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5781 Shabbat Shuvah & Ha'azinu

You are extremely blessed. No. Seriously. I wrote two sermons for this morning so go get some coffee.

Seriously I really did. I wrote the first one and then decided it didn’t fit with the fact that Parasha Ha’azinu is also Shabbat Shuvah this year. So, I started over and wrote a second sermon that I thought was more appropriate for this Sabbath of Repentance. Perhaps I’ll post the first one on our website or actually, maybe I’ll just save it for next year when Ha’azinu falls on the Shabbat after Yom Kippur.

Okay, so…

What is the relationship between Parashat Ha’azinu and Shabbat Shuvah?

More specifically, what does Moshe’s song have to do with teshuvah?

Jewish tradition teaches us to engage in teshuvah during the days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Often translated as repentance, teshuvah more literally means returning – returning to our truest selves, returning to connection with the Divine, or returning to make amends with those we have wronged. Broadly, it’s the kind of work we do to realign our actions to our values – to return to our moral compass, to Torah. During this time we contemplate all the ways in which our actions of the past year have missed the mark, we ask for forgiveness, and we pray for the strength to do better in the year to come.

The secular new year presents a similar opportunity in making “new year’s resolutions.” In marking a new year, we focus on our capacity for change, to get better, and to grow. But we also know that, even with the best intentions, holding ourselves responsible for our choices and changing our ways are never easy. Studies of resolutions from the secular new year demonstrate just how difficult it can be to commit to new behaviors and routines; in fact, up to 80 percent of people give up on their resolutions by February.

Ha’azinu, the Torah portion we just read and which contains Moshe’s song of prophecy warning Israel about its future, appropriately addresses the theme of accountability and responsibility. From its very first words, it calls the heavens and the earth itself to be witnesses to the Israelites’ behavior and Moshe’s charge to the people:

Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;

Let the earth hear the words I utter!

May my discourse come down as the rain,

My speech distilled as the dew,

Like showers on young growth,

Like droplets on the grass. (Deut. 32:1-2)

As D’varim draws to a close, its narrator, Moshe, turns from sermons, speeches, and laws, to poetry. Biblical scholars understand the song to be a foreshadowing of exile, as it metaphorically describes the “relationship gone awry” between Israel and Hashem. It portrays the people Israel, who stray from the covenant made at Sinai and from God, who guided us through the desert even as we faltered and failed along the way (32:10-12, 15-18). A wrathful God exacts vengeance on the people Israel through “wasting famine, ravaging plague, deadly pestilence, and fanged beasts” (Deut. 32:24), among other punishments. The song, finally concludes with hope, the hope that God will forgive Israel once again and avenge our tragedies and losses (Deut. 32:43).

The words that follow the song remind us of some of the same core messages that the entire book of Deuteronomy teaches: Follow in God’s ways, aspire to holiness, and keep the commandments given in this Torah because Israel has made a covenant with God (32:46-47). We are reminded to be accountable for our choices and responsible for our actions, as individuals and as the community of Israel.

When Moshe began the song with a call to nature itself – the heavens and the earth – to serve as legal witness for his message, he did so “in the hearing of the whole congregation of Israel” (Deut. 31:30). When understood from a legal perspective, what appears to be a beautiful, allegorical image without need of further interpretation is also an important part of the covenantal contract made with God. Since our covenant is made with Hashem directly, Moshe can’t just warn us “with God as our witness!” God is a party to the contract so a neutral third party is called upon, in this case, the heavens and the earth, to witness our contract and to hold us accountable to it.

Furthermore, if one looks at the language of Torah, and I’ll use chapter 32 verse 47 from our parashat today as an example but really its this way all over in the Scriptures, the command is in the plural. “he said to them, Take to heart all the words with which I have warned you this day. Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching.” “He said to them!” “Them,” as in the whole community, this is what you all must do. “Enjoin them upon your children.” In other words, not just you but your offspring, your descendants. Us. All of us.

And so, together with nature, we become the ones who must hold each other accountable for pursuing holiness in ourselves, our communities, and our society at large. It turns out that Moshe picked well. Nature itself – the trees and oceans, the sky and rain – have proven to be excellent witnesses to human behavior.

Today in the trees, we see flames. In the oceans, we see rising temperatures. In the sky, we see smog and smoke, pollution and ash. And in the rain, we see destruction on one hand with the increasing number and severity of catastrophic storms and on the other, with longer and more intense periods of drought. Nature is testifying against us.

But so too are our own actions. If you sit down and honestly evaluate the choices and behaviors of humanity over the last year, would you say that the world is becoming a friendlier place, a more peaceful place, a place where people take care of each other, and watch out for the welfare of others whether they know them or not? And do my everyday actions, positively or negatively affect the people around me? When was the last time I did something nice, something unexpectedly generous and kind for someone else? When was the last time someone else did something genuinely kind for me? For you?

