This Week's Torah Portion: How to Speak to Believers and Secularists (Part 50)

We’re publishing a weekly series of articles covering each week’s Torah portion as a rabbi (such as the author) might do via a talk in a synagogue. The series is tailored so it may also be read by non-Jews who may be interested in how Jews read and interpret Scripture. Click here for the first article in the series.



Dëvar Torah – Parashath Ha’azinu (Deuteronomy XXXII, 1-52)

This week’s parasha is the beginning of the peroration of Moshe’s address to Israel, the “words of this song” mentioned at the end of last week’s parasha (XXXI, 30). Let us sample the first two sentences of this Divine poetry.

Ha’azinu hashamayim va’adabbéra vëthishma‘ ha’aretz imrei fi. Ya‘arof kamatar liqchi, tizzal katal imrathi; kis‘irim ‘alei deshe’ vëchirvivim ‘alei ‘ésev: Give ear, Heavens, and I shall speak, and the Earth will hear the utterances of my mouth. My message will drive like the rain, my utterances will flow like the dew; as the stormy winds on the lawn, and raindrops on the grass.

With these verses, Moshe is carrying out what he said he would do in parashath Nitzavim: “I have caused the Heavens and the Earth to testify about you today” (XXX, 19). The natural first reaction to this statement of intent is that it must be a metaphor; the great 17th century rabbi of Prague, Shëlomo Efrayim Lunczitz, asks in his commentary Këli Yaqa: “Do the Heavens and Earth have mouths with which to testify?”

But, as Rashi points out, there is a literal sense in which the Heavens and Earth can bear witness:

For if [Israel] deserve it, the witnesses will come and grant [Israel’s] reward: the vine will bear fruit, the Earth will yield its produce, and the Heavens will give their dew. And if they are guilty, the hand of the witnesses will be the first against them: “And He will close the Heavens and there will be no rain and the Earth will not yield its produce.” (ibid., XI, 17).


Another aspect of these two verses also echoes last week’s parasha. In XXXI, 7, Moshe calls Yëhoshua‘, before all of Israel assembled, and says to him, in part: “You will come with this people to the land which Ha-Shem swore to their fathers.” A bit later (ibid., v.23) we find a very similar passage: “And you will bring the sons of Israel to the land which I swore to them.”

From the first-person verb nishba‘ti in the second verse, we conclude that this is Ha-Shem Himself, no longer Moshe, speaking to Yëhoshua‘.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 8a) picks up the subtle difference between Moshe’s tavo’ (“you will come”) and G-d’s tavi’ (“you will bring”) to suggest a difference of opinion between the two. Moshe is simply saying that Yëhoshua‘ will come to the Holy Land together with everybody else, “you and the Elders of the generation with them,” whereas G-d is urging Yëhoshua‘ to exercise true leadership:

Take up a stick and pound on their skulls: One spokesman for the generation, and not two spokesmen for the generation.

The Keli Yaqar notes another difference between the verses: Moshe tells Yëhoshua‘ that he will come eth ha‘am hazeh (“with this people”), whereas G-d tells him that he will bring eth bënei Yisra’él (“the sons of Israel”). He observes (as do other commentators) that the term ‘am is generally somewhat pejorative, and refers to the lowest stratum of the population — the ‘erev rav who were hangers-on, taking the opportunity to leave Egypt with Israel, and those who were like them. Whereas the term bënei Yisra’él refers to those members of Israel who were true sons of the Patriarchs, not only ethnically but also spiritually.


Thus, Moshe’s statement to Yëhoshua‘ does not conflict with G-d’s, since they are talking about different groups of people. Moshe is advising Yëhoshua‘ about the stratum of the population with whom he had had the most trouble. Yëhoshua‘, and with him the Elders, the first Sanhedrin, would have to find a way to “come along with” them, to speak softly and pleasantly to them, to make every effort to improve them and bring them along the way of Torah.

Some inkling of Moshe’s educative intent may be gleaned from a comment of Rabbi Ya‘aqov ben Asher, the Ba‘al haTurim, on XXXI, 2. There, Moshe announces his retirement, saying: “I can no longer go out and come.” This cannot refer to any sort of infirmity, since we know from Deuteronomy XXXIV, 7 that Moshe remained in full possession of all his faculties until the very end. The Ba‘al haTurim notes the unusual “full” (malé’) spelling of the word lavo’ (“to come”) with the letter vav, whose numerical value is 6 — he sees a reference to the shisha sidrei Mishna, the “six orders of the Mishna” which comprise the essence of the Oral Torah, and concludes that Moshe was retiring from his function as Israel’s primary teacher.

