Parshat Ha’azinu (Deuteronomy 32:1-32:52)
a.k.a A Song of Love
After Moses’ previous speech to the children
of Israel, God tells Moses to write down a song to teach to the Israelites. “Put this song in their mouths,” God
says, “so that the words may become a witness for me, so they will remember what I have said and warned. After I
bring them to the land that flows with milk and honey, they will eat and be satisfied and become obese. They will
turn to other gods and serve them and mock me and break my covenant. Then when many terrible evils come upon them,
this song will testify against them as witness; for I see this now.”
that day, Moses wrote down the song and taught it to the children of Israel.
“...God of trust and no
Righteous and upright is God.
But the children of God are so persistent in their evil and bad ways;
they are so corrupt.
Ask yourselves, ‘Is this how you repay God?’
O people who are withered and not wise in any way!
Is God not the Father who calls you The Almighty’s Own?
Did God not form you when God gave you your purpose?
Israel, also known as Jacob, is the lot of God’s inheritance.
God promised Jacob that
his children would inherit the land and all its goodness.
God surrounds the children of Israel, instructs them,
watches over them as the
apple of his eye.
Then the children of Israel became overwhelmed with fat
and forsook the God who had made them
and they regarded as worthless the rock of God's salvation.
They impeded God’s rights with alien gods
angering God with abominations.
They made offerings to demons, non-gods,
Deities of whom they knew nothing,
New deities whom your fathers never knew nor dreaded.
God saw this and turned away in disdain and said,
I will hide my face from my sons and daughters.
I could make their memory disappear from among mankind
but then the oppressors of the Israelites might misunderstand
And they might say, ‘Our hand is powerful:
It is not God that caused all this!’
So, it is God who will judge God’s people
and reveal God’s changed decree concerning his servants.
See now that I am indeed ‘I’
And there is no god beside Me;
I kill and restore life;
I have inflicted wounds, and I will heal
Nothing can be snatched from my hand.
Therefore O nations, make God’s people’s lot a happy one,
For God will avenge the blood of his servants
And God will turn back vengeance upon his enemies,
And God’s people will atone for God’s world.”
that day, God spoke to Moses saying, “Go up to the Mountain of Transitions, to Mount Nebo, which is in the land of
Moab, facing Jericho, and see the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the sons of Israel as a possession. You will
die on the mountain and be gathered there to your people, as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was
gathered to his people. You must die because you trespassed against me in the middle of the children of Israel at
the waters of contention in Kadesh, in the wilderness of Tzin; because you did not sanctify me whilst you were
among the children of Israel. Thus, you shall see the Land only from afar; you will not go there, not to the land
that I am giving to the sons of Israel.”
Commentary on the 53rd parsha (portion) of the Torah. The Torah consists of the five books of
Moses, the first part of the Old Testament.
To get to grips with this parsha, our Supermaven, Sigmund Albert Spinoza, interviews
Methuselah Solomon (an Ancient Elder). Supermaven is a modern philosopher who is trying to understand Judaism
and how we got where we are.
He will do this every week by investigating the Old Testament.
SAS: I am overwhelmed at God’s cruelty to Moses, Methuselah. Why is he
to be so punished, while the Children of Israel, who are really much less worthy than Moses, may pass freely into
the Promised Land?
MS: Moses let God down, Sigmund. He was punished for forgetting to
whom he owed his existence and the continued existence of his people.
SAS: It’s harsh, Methuselah. It’s a harsh religion and God is a harsh
God. I think Moses has been very unfairly treated. He has been God’s mouthpiece, even in this last song, and he has
always delivered God’s message, irrespective of how unpopular it will be with the people.
