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Parashat HaAzinu 5773 – 09/26/2012

Parashat HaAzinu 5773

I had said ‘I will scatter them, I will cause their memory to cease from man’ – were it not that the anger of the enemy was pent up, lest their tormentors misinterpret; lest they say ‘Our hand was raised in triumph, and it was not Hashem Who accomplished all this!’  (32:26-27)

And the sense of this argument [Moses’ argument before Gd: Then the nations will say…] is not that it is as if Gd wishes to display His strength among His enemies, for all the nations are like nothing before Him; as nothingness and emptiness are they reckoned by Him (Is 40:17).  Rather Gd, may He be blessed, created man in the lower realms so that he could acknowledge his Creator and offer thanks to His Great Name, may it be Blessed, and He gave him the ability to do evil or to do good.  And when all mankind sinned through their volition and denied Gd, only this nation [Israel] remained loyal to His Name.  And He demonstrated through them, with the signs and wonders that He is the Gd of the heavenly powers and the Lord of the lords, and through that He became known to all the nations.  And so, if He were to subsequently destroy any trace of them, the peoples would forget His signs, His wonders and His deeds, and they would no longer be recounted.  And even if someone would mention these miracles, they would think that it was the power of one of the stars or constellations [in modern terms: “laws of nature”] which has gone away and passed.  So then the objective of Creation, which lies in mankind, would come totally to naught; for there would not remain among mankind anyone who knows his Creator, but only those who incite His anger.  Therefore it is proper, by virtue of the intent that was involved in the creation of the world, that it should be His Will to maintain [Israel] as His nation for all times, for despite their sins they are the closest to Him and the most knowledgeable of Him, of all the nations.   (Ramban ad loc)

These verses likewise indicate that the ultimate ingathering of the exiles of Israel will be for the sake of Gd’s Name. (Artscroll’s comments on Ramban ad loc)

As I reflect back on the lessons I’ve drawn from this cycle of Torah readings it strikes me that we return again and again to the most fundamental questions that the human condition prompts us to ask: who are we, where did we come from, what is our purpose here?  This is hardly surprising of course; trying to find answers to these questions is exactly what religion is about.  Stephen J. Gould, the great paleontologist and Yankee fan points out that while science can answer “how” questions, it is by nature silent when it comes to “why” questions.  Because science studies the finite, the measurable, it is by nature confined to mechanistic explanations, tracing the lineage of cause and effect.  But we must transcend science, transcend the material creation, get to the underlying source of all the exists, in order to begin to understand why.

Traditionally the realm of nature, which is associated with science, is the realm of the midat haDin, attribute of strict Justice; indeed the very word for nature in Hebrew, hateva, has the same gematria (numerical value) as Elokim, the word for Gd that is associated with strict justice (elohim, in its non-sacred meaning, refers to human judges).  One tradition has it that Gd created many universes, all based on the principle of strict justice, and found (by “trial and error” as it were) that they could not survive, unless tempered by the midat haRachamim / attribute of Mercy.  The attribute of Mercy is associated with Gd’s great Name, Y-K-V-K, which represents Gd’s transcendent and integrative nature.  I think it is the role of religion not to define the transcendent, which, as the word itself implies, would limit it, but rather to give human beings the direct experience of the infinite, so that it can be integrated into our quotidian lives.

I think our passage, and indeed our whole existence as a people, displays the interplay between these two fundamental aspects of creation.  Our tradition tells us that Gd created the universe by, as it were, contracting Himself in order to “make room” for the finite.  That finite universe evolved physically according to the laws of nature until it produced a creature with a sufficiently complex and supple nervous system that it could reflect on its own nature, and that it could make moral choices – this being mankind, into whom Gd breathed the breath of life.  Now there are plenty of other creatures described as having the breath of life in them, but humans are the only ones who are reported to have the breath of life directly from Gd.  I believe what this means is that human beings are uniquely like Gd (“created in the image of Gd”) in that they have the capacity of self-reflection.