It seems to me that Yëhoshua’s simultaneous appointment as Moshe’s successor in that role may be inferred from the similarly anomalous reading of the word tavo’ with a vav in Moshe’s statement. Yëhoshua‘, he is saying, now you will have to teach them. The ‘am is the group which will be your greatest challenge, and this is how you will have to approach them.


G-d, on the other hand, was describing Yëhoshua’s relationship with the best of Israel, the true spiritual descendants of Avraham, Yitzchaq, and Ya‘aqov. These people readily accepted his leadership and he could speak bluntly, even harshly, to them if necessary. Lest they, on the basis of their own Torah knowledge, should ever dispute his authority, he was to “pound it into their skulls” that he was the generation’s leading light.

This, says the Këli Yaqar, is also the thrust of our two verses, Moshe’s message to Yëhoshua’s generation and ours. Ha’azinu hashamayim, those who are close to Heaven and thus to the generation’s spiritual leader, must incline their ears toward him, va’adabéra, and he will speak to them bluntly and frankly about the needs of the day. Vëthishma‘ ha’aretz, while those who are less spiritual, more “earthy,” should hear (the verb shama‘ implies hearing at a greater distance than he’ezin) imrei fi, the softer, more conciliatory words needed to coax them closer to Torah and the required improvement in their behavior. (The Talmud, in Makkoth 11a, tells us that the verb amar, from the same root as imrei, implies softer and more conciliatory speech than the harsher dibbér).

Ya‘arof kamatar liqchi, the message as Moshe took it (laqach literally means “take”) from Sinai is compelling, like driving rain, and can be imparted “straight” to the disciplined Torah community, while tizzal katal imrathi, couching it in softer words, makes it flow like the gentle dew. Kis‘irim ‘alei deshe’. Just as stormy winds strengthen the dawn, so does the “straight” message strengthen those who are ready to hear it. Vëchirvivim ‘alei ‘ésev. Others need to receive it in the form of gentle rainfall.


There is another portion of the Oral Torah which bears out these verses. The Talmud (Ta‘anith 7a) tells us that the leqach of which Moshe speaks is the Torah, based upon Proverbs IV, 2: Ki leqach tov nathatti lachem, Torathi al ta‘azovu: “For I have given you a good legacy; abandon not My Torah.” It continues:

Anyone who engages in Torah for its own sake [lishmah], his Torah becomes a potion of life for him, as it said, “A tree of life is it to those who cling to it” [Proverbs III, 18] … and anyone who engages in Torah not for its own sake (shelo’ lishmah, i.e., with ulterior motives), his Torah becomes a potion of death for him, for it is said: “My message will drive like rain,” and ‘arifa is killing, as it is said, “And they will behead [‘arëfu] the calf there” (Exodus XXI, 4).

The 20th century Rabbi Baruch haLévi Epstein, in his Torah Tëmima, explains that the similarity between Torah and rain lies in that the rain which falls at its proper time (which can be thought of as “rain lishmah”) is a life-giving blessing, whereas rain which falls at the harvest time (shelo’ lishmah) and causes the crops to rot in the fields is a death-dealing curse.

The literal meaning of the Hebrew word lishmah is “for its name.” The general word for “rain” in Hebrew is geshem. We can therefore understand rain which falls at the proper time as fulfilling the promise of its name, causing the seeds planted in the ground to be mithgashém, to germinate and manifest themselves as plants. Late, destructive rain is the very antithesis of that hithgashmuth. 


So, too, with Torah. The root meaning of Torah is “instruction” or “guide.” When one learns Torah with a view to being guided in one’s conduct and/or to teach others, then he is learning Torah lishmah, for the purpose designated by its root meaning. However, should one learn for any other reason, for intellectual stimulation alone or for personal gain, his learning is wasted. Worse, if he does not practice what he has learned, he has lost even the excuse of ignorance, and can therefore expect to feel the full weight of judgment.

In our day — in which we have seen simultaneously a mighty and miraculous revival of Torah from the ashes of the Holocaust, but also the growth of the most appalling ignorance of and hatred for Torah in the same generation among the two “wings” of Israel, the ‘am and the bënei Yisra’él — it is well for anyone who aspires to the title ben Torah to ponder both of these messages.

The Torah learning which he has had the great good fortune to absorb must have a goal and a purpose: first and foremost to guide his own conduct, but beyond that, to be imparted to the next generation and to those of his estranged brethren less fortunate than he. They have been kept in ignorance of their beautiful heritage.

Simultaneously he must remember (and I am here speaking most definitely to myself) that the vast majority of secular Jews, even those who ridicule Torah and provoke those to whom it is dearer than life, are in the class of the ‘am: Harsh words will only confirm them in their error. They need to be persuaded, cajoled, coaxed (though sometimes it takes superhuman effort to talk civilly to such people, for which one must seek Superhuman help) so that they may come to the full realization of the splendor and glory that is Torah Judaism.


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