MS: I disagree with you so profoundly, Sigmund. God kept his word and
delivered the Children of Israel to the Promised Land. He allowed Moses to live 120 years. He also committed
himself to not allowing the enemies of the people of Israel to take credit for the suffering of the
SAS: Well, now that’s an
interesting thing. The song starts off as a complaint against the Children of Israel for what they will do when
they become fat and complacent, and abandon their God. God sees the future and describes how their enemies will
triumph in the fall of the Israelites. Suddenly it seems to occur to him that he can’t have the enemies of the
people feeling triumphant and crowing over their defeat of the Israelites because after all, it is he, God, who has
brought about their downfall. He is the all-powerful one, and it is to his, and no-one else’s credit, that the
Israelites have been brought this low. Now I hope you don’t mind my saying so, Methuselah, but your God is a little
immature. It is not enough for him that the Children of Israel are
brought low; they must be seen to have been brought low by him. So, it’s all about him. How do you explain
MS: I will ignore your blasphemous talk, because I am used to it, and
I expect no better from you. The issue is that the Israelites must not think that their punishment is arbitrary and
unwarranted. Their punishment is not a cruel twist of fate, nor is it a result of the strength of their enemies.
They must be punished because they have wronged God, and it is God who must punish them. The enemies of the
Israelites are not God’s people, and they must not be allowed to take credit for what God does. They are simply
collateral beneficiaries of God’s wrath. And in this regard, God makes it clear that he can and will show the
enemies of Israel, as well as the Children of Israel themselves, that he can strengthen the people of Israel, just
as he can weaken them. It is in his gift, not in the power of the people of Israel and their enemies to weaken and
strengthen according to his will. And his will is a just one, because the Children of Israel entered into a
covenant with him, and he will see that the covenant is kept by all who entered into it.
SAS: All very well, but I hardly think it was the best way for Moses
to make his exit. After all he’d been through; after all the people had been through. Such pessimism, such
trepidation! Terrifying shows of strength! Great rumbles of thunder! And nothing like, “Thanks for all you’ve done
and all you’ve been through.” I don’t understand it, Methuselah.
MS: No, you don’t do you? You lack a sense of awe. It makes you a
very impoverished person.
SAS: It’s difficult to feel awe when God gives the people a song,
through Moses, that is far from a joyful and inspiring anthem. It anticipates wrongdoing on a grand scale and is
full of threats and the prospect of punishments. It is a bullying, hectoring hymn that celebrates God’s unbridled
power, not the union that he has established with his chosen people. I find awfulness here, not awesomeness.
MS: Chosenness is an extremely serious business, Sigmund. It involves
absolute dedication and responsibility at every turn. The song was not meant to have a congratulatory tone. The
covenant has barely begun. History awaits the people and massive challenges lie ahead. They will be called to
account at every turn, and their failures will result in bitter setbacks and punishments. It would have been
extremely remiss of God not to warn the people of this.
SAS: Well, one thing I won’t argue about – religion, when recommended,
should always come with a warning. Something like: “Long-term adherence to this creed could result in serious
depression, loss of self-esteem and perpetual feelings of guilt and worthlessness.”
MS: Not to mention the richest blessings imaginable, stretching forth
like an ocean with no horizon. Your analysis is woefully selective, my sad friend, and your insights limited to a
few waves in the sea of knowledge.
SAS: While you see and understand it all? You are your fellow scribes
are very arrogant men, Methuselah.
MS: Not at all. We are dutiful, respectful and obedient. When you’re
open to God’s word, and you don’t filter his wisdom through a lens of expectation and philosophical criticism, you
see so much more and understand so much more. It is God’s gift to those who listen to his word.
SAS: Listen uncritically? That requires a level of blind faith and
obedience that is not part of my persona.
MS: Precisely, my friend. Precisely!
If you’d like to know more about the real history of our
extended Jewish family, read on.
Chabad messianism, or Lubavitch messianism, is an
interesting development in recent Judaism. The term incorporates a range of beliefs within the Chabad Hasidic
movement relating to deceased leader Rabbi Menachem Mendel
Schneerson (1902-1994) and the claims that he was the Messiah. The claim dates back to 1952 when
Rabbi Avraham Parizh printed a poster proclaiming him the Messiah. Then, in 1961, Parizh wrote in a
letter that “the essence of infinite
God” was evident within Schneerson’s persona. In the 1980s, an upsurge in messianism was claimed by some
commentators to be evident in Judaism in response to questions about the Holocaust. Schneerson, who provided
a sense of eschatological certainty in a time of fervent inquiry, provided many with the sense of reassurance
they craved. He increased his eschatological rhetoric during the Gulf War of 1991, telling his followers
that, “the time of your redemption has arrived”. A number of Chabad Hasidim
believed that Schneerson would soon become the Messiah by ushering in the Messianic Age and
constructing the Third Temple. In 1992,
such messianic claims were gaining in intensity and did not abate even when he suffered a stroke that year when
praying at the grave of his father-in-law. This stroke left him mute and partially paralyzed but he was able to
communicate through head and hand movements. His supporters regularly sang, “Long live our Master, our Teacher, and our Rabbi, King Messiah, for ever and ever!” While he lay ill in
hospital, 2,000 of his followers congregated in Stuyvesant Square and some were noted to stroke the hospital
wall as though it were the Wailing Wall.