Now this capacity for self-reflection raises us up above the level of animal instinct and poses a great moral responsibility on us.  We are required to act properly; in our case, as Jews, according to the mitzvot Gd commanded us.  When we fail to live up to this responsibility, the result is estrangement from Gd, and its physical concomitant, exile from the Land of Israel.  Here we see the midat haDin at work; Gd says that by rights, we should be exiled forever and lost to the world.  But were that to happen, our world would be just like the others Gd created and then had to destroy, for if a finite, material creature is going to have free will, there will be times when he cannot resist the pull of material, sensory pleasure, and will get off his spiritual path.  In other words, man’s fall is inevitable; if Gd were to cast us off completely because of it, there would not be any hope at all, not for us and not for Gd!

This is expressed in our verse by Gd’s qualification of the sentence of eternal exile.  Were that to take place the “enemy,” that which keeps us from expressing our full spiritual potential, would be left crowing in triumph at his victory, and ascribing it to his own strength.  This is the ultimate desecration of Gd’s name, as it cuts Gd completely out of history, and sees human action as nothing more than the operation of natural law.  Lest we think, incidentally, that this is all pretty poetic metaphor, one only has to look at the science of psychology, with its attempt to explain all human behavior in mechanistic terms.

Ramban explains: Israel is the only nation that accepted the Torah, and was thereby able to draw close to Gd.  Were Israel to be wiped out there would be no more awareness of Gd among mankind, and the entire purpose of creation would be vitiated.  (In the same way our Sages tell us that had Israel not accepted the Torah, Gd would have dissolved the entire Creation back into non-existence.)  Therefore, whether we are worthy or not, Gd saves Israel for His own purposes.  This salvation, to be sure, takes the form of our communal and individual t’shuvah, which indeed restores our closeness to Gd (t’shuvah means “return,” that is, return to Gd in both awareness and action), but even this t’shuvah, it appears, is instigated by Gd, for the sake of His Name, and not so much for our sakes.

Apparently our awareness of Gd is a channel of Self-awareness that Gd needs in some sense, and apparently we are incapable of achieving a high enough level, as a people, without Gd’s intervention.  How does this square with our notion of free will?  I’m not sure anyone can answer that question, since we really don’t know the nature of our free will, and how the existence of free will squares with Gd’s Omniscience; I suspect that is one of those questions that involves starting from the wrong categories altogether.  However we can make a distinction between individual free will and communal destiny.  Each of us acts with moral freedom, yet the sum total of our actions and interactions creates a collective consciousness that has, as it were, a mind of its own.  I believe that Gd acts on this collective consciousness, and it is to this collective consciousness that the song of HaAzinu is addressed.  The rise of the Baal T’shuvah movement is a good case in point – although each baal t’shuvah has his or her own individual story and his or her own decision-making process, the fact that thousands of Jews of all ages and across all continents are returning to observance of the mitzvot at roughly the same time is a good indication that larger forces are at work.  On the individual level we have the choice to participate in the redemption that Gd is orchestrating, or to resist it; a Midrash tells us that 80% of the Jews in Egypt died during the plague of darkness, because they were so stuck in Egyptian society that they would not have left anyway.  The parallel with our situation in the West today is obvious.

In the words of the Psalmist (24:1), The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and they that dwell therein.  Gd created the universe for His own reasons, and apparently our existence in it as a community dedicated to living our lives in accord with His Will, is crucial to the entire universe’s continued existence.  Gd will take care of the community of Israel – HaAzinu promises us that as a people we will return to our roots, to Gd, to Torah, and usher in an age of unparalleled peace and happiness, a true heaven on earth.  What part each one of us, as individuals, will play in this global drama is up to us.  We have just had a glimpse of this level of existence on Yom Kippur.  Now our job is to carry that experience forward into the new year.  A joyous Sukkot to all!