Parshat Ha’azinu

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick


In the brilliantly evocative Song of Moses that appears as Ha’azinu at the end of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses assures the Israelites that all of Creation is indeed God’s work. The language and imagery is passionate: It was I, God says, “Ani, Ani,” that did all this. In Hebrew, the language is even more gripping, and when God finally says, “I, Anochi,” you know God means business. It’s a word that is used in the Bible, but not in rabbinic times, and it refers only to God.

In this unforgettable passage, we are assured of all the good things that will happen if we follow the moral path divinely outlined for us: feasting on the yield of the earth, honey from the crag, oil from the flinty rock, curd of kine and milk of flocks, the best of lambs, rams, and she-goats, the very finest of wheat, and foaming wine from grapes. This was fantastic fortune in an agricultural society. But then we are warned about the catastrophic things that could happen if we do NOT cleave to God’s moral path: consuming fire and misfortune, wasting famine, ravaging plague, deadly pestilence, fanged beasts, and so on. God will reduce us to naught. The whole catalogue is terrifying.

In a world that has been so recently beset by disasters both natural and man-wrought, these biblical consequences seem dangerously close to us: economic woes, earthquakes, famine, disease, fire, floods, nuclear contamination, revolution. But there are also courageous volunteers who risk their own lives in small boats to save others they don’t even know.

The Song of Moses is undoubtedly a passage about the distinction between good and evil, and the consequential choices our free will allows us to make. This passage clearly presents good and evil as both coming from the hand of God in response to moral or evil behavior. It is certainly something to consider as we deeply reflect in preparation for Yom Kippur.

If we are basically good people, we reflect, then why, as has been repeated so many times, do bad things happen to good people? As we read scary news headlines and listen to and watch horrendous media reports, it’s something we can’t help thinking about. If God is good, as the Jewish tradition teaches, if the created world is good, as the Bible tells us, then why is there evil?

That is why I was so interested to read a lengthy interpretation by the noted scholar, Jon D. Levinson, called “Creation and the Persistence of Evil,” but very disturbed by its pessimistic tone. Why does evil persist? His article has a somewhat gnostic feel to it, suggesting that evil is a separate, adversarial force.

Even though God promised Noah never to flood the world again, that promise is not so easy to maintain; it requires God’s vigilance. “The world is not inherently safe,” Levinson asserts; “it is inherently unsafe… Creation endures because God has pledged in an eternal covenant that it shall endure, and because he has also in an eternal covenant, compelled the obeisance of adversarial forces. If either covenant comes undone, creation disappears.”

I wept when I read Jon Levinson’s views because at a time when neo-Nazi ideology is re-infecting the globe, it is indeed possible to conceive of the world breaking down to the extent that chaos results, that we, we may return figuratively to the tohu va bohu, the void.

My own view, however, remains more optimistic. As moral human beings, as Jews continually renewing the Covenant, I do believe with all my heart that – together – we can dismember the mythical Leviathan representing the forces of evil, and that we can bring the beneficent side of God that represents love and compassion firmly back into our world.

Last week’s parsha emphasized choosing life. In this week’s portion, the choices are set clearly before us. As God’s partners in creation, we have the gift of free will. We have been taught to remember that, with Divine help, we survived Pharaoh, and we will survive, as best we can, whatever comes our way. This High Holiday season, it’s up to us to transcend the headlines; we must continue to choose life, and all that it requires from us to maintain a world that is inherently safe because we work hard to make it so. And because we have faith that it can be good.