Schneerson’s followers differed as to how he should be treated during his illness, one group
arguing that medications would in some way affect his transformation to messiah status and affect the
messianic revelation. Schneerson died on 12 June, 1994. After his death the US House of Representatives voted
to award him the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously.
This was for his “outstanding and enduring contributions toward world education, morality, and acts of
Not even Schneerson’s death stopped the movement’s
impetus, with some even claiming that their revered rabbi had not died but lived on in some kind of hidden
state. Others claimed that there was a basis for the belief that the Messiah would return from the dead. Some
slept close to his grave to be among the first to witness his resurrection.
A minority of his devotees say he is able to answer their questions from beyond the grave through
the practice of consulting Schneerson’s published letters, known as the Igrot Kodesh. Pamphlets containing Schneerson’s speeches were distributed by messianists
after his death to support their claim that he was the messiah.
Some supporters have gone further, claiming that the rabbi is God himself and this has led to the
view that Christian ideas have infiltrated the Lubavitcher movement. Some followers have given weight to this
impression by claiming that Rabbi Schneerson is more powerful in the spiritual realm than the human one now that his physical body has been
outgrown. The ancient idea of the Messiah as a historical figure is being transformed into that of a Messiah
ruling from a trans-worldly realm.
Many Chabad Hasidim still recite the formula, “Long Live our Master, our Teacher, and our Rabbi, King Messiah, for ever and
Here follows a discussion on this historical segment by Dad, Chaya and
CHAYA: How did a man who did something as mundane as study mechanics and electrical engineering at a
technical college in Paris become a candidate for messiah in the Jewish faith?
DAD: Well, that’s just one of many things he did. More importantly, he studied Talmud, rabbinic literature and the Hasidic
view of Kabbalah, and was ordained a rabbi.
He and his father-in-law, Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, were
related through Tzemach Tzedek, the third Rebbe of
Chabad Lubavitch. From 1920,
Schneersohn served as the sixth Rebbe
of the Chabad
movement and was succeeded by his younger son-in-law.
BEN: So Rabbi Schneerson got the proverbial leg-up in the family business.
DAD: By all accounts he deserved the leadership and he was in no rush to take it. He only assumed the
mantle a year after his father-in-law’s passing and he’d kept a low profile during the latter’s time in
charge. By all accounts Rabbi Schneerson had an extraordinary aura about him and was a most inspiring and
impressive man, not to mention a learned one. He founded a number of schools, kindergartens, synagogues and
Chabad houses and was a charitable
benefactor of many causes. The fact that he received a Congressional Gold Medal speaks volumes about his
standing in the broader community, let alone the Lubavitch movement. Of course, being the messiah is another
thing again. Part of the reason for that expectation was that he laid a lot of stress upon messianism and he
awakened messianic expectation in his followers by saying things like, “Humble ones, the time of your redemption
has arrived.” Shortly before his death he told his people, “"I have
done everything I can. Now I am handing over to you; do everything you can to bring
BEN: So obviously he didn’t see himself as the messiah.
DAD: As far as I know he never claimed to be. But Rabbi Avraham Parizh certainly ramped up expectations
on that score. However, when copies of his poster proclaiming Schneerson the messiah popped up in Tel Aviv,
Schneerson stopped its distribution. He clearly believed he was
living in the messianic age, but he encouraged his followers to keep studying and carry on with their daily
BEN: Maybe he was awaiting a sign from God that he was the messiah. He readied himself for the role but
the final call never came.
