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Parashat Ha’azinu: Poetry Not Only as Aesthetic Experience, but Also as Divine Challenge by Yaakov Bieler

September 27, 2011 by  
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Considering what is being suggested and alluded to in the poetic passages of the Tora.

Parashat Ha’azinu contains one of the two overt prolonged pieces of poetry in the Chumash. Although the entire Tora can be understood to constitute a poem, in accordance with Sanhedrin 21b’s interpretation[1] of Devarim 31:19,[2] the unique formats in which the Song of the Sea (Shemot 15:1 ff.) as well as Ha’azinu (Devarim 32:1 ff.) are written, i.e., on the one hand “brick over half-brick”,[3] and on the other, two distinct columns,[4] serve to emphasize that it is necessary “to read between the lines” in order to fully comprehend and appreciate what is being conveyed. R. Shlomo Zevin[5] has written, “The surrounding parchment, the white area that encompasses each distinct letter of the Tora, derives from a source that is holier than the actual letters themselves.”[6] Consequently, the more white that surrounds the letters, the more holy and the more evocative are the ideas inherent in the verses. If there are seventy different faces of the prose portion of the Tora—see e.g., BaMidbar Rabba 13:15—then there are infinitely that many more approaches and interpretations possible with respect to the poetic passages in the Bible, and these portions therefore deserve that much more additional scrutiny, if they are to be properly understood.

Applying such an assumption to a phrase in Ha’azinu.

While such an approach results in the conviction that a great deal can be said about virtually any phrase in the Ha’azinu poem,  the end of 32:20 serves as a good example of the richness of these poetical qualities, “…Banim Lo Aimun Bam” (children in whom there is no “Aimun”). A survey of the traditional commentators discussing this phrase reflects the extent to which biblical poetry can lend itself to many different perspectives, even on the literal level it simultaneously serves as a source of rebuke for past shortcomings and a challenge to improve in the future.

“Aimun” as a matter of faith in the Divine.

Ibn Ezra interprets the phrase in question as Moshe prophesying that the Jewish people will lack faith in God, based upon associating “Aimun” with the term “Emuna.” This verse then becomes another example of how God continually Stresses the ingratitude and lack of appreciation for Him and His Actions on the part of the Jewish people, who, even after having all sorts of miracles performed on their behalf and being saved from destruction many times over, nevertheless continually demonstrate alack of faith in the Divine. Siphre (Midrash Halacha on Devarim) Parashat Ha’azinu 220:20 asserts that this reprehensible national trait can be traced to a seminal event of the past, namely the sin of the Golden Calf:[7]

You are a generation that lacks in faith. When you stood at Mt. Sinai, you said, (Shemot 24:7) “All that God Will Command, we will do and we will hear/understand.” And I Responded, (Tehillim 82:6) “You are Elohim—mighty ones,”[8] (suggesting, in addition to power and stature with which you were endowed, also permanence and eternity). But when you declared regarding the Golden Calf, (Shemot 32:4) “These are your gods, Israel”, then I Said to you, (Tehillim 82:7) “Surely as a human being (as opposed to Elohim) you will die.”  Afterall, (had you not demonstrated such a loss of faith) I Would Have Brought you into the land of your fathers (Israel), and I Would Have Given you the Temple. I Would Have Said to you, “You will never be banished from this land.” But when you said, (II Shmuel 20:1) ”We have no portion in God,” then I Said to you, “You will surely be exiled from His Land.”

If we invoke the principle of “Michlal Lav Atah Shomeah Hein” (from the negative you can infer the positive), then the import of this phrase in Ha’azinu, is not only a description of a reprehensible attitude, but also the challenge to correct it. Even if they are currently, and will continue to be into the future children lacking faith, attempts must be made by their leadership as well as themselves—in effect by ourselves who are the current incarnation of the Jewish people—to rectify this shortcoming.

“Aimun” as worthy of dependence by others.

The English translation in the Hirsch Chumash[9] presents the phrase under consideration as “children upon whom there is no depending”—the lack of “Aimun” is therefore not something that is an exclusive function of the children themselves, but rather a characteristic that others sense vis-à-vis the children and which influences how these others deal with the children in question. Apparently, people of principle are reliable, and can be expected to act in certain ways, even under the best and worst of circumstances. But when such commitment to objective standards is lacking, then all that can be assumed is that these individuals will act out of self-interest, throwing lofty principles and commitments to the wind. In order to set up a “Mida KeNeged Mida” (one is treated in accordance with how he treats/acts towards others), the final statement in the “Modeh/Modah Ani”[10] prayer that one recites upon awakening in the morning, i.e., “Raba Emunatecha” (great is Your Faith—in us!)[11] will be applicable only when we have demonstrated our own great faith in Him. Furthermore, the translation of the Hirsch Chumash would appear to be in keeping with the interpretation of NeTzIV (HaEmek Davar) who writes, “Even those who appear now to be righteous, are ready to pervert their paths, and there’s no relying upon them.” Such a description is reminiscent of what RaShI, based upon Beraishit Rabba on Beraishit 5:22, notes concerning why HaShem decided that Chanoch would have to die at a relatively young age: “He was a Tzaddik (righteous man) but ‘light in his mind’—easily tempted and corrupted?—to return to doing evil. Therefore God Hurried and Took Him and Caused his death before his time, and this is what the phrase means when the Tora says “and he was not” (rather than “and he died”), i.e., he was no longer in the world where he could have completed the allotment of days and years that had been originally set aside for him.” Strengthening our own resolve and faith in order that we can earn Divine Trust is the implicit challenge inherent in adopting such an approach to the Biblical text.

