Parashat Ha’azinu – Divine Providence and Human Responsibilty – Redux

כִּי לֹא דָבָר רֵק הוּא מִכֶּם כִּי הוּא חַיֵּיכֶם

Parashat Ha’azinu consists of one chapter of the Torah, Devarim 32, which is itself taken up almost entirely by a song (32:1-43). This song is often referred to as Shirat Haazinu or as the Song of Moshe. The composition and teaching of this song is one of the last things Moshe does before he dies, an event made obvious by the way the song is followed immediately by the command for Moshe to ascend Har Nevo where he will be buried (32:48-52). The song is about the cycle of sin and destruction that reigns throughout Bnei Yisrael’s time in the land of Israel. There is no mention of Exile, nor of Repentance followed by Redemption from Exile[1]; there is simply the conquest of Bnei Yisrael and the comeuppance of the would-be conquerors. This comeuppance is not due to Bnei Yisrael deserving it, but rather a way of protecting ‘א’s Name, that the conquering nation should not think it was responsible for the conquest, instead of ‘א. This section of the song makes statements regarding Divine Providence, which are often troubling to the modern ear. However, careful reading of the song and its context shows that these statements are less about Divine Providence, and more about the imperative nature of taking responsibility.

The Song of Moshe is often compared with the covenant depicted in Devarim 27-30. As stated above, the key difference is that in Shirat Ha’azinu there is no mention of repentance as a cause for redemption. Instead, redemption is depicted as a way of protecting ‘א’s Name (32:26-30).

I would have said, “Let Me wipe them out,

let Me make their name cease among men.”

Had I not feared the foes provocation,

lest their enemies dissemble,

lest they say, “Our had prevailed,

and not the Lord has wrought all this.”

For a nation lost in counsel are they,

there is no understanding among them.

Were they wise they would give mind to this,

understand their latter days:

O how could one chase a thousand,

or two put then thousand to flight,

had not their Rock handed them over,

had the Lord not given them up?

 

The future redemption of Bnei Yisrael is not depicted here as an act of merit, or even as an act of love, rather it is necessary in order to keep the conquering nation from viewing itself as controlling history, when in fact it is ‘א who directs history’s course. This is a typical prophetic point of view, and is something that reappears throughout the Tanakh (as does the idea of Salvation for the Sake of Heaven[2]). ‘א is the God of History, and therefore historical occurrences, especially those involving Bnei Yisrael, are products of direct Divine Providence. However, while this idea was the basis of many a prophetic attempt to inspire Bnei Yisrael to do teshuvah, it can be very problematic in the eyes of the modern reader.

Jewish Thought in the second half of the 20th century and beyond must bear a weight greater than that of any generation that came before it. Many of the explanations regarding the nature of Divine Justice and Providence that have been given throughout Jewish History are no longer workable, and many of those that are need to be reconfigured and rephrased in order for a modern audience to find them compelling. Attempts to justify evil, and the mindless slaughter of innocents as occurred in the 1940’s in particular, have been found to be morally problematic. An action is justified by saying that, while it might otherwise be wrong, it is right because of certain abnormal circumstances. The problem with this idea is that it can be summarized as “X was the right thing to do because of Y,” which can be flipped around and formulated as “If Y, then X is the right thing to do.” The idea that there is any set of circumstances under which a person would endorse, or even condone, genocide is about as immoral a thought pattern as can be imagined[3]. Many modern Jews therefore try to avoid explaining or justifying historical occurrences, as the implications of doing so can be monstrous.

One could argue from the fact that Shirat Haazinu is meant to be “put in the mouths” (31:19) of Bnei Yisrael, that Jews are supposed to attribute tragedies to the Hand of God, as the song does, and this would not be entirely incorrect. To do so, however, would be to miss the point of the song. The song is put in the mouths of Bnei Yisrael, not in order to teach them that ‘א is the Lord of History, though it conveys that idea as well, but in order that it can serve as ‘א’s “witness against the people of Israel” (Ibid). The song is meant to serve as warning to them that violating the covenant that they forged with ‘א will bring suffering upon them, and that ‘א will save them, but through no merit of their own. The song thus puts the responsibility for the suffering of Bnei Yisrael not on ‘א, but squarely on the shoulders of Bnei Yisrael themselves. The song is meant to teach the generations of Israel that live in the land, long after the miracles of the desert, that the proper way to respond to crisis and calamity is by taking responsibility, not shirking it.

This is reinforced by the contrast between Bnei Yisrael and the conquering enemy as depicted in the song. While Bnei Yisrael are depicted as neglecting ‘א and straying after idols, the possibility that they have misattributed an action of ‘א is never raised. The cardinal sin of the enemy, however, is just that, and it is so great that it warrants their destruction and the redemption of Israel. So while the song makes it clear that the success of the enemy really is the work of ‘א (32:26-30), it isn’t necessarily important for Bnei Yisrael to know that, only the enemy. What Bnei Yisrael are meant to take away from the song is that their conquest by the enemy is a direct result of their abandoning and despising ‘א (32:15). The responsibility is being placed totally on Bnei Yisrael.

More than anything else, the Tanakh depicts ‘א’s Providence not as minimizing Human Initiative, but as making it imperative. ‘א guarantees major consequences, good and bad, as a response to the actions of Bnei Yisrael. Therefore, ‘א’s guiding history is not meant to be seen as taking power out of mankind’s hands, but as obligating them to be responsible in the use of said power. A perfect biblical example of such responsibility is found at the very end of Sefer Bereishit, where Yosef asks his brothers, “Am I in place of God?” (Bereishit 50:19)[4]. Yosef goes on to explain that ‘א, not the brothers’ misdeeds, led him to that particular point in history, and therefore it is incumbent upon him to respond to ‘א’s guidance with responsibility. Attempting to explain ‘א’s role in the great events and tragedies of our era diverts attention from what we should really be focusing on. When considering tragedy, it is incumbent upon us not to ask why ‘א did what He did, but to ask what we could have done. Our response needs to be not “Why did this happen?” but “What can we do now?”

Much of the Rosh HaShanah liturgy is dedicated to affirming the Kingship of ‘א, specifically in terms of the historical process. “And the Lord shall be king over all the earth; on that day there shall be one Lord with one name” (Zekhariah 14:9) We stand in prayer and declare that ‘א is King. In doing so, we declare that, as His subjects, we are responsible for our actions. We take it upon ourselves to not shirk our responsibility when confronted by anything that might occur over the next year of our lives. Accepting Judgment on Rosh HaShanah doesn’t mean just that anything that occurs to us in the next year should be thought of as a consequence of our actions, but also that we have taken it upon ourselves to be responsible in the face of anything that comes our way.

[1] For more on this, and the song’s relevance to our lives, see this essay by R’ Elchanan Samet.

[2] I have written at some length about this here.

[3] This isn’t to say that everyone who tries to justify the tragedies of the 20th century would condone or endorse such things a priori, most probably don’t think about the fact that such is the implication of their words.

[4] I have written more about this verse, and the general interplay of Divine Providence and Human Responsibility, here.

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