Deuteronomy 32: Endings and Beginnings

In this Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012 photo, shows detail of Torah scripts made by Israeli calligraphy expert Hanna Klebansky, unse
In this Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012 photo, shows detail of Torah scripts made by Israeli calligraphy expert Hanna Klebansky, unseen, in Jerusalem. Parchment, feathers and "qalams," a pen made of dried bamboo, are still used by sophers Jewish scribes and khattats Muslim calligraphers. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

This week's Torah portion, Ha'azinu, draws us close to several endings. In an impassioned and poetic speech to his people, Moses sums up many of the central themes of Israel's history: its dependence on God, its inconstant loyalty and service, and God's frustration and commitment to His vexing people. Moses nears the end of his life. Israel nears the end of its journey to the Promised Land, and the book of Deuteronomy and the entire Torah of Moses nears its end.

And yet, to riff on Winston Churchill, this may seem like the beginning of the end, but it is only the end of the beginning...

"And when Moses finished reciting all these words to all Israel, 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. For this is not a trifling thing for you: it is your very life; through it you shall long endure on the land which you are about to occupy upon crossing the Jordan" (Deuteronomy 32:45-47).

While in the context of this speech Moses is speaking about his latest teaching, several classical Jewish commentators take this to be a statement about the importance of the sacred word, of Torah, writ large. They view this moment as a crucial step in the transformation of the people of Israel into a text-centered community with the teachings of the Five Books of Moses and the rest of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) serving as a locus of holiness. Initially this notion of sacred text coexisted -- at times uneasily -- with the priestly cult and the prophetic tradition. But long after the destruction of the Temple and the end of prophecy, the Jewish people turned to its holy books to console itself and to inspire spiritual and intellectual renewal.

The English adjective "trifling" from our verse fails to capture the power of the Hebrew word -- reik -- literally "empty." As one sage from the Jerusalem Talmud teaches (Peah 1:1), the Torah brims with creative possibilities, and if one experiences it as empty, it reflects that person's shallowness, their disinterest, their inability to make meaning from God's great teaching. Ha'azinu, "Give ear," is the opening word of the portion -- listen, read, explore the Torah, plumbing its depths, generation after generation.

This Torah portion promises a new beginning. Moses clearly states that God will stand by Israel, allowing it to "endure" in the Promised Land for years to come. But as Israel learns, not only is it difficult to follow God's explicit command, it is often perplexing to discern God's will. As the prophet Elijah states in 1 Kings 19:12, God's voice sounds more like "soft stillness" than the thundering call at Sinai or at other times in the Israelites' journey through the wilderness.

This made it all the more important for the Jewish people to transform themselves into a text- centered community actively engaged in shaping and reshaping its culture, drawing on the wisdom of the past to face the challenges of the present. If God is the ultimate Teacher of Torah, the Divine seems to leave ample room for human students to interpret the sacred word.

For much of Jewish history only a small segment of the community had the opportunity to study the Torah in great depth; as in other hierarchical ancient and medieval societies, literacy was limited mainly to the (male) elite. Yet the Torah of Moses (and later the rabbis) held out the promise of radical inclusion -- the availability of God's word to all. Today, there are many opportunities for Jews of all ages and backgrounds to study the great works of Jewish thought, not only classical religious sources but also modern poetry, philosophy and literature.

But in order to create a truly vibrant learning community, we must decide to make limmud Torah (Torah study) a priority in our lives. While rabbis and educators serve a key role as guides in this process, each of us must commit ourselves to take responsibility for our own Jewish education. American Jews have succeeded in making general education a priority, now we must do the same with our Jewish heritage.

The Torah portion of Ha'azinu is read in synagogues throughout the world in the days immediately before and after Yom Kippur. According to the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses gave his great poetic speech at the banks of the Jordan River, as the Israelites prepared to end one chapter of their lives and begin another. So too, we stand in a liminal moment, closing the book on last year and opening a fresh one for the new year. As we engage in the soul-searching exercises of the High Holy season, let us recommit ourselves to a serious engagement with Torah, understanding that it is, in the words of Moses, "our very life."

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.