorrow than we are today. It also doesn’t mean that there are no further consequences for our actions, including the consequence of death.

The FFOZ commentary on Ha’azinu includes this parable:

Consider the story of a foolish gardener. In the spring he planted some seeds and watered them. He was pleased when they began to grow, and he assumed that he could simply wait for the harvest. He did not think to water the young plants again. “After all, I have already watered them,” he said to himself. The plants shriveled up and died.

If God is our gardener, then we are indeed fortunate, for God will not neglect us or fail to water and care for us. But we are self-willed “plants” and we have some control over whether or not we allow ourselves to be “watered”. Words of Torah rain on us from heaven (Deuteronomy 32:2) but do we allow our “roots” to soak up what we need for life? Even though we’ve been “saved”, and even if you believe that salvation is difficult if not impossible to forsake, can you still not forsake living the life God has given to you? Unlike the plants in a garden, God offers care but we must willingly accept it. We can say “yes” or “no” or simply ignore the provision of rain, sunshine, careful weeding, and fertilizer. Who we are in Him depends as much on us and how we choose to live, as it does the generous hand of God.

In Judaism, a new year is coming soon. It’s an opportunity to hit the “cosmic reset button” in our lives. If we have failed Him, and we most certainly have (Romans 3:10), then we too, as Christians, can take this opportunity to turn our “no” into a “yes”. The gardener is here. Let Him sow good things in us so that we can be the good fruit of His harvest.

L’shanah tovah tikatev v’taihatem. May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.