Ha'azinu / Shabbat Shuva 5781

Yesterday's d'var torah for the minyan (recorded in advance):

Ha'azinu consists primarily of Moshe's final poem, recited to the people before he ascends the mountain to see the land and die.

The language is very different from what I'm used to in the torah. It is not the language of events and facts and commands; it is the poetry of evocative images and allegory. It resembles the writings of the prophets -- which makes sense, as Moshe was a prophet too and these are his final words. Prophets give us words of admonition and words of comfort, and Moshe here does both.

The plain reading, the p'shat, of this text is a recounting of Yisreal's relationship with God. It's mostly focused on the negative -- God did all these good things and Israel rebelled and worshipped false gods and so on, and God withdrew. While it's mostly written in the past tense, it also predicts future events. And in the end there is a nechemta, a consolation -- that if the people return from those evil ways, God will be there for them. This was the case for the people Moshe was speaking to -- they were redeemed from the sins of their parents and granted entry into the land of Israel.

It seems possible to read this on another level, too. Moshe is at the end of a long life, the last third of which has been filled with contention and challenges. He, too, rebelled against God and cried out at the apparent unfairness of the punishment he received. But here, at the very end, it is clear that he has accepted God's authority, praising Tzur Yisrael, the Rock of Israel, repeatedly. He has returned to God, and when he dies God Himself takes Moshe's final breath with a kiss.

We usually read this portion on Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat before Yom Kippur, when we too are focused on reflection of the past and aspirations for the future. We are especially challenged this year, when our our world, our country, our society, and perhaps our personal lives have seen many challenges. We face plague, violence, turmoil, corruption from our national leaders, personal losses, fear and uncertainty. But while we pray and confess in the plural, Shabbat Shuva and the whole season of repentance really call on us to take a personal accounting and not just a societal one.

There are two things I think are important about that personal accounting. The first is that it's important to look in both directions. We look back on the past year, on places where we missed the mark, and we try to make amends for the damage we've caused, try to set things right, seek and grant forgiveness. It's a mix of depressing, embarrassing, and cleansing. Sometimes we've strayed from each other and strayed from God. But then we look ahead -- teshuva is about returning to the right path, so what will we do differently in the coming year? What will we be more careful of? What hazards do we now know are waiting to trip us up so we should look out for them? What will we learn from the past, and how will we apply it?

The second thing is that we don't have to do it all at once. If we can repair one relationship, make amends for one thing we've done wrong, accept amends and forgive one person who has wronged us, that is progress. Don't let perfect be the enemy of good.

Our Yom Kippur liturgy includes a blanket forgiveness clause where we say that we forgive people who have wronged us, even if they didn't ask like they're required to. When I say that passage, I quietly insert "except...". There are a few people who have wronged me severely -- I'm not talking about passing slights here -- and until they do teshuva then no, I do not forgive them. I'm not holding a grudge; I'm just waiting for them to make amends. There were five people on that list last year, people I was waiting to see positive change from, sometimes for years, and this year I was able to remove three of them. It feels great to be able to make those repairs, which require both parties to help. Unfortunately there are additions to my list this year, all rooted in a single evil, hurtful source, but maybe someday they, too, will see the harm they're doing and want to fix it. It's not under my control, so there's no point in focusing on it and letting it pull me down.

Ha'azinu is, on its face, about Yisrael's failings and teshuva, its path. On another level, it's about Moshe's path too. And maybe on yet another level it's about us, our path. Looking back we see failures and rebellion and wrongs done and received -- but looking ahead, we see return and renewed relationships.

Israel returned, and will again in the future. Moshe returned. May we also be able to return, one step at a time.


Adapted and reposted on Judaism Codidact.