“Lo Aimun” might mean lacking role models and responsible adults to act upon their behalves.

RaMBaN writes that the phrase in Ha’azinu should be understood to connote that the children lacked adult caretakers (“Omen”) who could properly raise them to adulthood. A paradigmatic reference would then become BaMidbar 11:12, where Moshe, at the height of frustration and despair, asks of God the rhetorical question, “Did I conceive this entire nation, did I give birth to them, that You Should Say to me, ‘Take them to your bosom, as ‘HaOmen’ lifts up the nursling,’ on the land that You Swore to their forefathers?” While Moshe may complain all that he likes, the unspoken answer to the question is, “Yes, I Expect that you must accept upon yourself the role of serving as their ‘Omen’. That is what leadership entails.”[12] To some extent, this approach diverts responsibility for a child’s attitudes and behavior from the child himself to his parent, guardian, teacher, role model. Sukka 56b relates a story that certainly represents this type of thinking. We read how Miram bat Bilga, a daughter of a priest who led one of the shifts of priests working in the Temple, became an apostate and married a Syrian-Greek officer. When the Temple was overrun and despoiled, the Talmud reports how she removed her shoe, banged it on the altar, and shouted, “Wolf, Wolf! How long will You Continue to Consume the money of the Jewish people?” When this was reported, it was decided to not only deprive Bilga, her father, of his leadership role, but to oust the entire shift of Kohanim. As an explanation, the Talmud states, “The talk of the child in the market place is either that of his father or mother.”  Understanding the phrase in Ha’azinu in this manner, emphasizes the importance and long-lasting effects of how we bring up our children and the teachers and exemplars to whom we choose to expose them.

“Aimun” as a code of conduct and a ritual tradition.

In a similar vein, but with a different emphasis, Sephorno suggests that the words in Ha’azinu indicate that the children failed to learn a true tradition (“Emuna” = “Emet”) from their forbearers. Rather than relying upon the teachings of their elders, they preferred to develop their own set of rules and lifestyle.[13] Parents and teachers can either teach a negative, destructive code of behavior and approach to life  that is unfortunately completely adopted by their children and students, or the lessons that they present, while being true and correct, are not perceived as relevant and attractive by their charges, causing the latter to decide that they have to make their own way. As an intriguing example of this issue, Rav Moshe Feinstein, in his collection of Responsa Igrot Moshe,[14] writes how a parent should never bemoan in the presence of his children the extent of the sacrifice that he makes in order to be observant, since this might lead the child to conclude, that if the religious life is so difficult, while the parent might be extremely righteous and therefore ready to undertake this lifestyle, why should I if I don’t feel so holy and spiritual? Thought has to be given to the impressions that we make upon our children if we are intent upon leading them to love of God and His Tora.

“Aimun” as the ratification of blessings.

Moving from the theoretical to the practical, the continuation of the Siphre (320:20) offers a suggestion that appears, at least at first glance, as excessively concrete:

R. Dostai ben Yehuda says: Don’t read the Tora’s words as “Lo Aimun Bam” but rather “Lo Amen Bam”. The people refused to respond “Amen” following their being blessed by the prophets. As it is stated in Yirmiyahu 11:5, “In order to fulfill the Oath that God Swore to your fathers to Give to you a land flowing with milk and honey.” And not a single one of them opened their mouths to declare “Amen”, until Yirmiyahu came and pronounced “Amen”, as it is said, “And I answered and said, ‘Amen, HaShem’”.

Apparently there are simple, outward actions that either reflect inner attitudes, or can eventually be internalized to result in newly-strengthened commitments and beliefs. The response “Amen” signifies agreement on the part of the listener to a blessing that had been pronounced by another.[15] Failing to respond “Amen” to a blessing, could charitably viewed as agreement, in the spirit of “Shetika KeHoda’a Dami” (silence is tantamount to agreeing), but it can also be construed as at best indifference, and at worst disagreement and silent protest. By consciously affirming blessings, we develop a greater sense of seriousness not only regarding these ritual formulas, but also about prayer and Divine Service. The converse may also be true. Consequently a place to begin to positively develop our own sensibilities as well as those of our children in the spiritual realm is by conscientiously answering Amen to blessing both in the home, the synagogue and wherever else they may be pronounced.

