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"Give ear, O heavens, Let me Speak..."

As a rabbi, certain Torah portions become associated with certain students. For me reading Ha’azinu each year conjures up memories from 2005, when I spent a long summer in Poland as a rabbinic student serving the Beit Warszawa progressive community, culminating in the High Holydays. One of their members, a young Pole in her early 20s, Ludmila, was a leading member of their emerging minyan and wanted to celebrate her bat mitzvah. This was quite possibly the first bat mitzvah in Poland since the Second World War, and perhaps even the first adult bat mitzvah in Poland!

We chose Ha’azinu, Moses’ swansong, both for the beauty of its poetry and because it would give the maximum number of weeks for learning the cantillation.  The portion sees Moses giving his final words of advice to the Israelites, looking ahead to their future misdemeanours, their neglect and abandonment of the God who had rescued from Egypt, and predicting their eventual demise and dispersal from the land of Israel. The poetic form aids the heightened sense of an ending, the bad news seeping in surreptitiously songful. Here, Moses’ speech “drips like dew, drops like rain, droplets falling on the grass” (Deut. 32.2) The Israelites are soaked to the bone, damned and drenched before they know it in their own stubborn unreliability. God’s perfection is contrasted with their foolish treachery, and all the time the language rises and tumbles. Predicted backsliding is depicted beautifully, as the relentless rhythm of the poem seals their ignominious fate.

The text had added poignancy for me as I knew that shortly after I would be leaving Poland to move to Jerusalem for the third year of my studies. Although this meant I was able to make the journey that Moses could not and live in the Promised Land, for me the poignancy lay in what I was leaving behind. For three months I had been immersed in Beit Warszawa, playing a small part in the rebirth of Polish Jewish life, sixty years after all had been destroyed. This was nothing short of miraculous, even if it has been a delivery not without considerable and traumatic labour pains. It is no exaggeration to say that almost every Polish Jew today has a story to tell from their family history, be it from the Shoah or its aftermath, growing up in post-war Poland with its pogroms and periods of state-sponsored anti-Semitism until the brighter times of today.

With Ludmila I remember discussing some of the theology inherent in Ha’azinu, and the way that it related to the Holocaust and modern history. I would seek to excuse the people from blame, and refuse to link bad behaviour with tragedy, either then or now. I argued that Moses’ prediction was written later than the rest of the Torah and enjoyed the benefit of hindsight, but for all my proofs from my freshly-studied Biblical Criticism classes, this is not the most satisfying of arguments. Rather I wanted to find support for the Israelites in the text itself, and defend them against the bitter words of Moses.

Reading Ha’azinu each year renews the challenge, and ten years later I am still searching. Perhaps the vindication of the Israelites lies in the last verse of the Torah portion. Moses “may view the land from afar but may not enter” (Deut. 32.52), rather it is “a gift to the children of Israel” (ibid.). They may be about to mess it all up, but they must have their chance and their free will to do so. On a Shabbat that so often follows Yom Kippur, it’s a timely reminder that we are not and have rarely been angels, that we accept that there are plenty of mistakes to come, and yet we can remain cheerful about our prospects for the future. Even our sins are “priced in” to this future, yet hope remains that we can do better. This is true of both progressive Jewish life in Poland, and on this side of the world in Asia and Australasia. Let’s remain positive throughout 5776!

Thu, 21 March 2019 14 Adar II 5779