Shmuel Polin
ניט מיט שעלטן/לאַכן קען מען די וועלט איבערמאַכן

Haazinu Sermon

Our Torah reading today, Haazinu, is from Deuteronomy 32. Haazinu is a powerful reading. It is the epic closing words of Moshe to the people of Israel. Haazinu means “listen in,” and this reading’s words are said to have been delivered by Moshe on his final day of life. The words are poetic, and our sages teach that they are so significant that the words belong to one of only ten songs that appears in the Tanakh.[1] Haazinu is not only poetic, but it is also prophetic. Moshe’s final words are an ominous warning regarding the people of Israel’s next several hundred years. Moshe’s message is this: Yes, we have reached the Promised Land, but we’re not totally out of the woods.

At the beginning of Deuteronomy 32 in Haazinu, Moshe says that G-d guided the people of Israel through the wilderness out of Egypt, cared for them, and “kept them as the apple of [G-d’s] eye.” Verse 17 then foretells what is to come by saying that once in the land, the people would turn from G-d.  That they would sacrifice unto demons and new gods.  As a result of this sacrilege, G-d will “hide” G-d’s “face” – Hester Panim, from [the people of Israel]” from a generation who will inherit faithlessness. G-d will then heap evil upon this generation (31:23) and horrible things will befall them.

There is a lot going on in these verses: prophecy, poetry, and song. In addition, theological concepts appear to be inserted into the text”. One theological concept finds its way into verse 20 and is referred to as Hester Panim, or the shyness of G-d’s face. In the face of sinat hinam, or baseless hatred, G-d’s face becomes absent. The shyness of G-d’s face has been used to describe multiple calamities in our history. Two leading Jewish theologians from the period of the Holocaust, Rabbi Kalman Shapiro and Zelig Kalmanovich, used the concept to understand the catastrophe that befell the Jews of Europe in the 1940s.  Both Rabbi Shapiro and Zelig Kalmanovich preached on the subject of Hester Panim from pulpits inside the Warsaw Ghetto during the 1940s.

For Rabbi Kalman Shapiro, the author of Esh Koydesh, he believed G-d’s desire to mourn the catastrophe in private caused G-d to retreat during the Second World War.[2] According to Rabbi Shapiro, there is a concept of human-divine partnership to suffering.[3] G-d’s presence or even absence in the face of the calamities that befell us was limited for the following reason: G-d’s desire to mourn in privacy from catastrophe.[4] As Rabbi Shapiro understood this, during the Second World War, G-d was the object of attack by the Nazis, and because of G-d’s association with the Jewish people we suffered.[5]

Zelig Kalmanovich took a similar approach: not only did G-d retreat during the war, but G-d’s absence was the result of an attack upon the sacred triad—the Torah, Israel, and G-d—by the Nazis.[6]According to Kalmanovich, as he preached from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1939, we will not be destroyed. So long as the Jews affirmed their place in the sacred triad, even though the Germans may have been capable of destroying one arm of the triad—our bodies—they would never prevail against moral law or the creator of the universe. Both Kalmanovich and Shapiro suggested Hester Panim as a theological explanation of how the Holocaust could happen.

I struggle with this. Why does a just and compassionate G-d simply stand idle and watch people as they are murdered? Holocaust theology may better elucidate the concept of Hester Panim, but the theology is difficult to connect with for me. Wars can be prevented. Genocides can be prevented. Murders can be prevented. Such tasks require our work. We can’t play an inactive role in this duty. It is our sacred duty to side with people and organizations that work to protect human rights and victims while being a voice for peace. In working with congregants and ourselves, we must not lose faith in the goodness of humanity. We must always strive for a better tomorrow. Deep theological explanations that address Hester Panim just do not cut it for me. We need to play active roles in our world. The message of Hester Panim should read, we can control our own future, if we listen in, as we are called upon in Haazinu.

But the concepts of Hester Panim and Sinat Hinam are not only isolated theological themes appearing in Haazinu. Not only do theological concepts appear inserted into Haazinu, but the very language itself appears different.  Rabbi Sabbath beit-Halachmi picks up on this nuance in one of her drashot shared with myself just earlier this week. In her drash, Rabbi Sabbath beit-Halachmi, writes, in much of Deuteronomy “G-d has been portrayed as the mighty redeemer, the supreme warrior who leads Israel into battle, and the One who reveals Torah with thundering skies and threats of a conditional covenant.”[7] Rabbi Sabath continues, in Haazinu “G-d is depicted as the rock, the source of justice. Any imperfections or problems in the world are because of human imperfection and human error—not because of God.”[8]

I would like to explore the concept she highlights here, that “any imperfections or problems in the world are because of human imperfections and human error.”  These words really underscore the responsibility in ourselves.  Haazinu is about this message. Yes, we have reached the Promised Land, but we’re not totally out of the woods. We cannot leave the rest of the journey up to G-d. We may be in Israel, Cincinnati, the Jerusalem of America, or wherever we find ourselves, but idolatry still blinds us, sinat hinam still ravages us, and catastrophe still causes us to suffer. The message of Moshe Rabenu remains relevant today. We are just called today, as in antiquity, to haazinu—to listen in.  The act of listening calls upon us to act – not to play an inactive role in our creation and in our world. We can control our own future, if we listen in, as we are called upon in Haazinu.

[1] Mekhilta De-Rabbi Shimon Bar Yo (Edward E. Elson Classic). P. 119

[2] Roskies, David G. The Literature of Destruction: Jewish Responses to

Catastrophe. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1988. Print. 504

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid. 505


[8] Ibid

About the Author
Shmuel Polin is a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). A Greater Philadelphia/New Jersey native, he completed his B.A. at American University in Washington D.C. where he studied Jewish Studies and International Studies. He also completed both an M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and an M.A. in Jewish Studies from Gratz College of Melrose Park, Pennsylvania. His thesis focused on the depiction of European antisemitism in 1930's-1940's American and foreign cinema. Shmuel has years of experience of teaching Hebrew School at Kehillat HaNahar of New Hope, Pennsylvania, leading as a student rabbi at Beth Boruk Temple (Richmond, Indiana) and Temple Israel (Paducah, Kentucky), and also working for Israeli non-governmental organizations. Currently living in Cincinnati, he is finishing up his studies at HUC-JIR, while serving as the rabbinic intern of Adath Israel and as the student rabbi of Beth Boruk Temple.
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