Posted on September 17, 2021 by Jay Lavroff
D’VAR TORAH PARSHA HA’AZINU
The dog ate my homework.
The ball hit a rock.
The sun was in my eyes.
We all know what these are–they are excuses. Fictitious justifications for our failure to take responsibility for our actions.
Responsibility is one of the themes of this week’s poetically powerful parsha, Ha’azinu, which means “give ear” or “listen”. We are at the end of the book of Deuteronomy, and Moses is delivering his last address to the children of Israel before they enter the land that God has promised. Moses knows that he will soon die, and at the end of the parsha, God instructs Moses to ascend Mount Nebo where his life will end. We already know that Moses will not be allowed to enter the promised land, but from the mountain he will be able to see it. That is how this week’s portion ends.
But how this week’s portion begins is particularly striking. It is a poem or song, through which Moses conveys his message. Sometimes called the Song of Moses, it is the second time that we have seen Moses use this format. The first is the Song of the Sea, sung at the Red Sea after being delivered from what appeared to be certain destruction by the Egyptian army. The Song of the Sea began our long journey. The Song of Moses signals the end of that journey. So our odyssey of wandering is bracketed between these two songs. The language is passionate and stirring; remarkable considering that Moses once referred to himself as being “slow of tongue” and unfit to address Pharoah. It’s the kind of speech where the audience will afterward say “I’ll never forget what he said.” This is how Moses begins:
Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;
Let the earth hear the words I utter!
May my discourse come down as the rain,
My speech distill as the dew,
Like showers on young growth,
Like droplets on the grass.
For the name of the Eternal I proclaim;
Give glory to our God!
The Rock!—whose deeds are perfect,
Yea, all God’s ways are just;
A faithful God, never false,
True and upright indeed.
That crooked, perverse generation—
Their baseness has played God false.
Do you thus requite the Eternal,
O dull and witless people?
Is not this the Father who created you—
Fashioned you and made you endure!
Moses delivers a lesson for the ages: Don’t blame God when things go wrong. And don’t say God is there to serve us. Rather, it is we who are to serve God, and through God be a blessing to the world. God is not there to relieve us of responsibility; to write a note to the teacher saying we don’t feel well, when in fact we just didn’t study for the test that day. It is God who is imposing responsibility upon us.
Moses is closing a circle that began in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve ate of the tree of knowledge and then Adam tried to make an excuse by blaming the companion that God had made for him. And then Eve blamed the serpent. And so began the passing of the buck throughout the Torah and throughout history. Cain tried to avoid responsibility for killing Abel. Aaron tried to convince Moses that the golden calf somehow just leaped out of the fire. And Jonah, as we just heard yesterday on Yom Kippur, tried to run from his responsibility to warn Ninevah by sailing away. And so on, and so on, and so on.
Regrettably, the modern history of mankind is a similar rebuke of responsibility. The players change but the story has largely remained the same. “I wasn’t me. It was the politicians.” Or the media. Or the bankers. Or my genetic wiring. Or our parents. Or the system, whatever that is. And sometimes this refusal to step up and accept responsibility can result in consequences so tragic and horrifying that if we did not have the documentary and visual records to prove they occurred, no one would have believed they ever happened. “The Jews caused us to lose World War One. I was just following orders. I had no idea of what was happening in that camp in the woods.” And of course, there are those who choose to blame God. Running from responsibility seems to be a favorite human pastime.
But Judaism is different. Jews are called to responsibility. I can’t remember when I first heard my father say “the Jews are the conscience of the world” as I was quite young. But I heard him say it dozens if not hundreds of times during his lifetime. I didn’t understand what he meant at first. But I understand now. And part of that understanding is found in this Torah portion.
Moses has been retelling our story throughout the Book of Deuteronomy so that we will never forget what God did for us, freeing us from bondage and leading us out to the land we were promised, albeit along a circuitous route that was detoured several times due to our own bad behavior. Now, as he is preparing to die, Moses reminds us that our freedom is not free. There is a rule of law that we must follow in order to avoid anarchy and a loss of our moral compass. Our liberty must be safeguarded, lest we lose it forever. These laws have come from God, not for God’s sake but for the sake of mankind.
And with freedom comes responsibility. We must act not only for the benefit of ourselves but for the benefit of others around us. Parents are obligated to pass the concept of responsibility to their children so that they and future generations may live justly and righteously.
As Jews we do not believe that we are born with the burden of original sin. Rather we believe we are created in God’s image, and that we have been given free will. Exercise of that free will must include responsible behavior. In that way we answer God’s call. Our responsible conduct sets a critically important example, and those observe us will say “that is responsible action”; well-reasoned, taken with best intentions, and something I can respect, even if I don’t completely agree with it.
If we seek a better world, we must make it. This is not an easy task, but when we act responsibly we are doing God’s work. When we remind others to act responsibly, or inspire others to act responsibly, we are doing God’s work. And we are acting as the world’s conscience.
In this new year of 5782, may we all remember that responsible action is Godly action. And may that action result in a better world for everyone.