Our Unchanging God
Parashat Ha’azinu, Deuteronomy 32:1–52
David Friedman, UMJC rabbi, Jerusalem
Parashat Ha’azinu mesmerizes me. And yet it is one of the most difficult portions to read through during our yearly reading cycle. Why? Simply because it pains my heart to read about the poor response of our people to God’s covenant love towards us. Ha’azinu is a powerful, emotional poem; one that challenges all Israel for all time to respond as the nation did in the days of Moses, as it is written, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient” (Exod 24:7). Indeed, this is the purpose of parashat Ha’azinu: to teach us to be ready to turn to God as a nation at all times in our present and future. Our pupils in Israel today memorize all of Ha’azinu by song as part of their core grade school curriculum.
Ha’azinu portrays our ancestors as having a problematic attitude towards God: “His children are blemished . . . a crooked and twisted generation. . . . A hardened people, and not wise” (Deut 32:5, 6b; my translation).
Thus, the beginning of our parasha lays out a problem in the covenant relationship: the people have strayed from God. Our haftarah is 2 Samuel 22:1–51, also an ancient poem-song, similar in form to the text of Ha’azinu.
Our parasha and haftara have a very special meaning for me. Thus, I want to share an event that occurred in Jerusalem 16 years ago, during the time of parashat Ha’azinu.
At the UMJC conference that summer a Union rabbi had approached me and told me he felt compelled to share a strong feeling with me—that the bottom-line messages of parashat Ha’azinu must be brought anew to Israel, quickly.
He spoke to me at length about his perceptions, and they gripped me. Then he encouraged me to bring the message of our parasha back home to my nation. That seemed good and right, but of course I had no idea how to even approach the subject, and I was just . . . me; one person. What could I possibly do? How could I spark the nation to turn to God in teshuva? Yet what this rabbi shared with me certainly seemed right. On the flight home I suddenly knew what I had to do. And that I needed to do it during the Shabbat of parashat Ha’azinu, which was swiftly approaching on the calendar.
When I arrived in Jerusalem, I asked two friends of mine to join me for a special time of prayer. They agreed, and we met as close as we could get to our ancient Temple site. This was during the Yamim HaNoraim, the ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
The three of us consisted of a kohen (priest), a Levite, and one descendant of the tribe of Judah (from Israel’s ancient royal family). We were all believers in our holy Messiah Yeshua. We all agreed that our ancestors’ mistakes and poor attitudes were what helped spur on both of our dispersions. So each one of us was a link in the chain back to these three categories of leaders in ancient Israel: kings, priests, and Levites. King, priest, and Levite had all failed to lead the people correctly, and so our ancestors found themselves twice having to leave the Land, painfully and by force. So the three of us came to Jerusalem, in the spirit of the message of Ha’azinu, to humbly ask God to turn our people around towards him, back to his purposes and his calling to us.
Our parasha is a message of the unfaithfulness of the nation, with the hope of God’s goodness undergirding his actions towards us:
They abandoned the God who made them and rejected the Rock their Savior.
They made him jealous with their foreign gods and angered him with their detestable idols.
They sacrificed to false gods, which are not God—gods they had not known, gods that recently appeared, gods your ancestors did not fear.
You deserted the Rock, who fathered you; you forgot the God who gave you birth. (Deut 32:15b–18)
Moses our teacher, in great wisdom, taught the words of Ha’azinu to the nation so that they would internalize its message.
Our haftara describes God as our only hope of protection, as our faithful King. Mindful of the messages of the parasha and haftara, we approached the ancient Temple site slowly, in awe and worship. This was to be a holy moment, when descendants of the branches of Israel’s three historic leading clans would ask God for help to bring our nation to him today, despite the misbehavior of our own ancestors and familial lines.
With the inspiration of Ha’azinu, the three of us spent an hour at that site doing just that. We sensed that the prayers we uttered, united together, were the right ones for what Jerusalem and Israel needed at that time. That moment of prayer close to our ancient Temple was a holy moment. We approached God Almighty with teshuva in our hearts and minds, and called out to God in intercession for our nation’s destiny. It truly was special for us to participate in this action. We whose ancestors help lead our people astray, called out to God to straighten us out.
Our haftarah (2 Samuel 22) and our parasha contain verses that illustrate just who God is, and they extol his merciful nature to us:
For who is God, save the Lord? and who is a Rock, save our God? (2 Sam 22:32)
They have dealt corruptly with him; they are no longer his children because they are blemished; they are a crooked and twisted generation. Do you thus repay the Lord, you foolish and senseless people? (Deut 32:5–6)
A tower of salvation is he to his king; and shows mercy to his anointed: to David and to his seed, for evermore. (2 Sam 22:51)
These are the very things about God that we knew and relied upon as we approached him on that day at the ancient Temple area. God is our “Rock.” The Hebrew word is sela, meaning a huge boulder—lots of rock there! These are not pebbles, or even small, medium or large rocks, but much more. Just as a boulder gives protection to those who hide behind it, so does God give protection to the ones who trust him. God is then called a tsur, that is, a cliff formation, made up of huge rocks and boulders that are literally pressed together, to afford protection to those who take refuge in it: “God of my solid rock formation, I will trust in him” (2 Sam 22:3, my translation).
2 Samuel 22 has an underlying message of how faithful God has been in protecting David, as an illustration of how he protects his people. Yet we, his people, have not always dealt uprightly with our God; there have been periods of history when we have been unfaithful to the covenants he has given to us. And so we are blemished due to such actions, and our two exiles are evidence of such blemishing in our history.
And yet, in spite of our problems keeping faithful to him, God will ever be faithful to David’s descendants, and to his people. Our parasha and haftara paint the picture that we had in our minds on that special day during the reading of Ha’azinu in Jerusalem—no matter how we had strayed in our history, God was unchanged. He was still our shelter, still our protector, and still our God. This is a comforting and relevant message for all Israel during this season of holy days.
May this message strengthen and inspire us. May we find him as our solid, protective, rock formation—both as individuals, and as a nation!