The Children of Israel, no matter what?

Finally, Kiddushin 36a looks upon the phrase from the vantage point of the use of the term “Banim” (children) and states, “R. Meir said: Even at times when the Jewish people are not complying with the Will of the Creator, they are nevertheless referred to as His Children, as it is said, “…Banim Lo Aimun Bam.” Our children and ourselves continue to be part of the Jewish people even during those times when we are struggling to find ourselves religiously and personally. God is Waiting for our return. The Ten Days of Penitence is the right time to strengthen our resolve and commitments to ratchet up our observance and commitment to demonstrate that we are the Chosen People more than in name only.


[1] Rabba  said: Even if one’s parents have left him a Sefer Tora , yet it is proper that he should write one of his own, as it is written: “Now therefore write ye this song for you.” Rabba equates an entire “Sefer Tora” with  the term “song”.

[2] “Now therefore write ye this song for you, and teach thou it the children of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for Me against the children of Israel.”

[3] E.g.,

אז ישיר משה ובני ישראל את השירה הזאת לה’ ויאמרו

לאמר               אשירה לה’ כי גאה גאה                    סוס

ורכבו רמה בים                             עזי וזמרת קה ויהי לי

[4] E.g.,

האזינו השמים ואדברה                   ותשמע הארץ אמרי פי

יערף    כמטר      לקחי                                תזל     כטל      אמרתי

כשעירים     עלי  דשא                  וכרביבים   עלי   עשב

[5] LaTora U’LaMoadim, Avraham Zioni, Tel Aviv, 5721, p. 315.

[6] R. Zevin’s idea appears to parallel the aesthetic principle of “negative space”.

Negative space, in art, is the space around and between the subject(s) of an image. Negative space may be most evident when the space around a subject, and not the subject itself, forms an interesting or artistically relevant shape, and such space is occasionally used to artistic effect as the “real” subject of an image. The use of negative space is a key element of artistic composition. The Japanese word “ma” is sometimes used for this concept, for example in garden design.

In a two-tone, black-and-white image, a subject is normally depicted in black and the space around it is left blank (white), thereby forming a silhouette of the subject. However, reversing the tones so that the space around the subject is printed black and the subject itself is left blank causes the negative space to be apparent as it forms shapes around the subject, called figure-ground reversal

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negative_space

[7] The Midrash suggests that no matter how long after a sin is committed, the predilection towards the iniquity remains in place and must constantly be struggled against. In effect, this appears to be the converse of “Ma’asei Avot Siman LaBanim” (the deeds of the Forefathers are precursors for their offspring.) Whereas such a rule is usually interpreted either as indicative of how history seems to repeat itself (e.g., Avraham and Sara went down to Egypt due to a famine, Yaakov and his family will go down to Egypt due to a famine, etc.), or that the positive qualities of the Avot manifest themselves in future generations (e.g., Yitzchak’s Mesirat Nefesh in terms of his readiness to sacrifice himself for the sake of God is replicated down through Jewish history), the dark side of the principle must also be acknowledged, i.e., the shortcomings and failures of the Avot also have a knack of resurfacing among their descendants, in this case the lack of faith that resulted in the fabrication and worship of the Golden Calf shortly after the Exodus from Egypt.

[8] In addition to being employed as a Name of God, the term is also associated with judges and other powerful individuals, as in (Shemot 22:8) “For every matter of trespass, whether it be for ox, for ass, for sheep, for raiment, or for any manner of lost thing, whereof one saith: ‘This is it,’ the cause of both parties shall come before ‘Elohim’; he whom ‘Elohim’ shall condemn shall pay double unto his neighbour.”

[9] Vol. 5, Deuteronomy, trans. by Isaac Levy, Judaica Press, Gateshead, 1976, p. 648.

[10] The verb “Modeh” should be declined in order to reflect whether a man or woman is reciting the prayer. See Siddur Rinat Yisrael.

[11] The final phrase comes on the heels of “SheHechezarta Bi Nishmati” (that You Returned within me my soul). The underlying assumption is that giving a person another day to live, following the inevitable errors and shortcomings of the previous day, is an act of not only compassion, but also faith and trust in that individual that he can do better the next day.

[12] The implicit answer to Moshe’s question echoes the interchange between Kayin and HaShem following the murder of Hevel, where Kayin, in response to being asked where his brother could be found, disingenuously asks, (Beraishit 4:9) “…Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer is, “Yes!”

[13] An interesting contemporary example of this type of thinking appeared in a recent column of The Forward: http://forward.com/articles/142435/

[14] Yoreh Deah, Part III #71.

[15] Only with respect to the third blessing of the Grace after Meals are we authorized  to say “Amen” to our own blessing—see Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 188:1.

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