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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Parashat Ha'azinu

Parasha: Ha’azinu – Deuteronomy 32:1 - 52
Haftara: 2Samuel 22:1 – 22:51
Reading Date: 11th October 2008 – 12th Tishrei 5769

The greater part of the Torah reading of Haazinu ("Listen In") consists of a 70-line "song"
Calling heaven and earth as witnesses[1], Moses exhorts the people to "Remember the days of old[2] / Consider the years of many generations / Ask your father, and he will recount it to you / Your elders, and they will tell you" how YHVH "found them in a desert land," made them a people, chose them as His own, and bequeathed them a bountiful land.
The Song also warns against the pitfalls of plenty -- "Yeshurun[3] grew fat and kicked / You have grown fat, thick and rotund / He forsook YHVH who made him / And spurned the Rock of his salvation" -- and the terrible calamities that would result, which Moses describes as YHVH "hiding His face [4]." Yet in the end, he promises, YHVH will avenge the blood of His servants and be reconciled with His people and land.
The Parasha concludes with YHVH's instruction to Moses to ascend the summit of Mount Nebo, from which he will behold the Promised Land before dying on the mountain. "For you shall see the land opposite you; but you shall not go there, into the land which I give to the children of Israel."
I will end with the true life account of Tzippora Unger[5]. It is the story of her struggle with her identity as a Jew. I think that there are many within the Roots movement that can identify with her story.

Shabbat Shalom

[1] Deut. 32:5
His people Israel, on the contrary, had acted corruptly towards Him. The subject of “acted corruptly” is the rebellious generation of the people but before this subject there is introduced parenthetically, and in apposition, “not his children, but their spot.” Spot (mum) is used here in a moral sense, as in Prov. 9:7; Job 11:15; Job 31:7, equivalent to stain. The rebellious and ungodly were not children of YHVH, but a stain upon them. If these words had stood after the actual subject, instead of before them, they would have presented no difficulty. This verse is the original of the expression, “children that are corrupters,” in Isa. 1:4. (Keil & Dilitzsch)

[2] Deut.32:7
“Remember the days of old, consider the years of the past generations: ask thy father, that he may make known to thee; thine old men, that they may tell it to thee!” With these words Moses summons the people to reflect upon what YHVH had done to them. The days of old (עֹולָם), and years of generation and generation, i.e., years through which one generation after another had lived, are the times of the deliverance of Israel out of Egypt, including the pre-Mosaic times, and also the immediate post-Mosaic, when Israel had entered into the possession of Canaan. These times are described by Moses as a far distant past, because he transported himself in spirit to the “latter days” (Deut.31:29), when the nation would have fallen away from YHVH, and would have been forsaken and punished by YHVH in consequence. “Days of eternity” are times which lie an eternity behind the speaker, not necessarily, however, before all time, but simply at a period very far removed from the present, and of which even the fathers and old men could only relate what had been handed down by tradition to them.

[3] YESHURUN – The name given to Israel by YHVH in the time that they are in His perfect will. The name means ‘righteous’ in its simplest form. The Septuagint implies ‘beloved one’ as an explanation.
Yeshurun-The Upright One (Spouse)
In the Re-gathering of the Tribes of Israel, they will be called Yeshurun, meaning “upright or straight”. The nations will acknowledge the greatness of Israel and Ya’akov/Israel will be metamorphosed into Yeshurun.
The wicked ways of Ya’akov will become straight when Messiah returns and they are resurrected and stand upright in His image
and likeness.

Isaiah 44:2 This is what YHVH, who made you, and formed you from the womb, Who will help you says: "Don't
be afraid, Ya’akov my servant; and you, Yeshurun, whom I have chosen.
Deut 33:4-5: Moses commanded us a law, an inheritance for the assembly of Ya’akov. He was king in Yeshurun, When
the heads of the people were gathered, All the tribes of Israel together. [Showing Moshe as a type of Messiah at the
regathering of the tribes of Israel]

Song of Songs 6:3 I am my beloved's, and my beloved is mine. He browses among the lilies.
The name, Yeshurun, is the final manifestation of the blessing given by Yitzchak to Ya’akov. This final tikkun olam (the final redemption and transformation of mankind must await the return of Messiah.

