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D’var Torah Ha’atzinu

Here is this week’s D’var Torah:

You Don’t Love Me!
Ilana Kurshan

Parashat Haazinu consists of a lengthy poem that God instructs Moshe to teach to the children of Israel. In the opening verse—which is also the first line of the poem—Moshe invokes heaven and earth: “Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; Let the earth hear the words I utter!” (32:1). The Midrash (Sifrei Deuteronomy 306:15) explains that Moshe is summoning heaven and earth as witnesses to the covenant between God and Israel because he knows that he will die soon, and so he will be unable to perform this role himself. But the poem itself is also supposed to function as a witness, as God tells Moshe: “Write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel, put it in their mouths, in order that this poem may be My witness before the children of Israel” (31:19). What is so special about Shirat Haazinu, as this poem is known, and how does it bear witness?

I began to arrive at an answer to this question thanks to one of my daughters, who had frequent tantrums when she was three and four years old. She has always been very sensitive, to the extent that it was difficult for her to accept any criticism or rebuke. Whenever we reprimanded her, she immediately jumped to the conclusion that we didn’t love her anymore. At times she was set off by even the most innocuous comments. “Shhh, lower your voice, your brother is trying to sleep,” I would tell her, and straightaway her face would fall, her eyes would scrunch up, and she would lie on the floor, kick her legs, and scream, “You don’t love me! I know you don’t love me! No one loves me.” I would reassure her that I loved her, and try to hug her, but she would just push me away and insist, repeatedly, that no one loved her. It seemed there was nothing I could do or say to convince her otherwise.

And then one day, in the midst of a tantrum, I sat down quietly beside her and began reading her a picture book called I Hate Everyone by Naomi Danis. The book is about a girl who throws a tantrum at her own birthday party, insisting that she hates everyone around her and doesn’t want them to look at her. But she doesn’t want them to look away, either, and finally, she realizes that even though she keeps telling everyone that she hates them, she loves them all the while, deep down inside. My daughter was captivated by the scowling girl on the cover with her arms crossed in fury – the same girl who manages, by the end of the book, to turn her lips up in a smile. Just after we turned that last page, my daughter looked into my eyes and told me that deep down she knows I love her, and she loves me. Since then we have read this book countless times. I learned to reach for it every time she fell apart, and soon I didn’t have to read it anymore – the mere sight of the book would calm her down, and she’d pull herself up into a sitting position and begin “reading” it to herself, turning the pages intently until she reached the last page and her scowl, too, had turned into a smile. I realized the book was more than just a story; it bore witness to my love for her, and to our special connection. It was, in this sense, her Shirat Haazinu.

As God explains to Moshe, the purpose of Shirat Haazinu was to remind the people of their everlasting covenant even at times when the people had gone astray and were convinced that “surely God is not in our midst” (31:17). Like a parent who knows his or her child all too well and can predict that child’s behaviors, God tells Moshe that this is bound to happen: “When I bring them into a land flowing with milk and honey and they eat their fill and grow fat and turn to other gods and serve them, spurning Me and breaking My covenant, and the many evils and troubles befall them – then this poem shall confront them as a witness” (31:20-21). The poem refers to a time when Israel, referred to as Jeshurun, would throw a temper tantrum of sorts: “So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked—you grew fat and gross and coarse. He forsook the God who made him” (31:15). At such times, God would punish the people, and the people might mistakenly think that God had abandoned them. “You don’t love us, You don’t love us,” the people might be tempted to cry out to God. Shirat Haazinu is intended to convince them otherwise.

The midrashic rabbis read God’s words of rebuke to the people in Shirat Haazinu as evidence of God’s abiding and unconditional love for the people of Israel. The poem refers to the people’s blemishes and failings: “Is corruption His? No, His children’s is the blemish, a generation crooked and perverse” (32:5). Rabbi Meir regards this verse as evidence that even though the people are full of blemishes, they are still called God’s children. In a related passage in the Talmud (Kiddushin 36a), Rabbi Meir cites several additional biblical verses in which the people are rebuked but nonetheless referred to as God’s children, including another verse from our parashah: “I will hide My countenance from them, and see how they fare in the end, for they are a treacherous breed, children with no faithfulness in them” (32:20). Here too, Rabbi Meir argues that “either way you are still called children,” bound to God in a covenant of love no matter how distant and hidden God seems.

God instructs Moshe to teach the people Shirat Haazinu so that when Moshe is no longer around to remind the people of God’s devotion, the song will bear witness in his stead. Even when the people have spurned God, they are still God’s children. The relationship between God and Israel endures; the covenant is everlasting, and so is God’s love.

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