Accountability and responsibility, for Creation and for each other.

Torah demands – God demands – that we be accountable for our choices and our actions.

Torah demands – Yeshua demands – that we are responsible for each other.

Here is a simple illustration that will make my point. If my doing something slightly inconvenient may potentially keep others safe, then by Torah standards and by the very words of Yeshua himself, I am required to love my neighbor and be inconvenienced. The fact that so many people, otherwise faithful people, Christians, Jews and others, adamantly refuse to wear a mask and refuse to abide by the temporary, inconvenient policies put in place to flatten the Corona virus curve and minimize the pandemic is testimony against us. We don’t all live out the principles enjoined upon us. We don’t all accept responsibility for our neighbors. Want another example, go to the southern US border and talk to the refugees in the detention camps. I could go on and on about the big stuff. But let’s turn our focus inward. Do you, CZA congregant, do you go out of your way to help others? Do you see a need and ignore it because you’re otherwise busy and conveniently assume that someone else will address it, or do you stop what you’re doing and help? Do you seek out ways to volunteer in the community? Do you give to charity? And as I asked last week, are you helping others to breathe?

Many if not most of us are doing some of these things and others things too numerous to name. We are caring for the elderly, for the orphans and fosters, for the homeless and for the hungry. We are taking meals to the families of newborns. We are pursuing reconciliation, peace and civility in places of indifference or anger and hate. We must continue these efforts in the new year and do more.

The language of Ha’azinu, of Moshe’s Song, is beautiful. The blunt theme is disturbing, that Israel - that we - we will fail to keep our relationship with Hashem strong, that we will turn our backs on Torah, and we as a people will face horrible consequences. And God was right, of course. He knows us. He knows our hearts. People have done some pretty horrendous things to each other over the past couple thousand years. But despite that, there is also in Moshe’s Song an underlying message of hope, enjoined upon our children. We can return to Hashem.

This message is especially prominent when we turn to our special Shabbat Shuvah Haftorah readings from the Prophets Hosea, Micah, and Joel. To begin with, it is unusual for a Haftarah to include the words of three separate prophets. However, for these three prophets, sin and wrongdoing are not matters for a prophetic future whose disastrous results must be warned against, but rather are the given reality. They are living in a time when the consequences described in Moshe’s Song are on display. The prophets response to these times is not one of despair but instead to call us back to God, to return to Torah, to encourage us to Teshuvah. Hosea begins with this reflection:

“Take words with you and return to the Lord. Say to him: Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously that we may offer the fruit of our lips. Assyria cannot save us, we will not mount warhorses. We will never again say ‘Our gods’ to what our own hands have made, for in you the fatherless find compassion.” (Hosea 14: 2-4)

Israel has failed by sinning, betrayed its way of life and distanced itself from God, exactly the things that Moshe’s Song warns us against. Hosea words begin by acquainting us with this bitter reality. However, this is not the end of the story. On the contrary, He declares, if the nation takes responsibility for what it has done, holds themselves responsible for their choices and their actions, then the path of tikkun (repairing) and teshuvah (repentance) opens up and Israel can return to the Lord and re-establish the covenant with God. It depends on us he says: “For the paths of the Lord are smooth; the righteous can walk on them while sinners stumble upon them.” (Hosea 14:10)

The prophet Micah reprises Hosea’s words and promises, “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. You will be faithful to Jacob, and show love to Abraham, as you pledged on oath to our ancestors in days long ago.” (Micah 7: 18-20)

And Joel also makes the same promise to the people: that if they only make teshuvah with all their hearts, then their lives will be renewed to the fullest extent and splendor, He says, “You will have plenty to eat, until you are full, and you will praise the name of the Lord your God, who has worked wonders for you; never again will my people be shamed. Then you will know that I am in Israel, that I am the Lord your God, and that there is no other; never again will my people be shamed.” (Joel 2: 26-27)

In the Besorah reading, Luke tells us the story of the popularly named, Prodigal Son. Like the wayward child who squandered his inheritance, Moshe tells us that we, Israel, will do the same. And like Hosea, Micah, and Joel, Luke shows us that return is possible. “I’m going to get up and go back to my father and say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against Heaven and against you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired workers.’” (Luke 15:18-19) Our Heavenly Father, Avinu Shebashamayim, will welcome us back with open arms and celebration just the same. The path of tikkun and teshuvah are open to us.

So in this time of Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Return, set firmly between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, amidst these Aseret Yemai Teshuvah, these Ten Days of Repentance, while the Book of Life remains unsealed and the heavens look down upon us, hold yourself accountable for your choices last year. Take responsibility for your actions. Seek forgiveness. And choose to do more in the year to come. Choose to do better, to be kinder, to be helpful, to be responsible for your neighbors of all types. If we all do this, even just a little, what a better world it could be.

Shana Tovah and Shabbat Shalom.


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