Is one permitted to not like the theme of a piece of Biblical poetry? I have been reading, chanting, and studying this parsha/Torah Reading for all of my life, and Ha’azinu continually grates on me, year after year. Why? Because it illustrates a viewpoint of religious theodicy with which I disagree: that if bad things happen to us, we must have sinned against God or humanity, and deserve our punishment. Furthermore, it implies 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 either civil or Divine law; those are clear violations of the human and sacred compact which rules us all. I am speaking of small-minded people who believe, “I am suffering, therefore God is surely punishing me; I must have fallen short of His expectations in some major way.” Poor mortal! Who could possibly believe that God is singling them out for torture and punishment? There are ample stories in our Tradition wherein God’s mercy outweighs His tendency toward strict judgment. And with this week’s Torah Portion immediately following Yom Kippur, we hope all the more that God is willing to grant us all second chances!
This poem’s central theme is harsh and unyielding: 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 will be unable to resist temptation.
Now, I understand temptation: I have been fat and am now thinner, and I still have a tough time resisting donuts (though I have not had one in months). Would it be the crème-filled, chocolate-topped type, or the traditional, crispy-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside variety, that spells my doom? I cannot say. In Biblical parlance, that translates to backsliding from Ethical Monotheism to rank Paganism, complete with Orgies, Sins of the Flesh, and all the weaknesses that mortal flesh is heir to. I’ll just stick with pastry; thanks all the same.
And when the carnal-minded Israelites fall prey to their lusts (as God predicts will, must, happen, in this absolutist poem), their behavior will force(!) Him to send pagan nations to punish and conquer them for their lack of faith or gratitude. It is true that 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. (It is also an accident of geography; one cannot get from Egypt to Lebanon, for example, without traversing the coastal plain which Israel occupies. It is the most fought-over, blood-soaked strip of land in world history.)
Theology aside, 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 of yesteryear into submission and acceptance (and among simple-minded Jews today) when people sought a facile reason for Jewish suffering, but I (and, I hope, many others) choose not to agree with it. Thankfully, I had parents and rabbis growing up who taught me, “God gave you a brain; use 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!