Because Ya’akov received the blessing and became known as Israel, that consciousness will take precedence over physical and draw the Light of Messiah into this world. In the resurrection Israel will fulfill its destiny to become Yeshurun, the Upright One, and the Beloved of YHVH.
[4] Darkness. There different types of darkness. There is darkness that is beautiful, darkness that is transparent, darkness that is liberating, darkness that is necessary, darkness that is creative, darkness that is challenging, darkness that is horrifying, darkness that is illuminating and the darkness that is the space for Him to fill.
[5] Growing up in the Sixties and the Seventies as an American Jew was a confusing experience, to say the least. We were the "baby-boomers," the post-war generation who had known no Depression, educated to meet the challenges of the space age, the generation which--it was assumed--would continue the spiral upwards in material success. In this we were completely American.
The Jewish part was the source of the confusion. Yes, we should be completely assimilated into our public schools. But go to Hebrew School afterwards. We were taught to get along with everyone--but don't date non-Jews.
At home, everyone ate chicken soup on Friday night, but the chicken wasn't always from a kosher butcher. And everyone ate pizza out. If you "kept kosher" you just told them to hold the pepperoni.
This nebulous Jewish identity had somehow been enough for our parents' generation. They still remembered a parent or grandparent who had had stronger ties to Judaism, memories of anti-Semitism which had left their mark, a feeling of the "old neighborhood" which they had left for the better part of town and then suburbia. Jewish food was a piece of their heritage, so chicken soup made from non-kosher chicken was still comforting to them if there was enough schmaltz floating at the top.
But mine was the generation that scoffed at schmaltz. For the most part, my peers have rejected the ersatz Jewishness of our parents. Many have rejected their own Jewishness as a result. Others are now in Israel, consoling themselves by practicing secularism among other Jews. And the lucky ones have rediscovered the source of their parents' emotions, the kashrut that had been rendered into mere schmaltz, and have reversed the process.
I count myself among the lucky ones.
The message I received growing up at home was somewhat schizophrenic. I was expected to act like everyone else but to feel Jewish. My home was relatively observant. We kept kosher. We went to Hebrew School. We went to Temple every Friday night and Saturday morning. We were discouraged from bringing non-Jewish friends home. My mother lit candles every Friday night at six oclock--summer and winter.
My father believed in G-d and wanted us to believe in Him too. But if his faith was purer because it lacked intellectual understanding, it was all the poorer in its transmissibility to his children.
I knew that I was different because I was Jewish. My parents never quite made it to the suburbs so by the early sixties we were in a gentile neighborhood by virtue of social immobility. I read a lot and wanted to read about Jewish things. But there were no Jewish books in the local branch of the public library. My first attempt at writing came at the age of nine; I tried to write a Jewish version of the Bobbsey Twins. I only wrote two pages and then I had to quit. A book has to have action; and while I knew that the Jewish Bobbseys would feel differently than the originals, I didn't quite know how they would act differently.
When the sixties reached their peak, I was still in high school. The initial message of the sixties wasn't bad: one should find absolute truths and guide one's life by them. That message lasted about ten minutes. Then it became formulated into generalities like peace, love, and brotherhood. The final equation looked like this: peace = burning down the campus; love = indiscriminate distribution of one's bodily favors; brotherhood = rejection of established morality/religion as a divisive factor.
The social law established in the sixties was: Thou shalt not follow any rules.
The intellectual result of the sixties milieu was not nearly so direct nor easy to see through. On the one hand, intellectuals pursued the goal of finding the absolute truths of social science. On the other hand, one could prove himself only by proving that someone else's absolute truths were false. Academic success required total arrogance and the ability to convince others that the arrogance was justified. Belief in anything higher than ones own intellectual ability was a badge of shame and dishonor. Finding a reason to disagree with anything and everything was the ultimate sign of brilliance.
As I entered college in 1973 I planned on being intellectually successful. But world events collided with my plans, and the feelings that I had never understood took over.
I had (as had everyone) been influenced by the sixties. I knew my parents did not possess absolute truths and therefore I had to find my own way--with all the arrogance, stubbornness, and obnoxiousness of my generation.
Jewish youth had produced its own particular questions. There had been a few heroes presented to us. Meir Kahane with his shout of "Never Again!" led us to recognize that we were part of a people. Elie Wiesel was my personal choice. While his books never advised Jews to act differently, they were based on the assumption that the Jewish experience had made Jews into a people who felt differently, who asked different types of questions, whose natural state was to be somewhat alienated from the general world.
Acting on those feelings, I dropped out of college in my first semester and went to Israel to be a kibbutz volunteer in wartime. Ten thousand American kids went that year, most against the wishes of their parents who thought such Jewish identification to be a bit extreme. And why? Because we knew that our people were in trouble and we chose to be with them. Ahavat Yisrael ("love of a fellow Jew") drove us, although we boned up on Zionist philosophy to claim a rational basis to our actions.
Our parents still identified more strongly with America than with other Jews. Their hopes were pinned on their children achieving success professionally and financially, and they were all uneasy about the prospect that we might just decide to stay in Israel. Jewish peoplehood was not a big deal to them; they felt chicken soup should be enough.
