“Wake up!” Ha’Azinu Shabbat Shuva 5781

What a parasha for Shabbat Shuva! This is Moshe’s final opportunity to convey his central message of all iSefer Devarim. For months, Moshe has tried to hammer home one central message: The life, destiny, future, spirit, neshama, and well-being of the Jewish people depend upon rejecting idolatry and committing to God’s vision for our people. Throughout Sefer Devarim–parshiot v’etchanan, ekev, r’eah, shofetim, ki tetze, ki tavo, netzavim and vayelech, Moshe used different rhetorical vehicles to hammer the same message home. These include the following psychological warnings: Do not become distracted by your desire for physical objects. Do not become complacent when your life is filled with blessings. Do not be lured by the behaviors of other cultures. Do not worship your own power and believe that you deserve everything you have in life. Do not forget the Source of all blessing. Do not, under any circumstances, become arrogant by worshipping your own ego, because idolatry and self-worship and the love of power and complacency lead to callousness and cruelty.

Innumerable times, woven throughout these parshiot, Moshe then instructs many mitzvot to keep us humble, and compassionate, and kind, and loyal to God as Hashem’s servants of the natural world through a just and righteous political order. “Do not abuse immigrants! You were once immigrants in the land of Egypt, [and they took you in and cared for you for many generations–until they didn’t!]” “Do not plow with a strong and weaker animal yoked together.” “Return lost objects–even those belonging to your enemies.” “Help beasts of burden faltering under a heavy load.” “Leave parts of your field for the poor.” “Do not abuse women you capture in war.” “Do not disabuse your first born even though you have fallen out of love with your wife.” “Do not weave weaker and stronger fibers together so each loses its unique identity.” “Build cities of refuge for those fleeing for their lives.” “Make certain that you attend to all of the physical and psychic and social pain and shame to a victim of rape.” The mitzvot of Sefer Devarim cover every aspect of society: family law, business law, agricultural norms, social activism, political governance. “The King shall not abuse his power by entering into multiple treaties through marriage, and by amassing much wealth through corrupt taxation and practices, or abuse the people with military might. The king must have two sifre Torah  and read from the Torah daily, to remember and learn to hold God in awe.”

This is the central message of Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur as well. How to live a life filled with awe, with humility and respect for the world we inhabit. We have been blessed with life, and yet, we abuse and neglect that gift. The world pays o mind to the poor. Immigrants are castigated and abused and oppressed throughout the world–even in the most “democratic” of societies. Moshe implores Israel to understand that it is a privilege to caste for immigrants, yet humanity turns a blind eye. We ourselves have experienced the harshest of historical catastrophes, precisely those experiences Moshe teaches us to take with us to make us more compassionate, and to fill the world with more kindness and love, more righteousness and justice.

So Moshe tries one final time to convey his life teaching: be humble, be grateful, behold the world with awe, do good, be compassionate, protect tose who have less power than you have. He sings a poem, Ha’Azinu. He calls heaven and earth as witnesses, because he assumes that they represent eternity. Never would he have imagined what we can see plainly before us with global warming–that we are actually capable of destroying the precious world that God created for us as a gift. In the poem, Moshe described our national character. He said: “So Israel (Yeshurun) grew fat and kicked— You grew fat and gross and coarse— The people forsook the God who made them and spurned the Rock of their support.” (Devarim 32:15) We will grow “fat.” Too wealthy. Too entitled. Too comfortable. Those who are uncomfortable in the world perhaps have a sharper, keener sense of humanity’s needs, and of the love that sustains life. Without suffering, with discomfort and introspection, the people will simple assume that everything they have they need, and they have coming to them.

Rashi remarks on this verse: “the people are covered (כסה) with fatness— like a person who is full of fat inside and whose belly then lies in folds on the outside….” The Italian Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, is even more explicit:  “…you, the elite of the people, preferred to concentrate on the physical enjoyments offered by a life of leisure, and by doing so you became too gross to understand the finer points of the teachings of the Torah….“ We will no longer think in a nuanced fashion. Our world view will become “gross” and simplistic and self-serving.

Finally, in the most trenchant remark, the hasidic and kabbalistic Rabbi Hayyim ben Solomon of Tyrer commented in his work, Mayim Chaim, “ כי ידוע אשר מגו מכליא ומשתיא יצר הרע מתרבה במעוהי דבר נש כמו שאיתא בזוה”ק (תרומה קנ”ד:) וכמפורש בתורה הקדושה (דברים ל”ב, ט”ו) וישמן ישורון וגו’ ואומר (שם ל”א, כ’) ואכל ושבע ודשן ופנה וגו’. והכל הוא מכח בחינת הקליפות אשר בגשמיות הארץ הזו. על כן מנע מהן כל זאת ונתן להם מן לאכול דגן שמים לחם אבירים לחם שמלאכי השרת אוכלין אותו. I paraphrase: “It is well known that over eating and drinking increase a person’s uncontrolled ambitions and desires as the Torah says here, ‘Israel grew fat.’ This occurs because the person becomes obsessed only with externalities, with the physical dimensions of reality. That is why the Holy One brought us into the desolate wilderness, to feed them food from heaven, the food of angels, spiritual food….” He is talking about consuming, not only literal over eating. We will become, declares Moshe, a people who will be only takers, and we will forget the deep truth of giving.

This is our task this Yom Kippur. We take our temperature daily to discern the potential presence of COVID. It is time to take our spiritual temperature. Our task is to readjust our internal compass. How can we see political abuse, economic abuse, violence in the streets, weapons of destruction in the hands of citizens perpetuating violence in malls, schools, civic buildings, military compound and accept these behaviors? How can we accept the avarice, the false speech, the denigration of science, the blatant lies that have reshaped our norms? Where is the source of justice, righteousness, truth, compassion, kindness, and humility? How will we transform arrogance into humility and begin to inspire a humanity that sees itself as servants of the Creator rather than exploiters of the world? Now is the time to revisit these same questions Moshe Rabbenu posed to our ancestors before they crossed into the promised land.

May this year bring the soul-searching responses humanity requires, to re-purify the world just as the Kohen Gadol had to purify God’s sanctuary.

Shabbat Shalom

G’mar Chatimah Tova

Rabbi Dov


About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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