The "Brazen Serpent" sculpture by Giovanni Fantoni, which references a biblical event, atop Mount Nevo in modern-day Jordan. (Photo/Jerzy Strzelecki via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0)
The "Brazen Serpent" sculpture by Giovanni Fantoni, which references a biblical event, atop Mount Nevo in modern-day Jordan. (Photo/Jerzy Strzelecki via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0)

At times, the words of Torah transport us to a different level

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Deuteronomy 32:1 – 32:52

This week’s Torah portion is really like no other. Most of the Torah is either written as narrative or as a set of instructions. Haazinu is poetry.

It is a prophetic poem in which Moses describes the future to come, against the backdrop of what has already transpired in history. Right up until nearly the end of the parashah, the poem takes us through the cycle of Jewish history. It is the final message that Moses leaves for the people. At the very end of this week’s Torah portion, Moses is commanded to ascend to Mount Nevo and die there. (Deuteronomy 32:49)

The parashah begins with a call to the very Heavens and Earth. They are called as witnesses to the words that are about to be spoken. The imagery continues with Moses describing his own statements as falling like rain and dew that cover the grass. It is a strong sense that this speech is something that has universal importance. So much so, that it is likened to the precipitation that sustains the entire world. It is not just a message for a people about to embark on the next stage of their national mission. It is something that is so fundamental to the globe that it must be guarded by all of nature itself.

“Remember the years of old and discern the years of generation to generation; ask your father and he will tell you, your elders and they will say to you….” (Deuteronomy 32:7)

What was the message that was so critical to deliver to the children of Israel before Moses’ death? It seems that the focus is on the unique relationship that God has with the Jewish people. Moses goes on to describe the genesis of the people of Israel in the wilderness and the care that God took in delivering them from Egypt to the Promised Land. However, the emphasis seems to return time and again to the responsibility that the Jewish nation has toward God and His laws.

The pattern that emerges is a cycle of contentment and then complacency. It moves from there to complete disregard for God’s laws. That elicits a response from God that involves destruction and exile from the Land of Israel, which is followed by a desire to repent and return to the Promised Land. We have the fortune of hindsight to see that what is being described in the poem is actually a prophetic vision of Jewish history.

As individuals, it is interesting to note that we often fall into the same pattern with our behavior. We have relationships that we are comfortable with and start to take for granted. Unfortunately, that can lead to disregard and disrespect very quickly. Often, there are consequences that follow, and then we are forced to reassess and to take stock. If we do that effectively, we can often repair what was damaged.

We are now amid the High Holy Days. Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, has passed, but the opportunity to repair relationships with an extra boost of “siyatta dishmaya” (help from Heaven) is still before us. The classic liturgy that we read on Yom Kippur is all about forgiveness and repentance. When it comes to fixing our relationship with God, Yom Kippur is given to us as a gift to accomplish just that.

We stand in a submissive stance and call out the sins that we are aware of and acknowledge that there are also probably sins that we are not aware of that need atonement. The confession section is repeated multiple times in the services of Yom Kippur, and each one is an opportunity to address shortcomings that we may have.

When it comes to the repair of our relationships with other people, there is another component that is intrinsically imperative to repentance. We are required to approach those that we may have wronged and ask for forgiveness. We need to own our mistakes, and we need to work at making amends. If we can succeed at that, then the power of Yom Kippur takes care of the rest. The hope is that we will develop a greater awareness of our own actions and how those actions impact those around us.

Just like Moses suggests in our parashah, there are patterns that repeat themselves over and over. We should at least be conscious of the fact that if we do fall into the trap of complacency, there is a rope with which to pull ourselves out.

Rabbi Joey Felsen
Rabbi Joey Felsen

Rabbi Joey Felsen is the founder and executive director of the Palo Alto-based Jewish Study Network. He teaches at JCCs in Palo Alto and Los Gatos, and is the founding board president of Meira Academy in Palo Alto. Rabbi Felsen is also on the board of J. The Jewish News of Northern California.