Parshat Ha’azinu is largely comprised of the Song of Moses, a poetic message to the people of Israel as they prepare to enter the Land of Israel. Despite the opening in which Moses hopes that his words will fall like nourishing rain, the overall tone of the passage is quite bitter. Like many of the prophetic passages, it acknowledges God as perfect and as having given us all good things in the past. However, it also accuses us of having strayed far from the path God has laid out for us. God would abandon us except that the other nations would take credit for their own successes rather than acknowledge the supreme God’s presence in all things.
It is significant to recognize that God does not maintain our special relationship because of the oaths and covenants previously established. Rather, God will smite our enemies so that the nations will praise us because there is no other nation willing to recognize God as such. The reading does not even end with a nechemta, a note of comfort; God reminds Moses that he will not enter the Land and tells him to ascend Mt. Nebo where he will die.
Despite the coming great joy of the festival of Sukkot, there is a certain sense of discontent as the earth withers in advance of the coming winter. The book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), traditionally read on the Shabbat during Sukkot, has the bitter tone of another great figure nearing the end of his life, King Solomon. Despite the vast achievements of both Moses and Solomon, and their great rewards from God, they both — in the words of Dylan Thomas — “rage against the dying of the light.”
One element of great consequence in the Hebrew Bible is that the figures are imperfect humans. Moses is prone to impatience and fits of anger. Despite his flaws, though, he had the courage to stand up to Pharaoh and the presence to motivate the Israelites to follow him through the desert to the banks of the Jordan River. He was our teacher and lawgiver par excellence, the one who was able to experience God’s presence as nobody else could. Yet for all of that, he could not keep the people from straying.
Our thoughts of sin, repentance and forgiveness are very much present as we have just completed our observance of Yom Kippur. But even that is not the end of the season, as tradition holds that the gates of repentance remain open until Hoshanah Rabbah at the end of Sukkot. We must be honest and firm with ourselves regarding what we must do better in the coming year. But we also must be gentle with ourselves and recognize that the struggle to stay on the path is inherent in being human. We will make some wrong turns along the way — just like Moses, Aaron, Abraham and all of our revered ancestors. And we would expect to near the end of our lives with some bitterness and regret. Let us also be mindful of the need to be grateful to ourselves and to God for what we have accomplished, and the good that is present in each of us.
Shabbat shalom and chag sameach. PJC
Rabbi Howie Stein is the rabbi of Temple B’nai Israel in White Oak. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.