So I spent six months on a communist kibbutz in the Negev as an act of Jewish identification. I had thought that Israel would be the place where I would feel relaxed as a Jew, but instead found that the ideology of the kibbutz was to rid the Jew of any feelings of being different. If there are no gentiles to make you feel alienated then you can feel comfortable acting like a gentile. I didn't act Jewish on the kibbutz; I acted less Jewish than I had in America.
So it was with a secret sense of relief that I went home to my angry parents, and back to school. I felt Jewish--but wished I could feel better about it.
I decided to major in History. Somehow, I felt that by understanding the past I could understand where I stood in the world.
The Holocaust is the obsession of any self-respecting Jewish history buff and I was no exception. But Jewish history in the University curriculum rejects a priori the reality of Judaism. All topics of study are based upon the assumption that the best thing a Jew can do is escape from Torah.
In the pursuit of the Jewish past, I immersed myself in the study of the Haskalah movement, the Enlightenment as pursued by Jews. The irony of it was that the individuals and movements I studied were those that advocated the rejection of Judaism, while I was trying to find it.
There were Torah-observant Jews around. There was a Chabad House; I knew the rabbis and some of my friends went there. But my academic training indoctrinated me to believe that anybody who could keep the laws of a Medieval religion in the twentieth century had to be intellectually deficient or crazy or both. I would have nothing to do with them.
So I devoted myself to the writings of Jews who dealt with modernity: atheists, reformists, humanists, communists, etc. Each admitted that he was a Jew, but felt that Jews had to be something else in the modern world. And of course I studied anti-Semitism. It is paradoxical that I somehow thought I could come to grips with my own identity by wading through the thoughts of intellectuals (some of them Jewish) who had devised new and different ways to revile my great-grandparents.
Most of these courses were offered under the heading: "Judaic Studies." One class in particular shook me to the core. It was a seminar on German-Jewish intellectuals, taught by two very eminent Jewish professors who had themselves escaped Germany in the thirties.
It was toward the end of the semester that we read Freud's Moses and Monotheism. For those who have had the privilege of avoiding this polemic, it theorizes that the Jewish people originated as a low-class rabble led by an incestuous Egyptian prince.
Something snapped in me. Yes, I was a rationalist. Yes, I believed in evolution and the A scroll and the J scroll and all that stuff anthropologists said about the Bible. But this was too much. I knew in the pit of my stomach that my ancestors had not suffered for two thousand years because they had been deluded by an egocentric Egyptian con artist.
"Freud went too far," I said through clenched teeth. The student near me, a German-born son of a Nazi, smiled. We had argued all semester and now he had me. "What's the matter?" he sneered. "What are you? A FUNDAMENTALIST!"
There it was. The dreaded word of the intellectual world. Everyone literally gasped in horror. It meant you believed there might actually be something higher than the human mind, even higher than the mind of a professor. If I was a fundamentalist then I was an academic heretic.
I took a deep breath. I said nothing. I didn't owe him an explanation. This son of a Nazi had, quite possibly, in his German accent, inadvertently taught me a truth. If he was the opposite of a fundamentalist, maybe it wasn't such a bad thing to be.
Mine was the generation that hungered for Jewishness, but couldn't believe in G-d. I was taught to pray to Him, but was also taught that the entire Torah had been written by imaginative men who invented miracles and an afterworld to make people behave better. So if the rabbis we grew up with didn't believe that G-d had ever really talked to anybody, why should we believe He existed at all?
Something inside of me began to loosen up. I began to realize that people who kept the mitzvot of the Torah were not necessarily stupid. And just maybe they weren't crazy.
I had come to what was one of the most humbling realizations of my life.
It was two and a half years before I decided to make a firm commitment to Torah Judaism. Somewhere along the way, I began to suspect that when things didn't go right in my life it was because I was doing something wrong. And the more I began to associate with Torah-observant Jews, the more I liked the lifestyle. It had order. It made sense. It was better than anybody else's lifestyle.
So I made a sociological decision to adopt the lifestyle and beliefs of my ancestors. I then decided to go and study at Bais Chana Women's Institute in Minnesota so that I could really fit in.
The first few days were wonderful. The classes were interesting, the company was good, the food was great. Then it hit me. This was not a sociological exercise. After telling myself for years that I was looking for truth, I came face to face with it.
There really was a Creator of the Universe who expected us to behave in a certain way. And I had spent the last 23 years not behaving that way. I couldn't choose to change my lifestyle. I had to change.
I cried.
I was horrified.
I survived.
Because despite the blow to my ego when I realized that I was not my own clever creator, that the entire value of my intellectual training lay in my rejection of it, it was a relief.
I wasn't schizophrenic--my education was. America has raised three generations of Jews to feel like Jews--but to think and act like gentiles. So when popular novelists and filmmakers portray Jews as neurotics, they aren't really distorting the picture; they're telling the embarrassing truth: the secular Jewish identity promotes schizophrenia.
When one Jew gets another to do something Jewish, to do a mitzvah, he's promoting mental health.
And that, Dr. Freud, is a fundamental truth.

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