Is one permitted to not like a piece of Biblical poetry? I have been reading, chanting, and studying this parsha/Torah Reading for all of my life, and, to speak truth (I can’t lie; I’m a rabbi, after all), it continually grates on me, year after year. Why? Because it illustrates a basic tenet of religious theodicy with which I disagree: that if bad things happen to us, we must have misbehaved in some way, either known or unknown to us, and that God is always waiting to inflict pain on us backsliding human beings, like some Celestial Policeman, armed with a Truncheon of Wrath.
I am not speaking of deliberately breaking the law or dealing falsely with one’s neighbors, or with God; those are clear violations of the human and divine compact which rules us all. I am speaking of the mindset which says, “I am suffering, therefore God is surely punishing me; I must have fallen short of His expectations in some major way.” Poor mortal! God has enough to do in running the universe, than to single you out for torture and punishment. We live in a world, I hope and believe, in which God’s mercy outweighs God’s tendency toward strict judgment, and should live our lives accordingly. All the more this year, immediately following Rosh Hashana, should God be willing to grant us all second chances!
This poem preaches the opposite: once Israel is settled in the Promised Land, fat and happy, they will immediately begin to backslide and pursue idolatry, says God. Why so? They simply cannot resist temptation, like a Weight Watchers member walking past a Dunkin’ Donuts (I’ve been there myself, and know what it’s like). And when that happens, God will be forced to send pagan nations to conquer and punish them for their lack of faith or gratitude. I agree that pagan nations—Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and, most horrifically, Rome—did indeed conquer Israel, but I choose to see it as part of our tragic history, rather than payback for disloyalty to God. There will always be stronger nations picking on weaker ones: in a paraphrase of Isaiah, we find Woody Allen’s words: “The lion may lie down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep.” And here is Moshe Dayan: “When the lion lies down with the lamb, I want to be the lion.”
Ha’azinu’s verses may have effectively frightened Jewish congregations into submission and acceptance centuries ago (and among simple-minded Jews today) when people sought a slam-dunk reason for Jewish suffering, but I choose not to agree with it. Our people are linked to God by an inextricable chain of love and destiny which will endure: so may it continue for all time, despite the inevitable course of human events and misfortunes. Am Yisrael Chai! The people of Israel live—yes, naysayers, we live and flourish, now, and forever!