CHAYA: What intrigues me is that people believe in the Messiah at all. Such a person is expected to do
things that are just not going to happen. It’s a bit like believing in a comic-book superhero. What exactly
are the expectations about the Jewish Messiah, dad?
DAD: There are plenty of different ones, Chaya, which is one of the problems with the concept. In terms
of traditional expectation, the Messiah will be a descendent of King David who will gather the Jews back to
the land of Israel and inaugurate an era of peace. He will then build the Third Temple, have a male heir and
reinstitute the Sanhedrin. That’s just for starters.
CHAYA: I love the assumption that it’s going to be a man.
When the Messiah comes, she’s going to surprise a lot of people.
BEN: The belief is fantastical but it gives the people hope. I can understand how it arose in Rabbi
Schneerson’s time. It was the post-Holocaust age and people needed to believe that a form of religious
deliverance was at hand that would more than offset the horrors of the Shoah. It was desperately wishful
thinking, but no less understandable for that.
DAD: The onset of the Gulf War fuelled expectations even further. Given the fragility and volatility of the Middle Eastern situation, one
could argue that every year must seem like an appropriate time for the Messiah to make his appearance. The
more dangerous the times, the greater the sense of messianic expectation is.
BEN: Fear breeds gullibility, in other words. If Rabbi Schneerson had been out in the world, meeting
religious and political leaders and swaying world opinion, then one might have been able to entertain a
belief that he was some kind of messiah for the people. But I read that he basically always stayed at home
and issued pronouncements from there. This wasn’t the activism needed of a
DAD: That’s not quite right, Ben. It’s true that he seldom left Crown Heights in Brooklyn and in his
later years he moved his study above the central Lubavitch synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway, and spent much
of his time there. But he was well known for addressing public gatherings and speaking directly to his
followers. Then there were his writings, which were voluminous by any definition of the term. Amazingly, he
would draft thoughtful responses to thousands of questions from his congregants. And before his heart attack in
1997, he maintained a twice-weekly practice of Yechidut, which meant
that he had private meetings with anyone who wanted to see him. From 1986 he held a weekly audience with people
who queued to see him. He gave of himself in ways that put most other religious leaders to
CHAYA: What fascinates me is that he never visited Israel. That’s one place the Messiah would definitely
need to be familiar with.
DAD: Yes, it’s strange that he never went. You’d think that sheer curiosity would have taken him there,
if nothing else. But it’s amazing how many Jewish leaders from Israel came to see him, including
Katzav and Benjamin
Netanyahu. He was someone with enormous influence within the community and a real stalwart of
Orthodox belief and practice. He proclaimed that “Only one who is born of a Jewish mother or converted according
is Jewish.” You can imagine how well that went down among Reform groups in
BEN: I believe we’re still to discuss the question, “Who is a Jew”, so maybe this is a good time for us
to have our dessert and stock up for that debate.
DAD: To that cause I am always an easy convert.
Every Shabbat we read five short sayings that express, with typically Jewish wit and
humor, insightful reflections on this life of ours.
Here are tonight’s sayings:
· The world stands firm because of those who close their lips during a quarrel. (Nachman
· What soap is for the body, tears are for the soul.
· The man who can’t bear to hear a word of criticism will have to hear
· What good is beauty without luck?
· Better a fool that we already know than a wise man that we don’t.
Celebration of Great Lives
Every Friday night we celebrate the achievements of our Jewish family in contributing
to changing the world for the better and having an extraordinary impact on those around
Hannah Bachman Einstein dedicated her
life to noble social causes and one of her notable achievements was to enable single women to be with their children. President of the
New York Federation of Sisterhoods and chairperson of the relief committee of the United Hebrew Charities, Einstein
wanted to prevent children of widowed or deserted mothers from ending up in institutions. Her fervent campaigning for a mothers’ pension bore fruit in 1915 when
legislation for such a pension was passed. This gave single mothers the financial wherewithal to remain with their
children and paved the way for the New York Child Welfare Law.
We will now sing a traditional song to conclude our Shabbat celebration. You have a
copy of the words, so please join in as we sing.
The song is sung
Farewell and an Invitation
Thank you for coming together to share our Shabbat. May you go out into the new week
with renewed strength, confidence and happiness.
We now cordially invite you to join us for some coffee and cake.