Yom Rivii, 20 Av 5779
Wednesday, 21 August 2019
Parshat Ha'azinu 2014

Rosh HaShanah and Parashat Ha'Azinu
by Rabbi Danny Rich
26th September 2014

Ha’azinu is a single chapter parashah (Deuteronomy 32:1-52) which takes its name from its opening word: ‘Ha’azinu’ meaning ‘Give ear’ or ‘Listen’.

It is part of Moses’ long farewell speech –the whole of the Book of Deuteronomy- as he prepares to hand over his leadership to Joshua and readies himself to die, having learnt very clearly that he will not accompany his people into the Promised Land.

The Book of Deuteronomy is one of Judaism’s core texts affirming the concept of monotheism and loyalty to that single God (see the Shema in 6:4-5), reiterating the nature of the brit or covenant between God and the Jewish people, developing the nature of the society that the Israelites will fashion in the Promised Land which has been gifted to it, and uniquely establishing a single, central sanctuary which is to become the focus of cultic and judicial life.

The particular theme of Ha’azinu is Israel’s anticipated betrayal of God.  The topic is not a new one for earlier in Deuteronomy Moses has reminded his listeners that they have frequently responded with stubbornness and unreliability to the generosity and greatness of God.

Of God Moses declares in verse four:

The Rock! –God’s deeds are perfect, Yea, all God’s ways are just;    
A faithful God, never false, True and upright is God.

On one level this is simple and leaves no room for manoeuvre but it was in fact to lead to centuries of challenge and commentary about the nature of God’s perfection and justice in a world that frequently seemed random, cruel and unjust.  Unable to solve the conundrum that the righteous appear to suffer at least as, if not more than their opposite, rabbinic theology responded with the ideas of God’s simultaneous exercise of mercy with justice and of olam ha’ba: the World to Come where perceived injustices might be corrected.  A modern school of thought explains the dilemma of the suffering of the good in terms of a ‘limited God’, by which God is unable to prevent evil despite the Divine instinct to do so.

Ha’azinu has a second theme, expressed in its seventh verse:

Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past

which raises a further human dilemma.  It is once again not a novel idea, for the instruction to remember is an oft repeated injunction to Israel and underpins much of Jewish ritual.  The festivals demand a remembering and reliving of Israel’s historic past –the desert wanderings of Sukkot for example- and every Shabbat Kiddush is for the Jew ‘zecher litziat Mitzrayim: a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt’.

Remembrance is a central theme of Rosh HaShanah.  Indeed what has been known as Rosh HaShanah since Talmudic times is named in the Torah as Yom Teruah: the Day of the Sounding of the Shofar and as Yom HaZikkaron: the Day of Memorial.  It may have originally had something to do with a public commemoration of the dead but over the centuries Rosh HaShanah became the day of remembering par excellence. God remembers; the penitent Jew remembers.

As the editors of Liberal Judaism’s Machzor Ruach Hadash (page 147) observe

On this day of remembrance we are reminded that God remembered our ancestors in times of distress and recalled the Covenant made with them.  On this day we are reminded that God recalls our deeds, and promises that if we truly repent we will be remembered for good.

Together we remember a year that is gone, with opportunities that can never return, and with God’s help we try to face our past.  We consider the good we did and the good we failed to do; the hurts we endured and the pain we inflicted.  The Book of Remembrance is now open, but the end is not yet written.

As my rabbinic colleagues prepare sermons and shul volunteers organise buildings for the once-a-year Rosh HaShanah rush, it would be understandable if they recalled the stresses and strains of this season.  It takes some effort to remember its opportunities and chances but that is the challenge for those who find themselves in the thick of it.  The piercing sound of the shofar is a wake-up call for us all: the obsession with the minutia can give way to the contemplation of what is really important.

That is the real liberation and hope of Rosh HaShanah.

May 5775 be a time of sweetness for us all.