Wednesday, 20 Sep 2017

Written by Dr Annette M. Boeckler

HAAZINU (Shabbat Shuva)


“Follow the yellow brick road …” Every year at Leo Baeck College’s Annual International Bible Week somewhere in a hidden corner of Haus Ohrbeck sits a Jewish participant and a Franciscan nun together with some 3 – 17 kids – depending on how many are around that year. Behind the kids usually stand some adults witnessing the scene, attracted by a regular very noisy song chanted in a funny way: “Follow the yellow brick road …”. The kids can’t wait until they are allowed to again and again actively participate in the story, singing loudly, each one in his/her very one way.  Always when the song comes, all are allowed to join in in any manner they like. You may imagine the very exceptional situation.

The torah seemed to have had a similar educational idea. In turning points of the story, at moments where the listeners are invited to add their own voices, the torah presents a song. The Number One hit of course is Shirat HaYam, Moses and Miriam’s song at the sea at the turning point from slavery to freedom (Exod 15). But during the course of the year we have heard others songs, some of them only little pieces of poetry, hidden in the biblical prose and we may have missed to the point to join in, as Lamech’s song (Gen 4:23-24) or the song at the well (Num 21:17) and others. This week’s parashah now presents shortly before Yom Kippur another big song at the end of the torah, before Moses’ death and the beginning of a new era under Jehoshua: Haazinu, often translated as: “listen”. In fact, in this week’s parashah there is actually much to see. The text in the scroll is written in a rather special way (Shab 103b): The song Haazinu has a prescribed design and needs to be written in 70 double rows. (The only other biblical texts written in a similar way are the ten sons of Haman in the Megillah, Esther 9:7-9 written in 10 double rows.). In ancient times 70 was assumed to be the number of the nations of the world, so one is tempted to think, each nation got a line in this song.

According to the torah, Moses speaks into the ears of the whole congregation of Israel (31,30): “Listen!” (as the first word often is translated). But the text does not begin with what we would have expected in Hebrew for “Listen”. It does not say “shema“, it says “ha’azinu“. Both words can be used to just raise attention, as one says in English: “Listen!” But shema is singular, haazinu is plural. Even more important, the words have slightly different meanings. שמע (shema) in biblical Hebrew means not only the external perception of some sounds, but also the internal reception of their content. Whereas האזינו (haazinu), literally meaning “lend your ear” (cf. ibn Ezra), often means to listen to something as a witness without necessarily acting oneself upon what one has heard. And so it is in our parashah. It is not we who should lend our ears, but “heaven and earth”. The torah started with their creation and now ends with them being called up as witnesses. Whereas Bereshit focussed on creation, Haazinu focusses on God, the creator … and unfortunately on humankind, that appears less fortunate in this song. Our task according to Haazinu is not to listen, but to look and see. A summary of the content of the song may be found in verse 39: “See now! For I am the one, and there is no God beside me. I revive and I kill. I wound and I heal.” The song “Haazinu” is one of the clearest and most radical descriptions of monotheism and of the relationship between God and Jews. The one source of all is God. The song calls for our voice now. Are not we also sometimes the cause of things? After seeing where God is and where humanity is, we are called to add our own voice to the song of Judaism. On which of the two sides of this songs are we: on God’s side or on the other side? Maybe we need to move ourselves a bit to be closer again to the right side. The title of Moses’ song reminds us of our own daily personal text: Shema. Listen. God is the source of everything, of mercy and judgement. We are called to join in singing the song of Judaism as the whole of the people of Israel, all together with all our different voices. May heaven and earth lend their ear to us and witness at least one thing: that we did study the song.

Gmar Chatima Tova and Shabbat Shalom.

Student Rabbi Dr Annette M. Boeckler

(Subject Leader Judaism, ZIID, Zuerich),

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.