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The Most Important Torah Reading

Two columns of parashat Ha’azinu in a Torah scroll

This Shabbat we will be reading Ha’azinu, a unique parasha written in two poetic columns. Ha’azinu is a song; the song that God instructed Moses to teach all of Israel: “And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths, in order that this song will be for Me as a witness for the children of Israel.” (Deut. 31:19) Of course, the entire Torah is a song, chanted with specific ta’amim, musical cantillations. In fact, the mitzvah for each Jew to write a Torah scroll of their own (one of the 613) is derived from the verse above, where God commands the Children of Israel to write this song for themselves. While the simple meaning is that God meant to write the song of Ha’azinu, our Sages interpreted it to refer to the entire Torah. (Since most people are unable to write an entire kosher Torah scroll by themselves, the mitzvah can be fulfilled by writing in a single letter, or by financially contributing to the production of a Torah scroll.)

Why is the song of Ha’azinu so special that God commanded Moses to ensure it will always remain in the mouths of Israel? A careful reading shows that Ha’azinu essentially incorporates all of the central themes of the Torah. We are first reminded that God is perfect, “and all His ways are just” (32:4). While it is common for people to become angry at God and wonder why He is seemingly making life so difficult for them, Ha’azinu reminds us that there is no injustice in God, and that all suffering is self-inflicted (32:5). The Talmud reminds us that hardships are issurim shel ahavah, “afflictions of love”, meant to inspire us to change, grow, repent, learn, and draw us closer to God. Isaac Newton said it well:

Trials are medicines which our gracious and wise Physician gives because we need them; and the proportions, the frequency, and weight of them, to what the case requires. Let us trust His skill and thank Him for the prescription.

History is the Greatest Proof

In the second aliyah, we are told to “remember the days of old and reflect upon the years of previous generations” (32:7). Is there any greater proof for God and the truth of the Torah than Jewish history? Despite all the hate, persecution, exile, and genocide, the Jewish people are still alive and well, prospering as much as ever.

Does it make sense that 0.2% of the world’s population wins over 20% of the world’s Nobel Prizes? (Out of 881 Nobels awarded thus far, 197 were awarded to Jews, who number just 14 million or so. Compare that to the 1.8 billion Muslims in the world—roughly 25% of the world’s population—who have a grand total of three Nobel Prizes in the sciences.) Does it make sense that a nation in exile for two millennia can return to its ancestral homeland, defeat five professional armies that invade it simultaneously (and outnumber it at least 10 to 1), and go on to establish a flourishing oasis in a barren desert in just a few short decades? Does it make sense that tiny Israel is a global military, scientific, democratic, and economic powerhouse? And yet, does it make any sense that the United Nations has passed more resolutions against Israel than all of the rest of the world combined?

There is no greater proof for God’s existence, for the truth of His Torah, and the distinctiveness of the Jewish people than history itself. It is said that King Louis XIV once asked the French polymath and Catholic theologian Blaise Pascal for proof of the supernatural, to which the latter simply replied: “the Jews”. Although Pascal—who was not a big fan of the Jews—probably meant it in a less than flattering way, he was totally correct.

The Consequences of Forgetting God

From the third aliyah onwards, Ha’azinu describes what the Jewish people have unfortunately experienced through the centuries: God gives tremendous blessings, which eventually leads to the Jews becoming “fat and rebellious”. They forget “the God who delivered” them (32:18). This is precisely when God hides His face (32:20), and just as the Jews provoked God with their foolishness and assimilation, God in turn “provokes [them] with a foolish nation”. God sends a wicked foreign nation to punish the Jews—whether Babylonians or Romans, Cossacks or Nazis—to remind the Jews who they are supposed to be: a righteous, Godly people; a light unto the nations. If the Jews will not be righteous and divine, God has no use for them.

Having said that, this does not exonerate those Cossacks and Nazis, for they, too, have been judged. They are a “foolish nation”, a “non-people”, who themselves merit destruction, and God “will avenge the blood of His servants” (32:43). The song ends with a promise: Israel will atone and fulfil its role, its enemies will be defeated, and God will restore His people to their land.

The Spiritual Power of Ha’azinu

The song of Ha’azinu beautifully summarizes the purpose and history of the Jewish people, and elegantly lays down the responsibilities, benefits, and consequences of being the nation tasked with God’s mission. Not surprisingly then, God wanted all of Israel to know Ha’azinu very well, and meditate upon this song at all times. This is why it was given in the format of a song, since songs are much easier to memorize and internalize then words alone. Music has the power to penetrate into the deepest cores of our souls.

In fact, the Zohar on this parasha writes that music is the central way to elevate spiritually, and can be used to attain Ruach HaKodesh, the prophetic Divine Spirit. Elsewhere, the Zohar goes so far as to say that Moses’ prophecy was unique in that all other prophets needed music to receive visions, while Moses alone could prophesy without the help of song!

Today, we have scientific evidence that music deeply affects the mind. It triggers the release of various neurotransmitters, and can rewire the brain. It has a profound impact on mood and wellbeing, and can be used to induce all sorts of mental and emotional states. Music is powerful.

And so, the Torah concludes with a song. After relaying Ha’azinu, the Torah says that “Moses finished speaking all of these words to Israel” (32:45). The lyrics were the last of the Torah’s instructions. Indeed, Ha’azinu is the last weekly Torah reading in the yearly cycle. (Although there is one more parasha, it is not read on its own Shabbat, but on the holiday of Simchat Torah, at which point we jump right ahead to Beresheet, the first parasha.)

So important is Ha’azinu that it is always read during the High Holiday period, usually on Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Repentance, or Return. So important is Ha’azinu that it is most often the first parasha read in the New Year. And so important is Ha’azinu that it was commonly believed the entire Torah is encoded within it. When our Sages derived the mitzvah of writing the Torah from the command of writing Ha’azinu, they literally meant that Ha’azinu encapsulates the whole Torah! The Ramban went so far as to teach that all of history, including the details of every individual, is somehow encrypted in Ha’azinu. This prompted one of the Ramban’s students, Rabbi Avner, to abandon Judaism and become an apostate. In a famous story, the Ramban later confronts Avner, and proves that Avner’s own name and fate is embedded in one of Ha’azinu’s verses.

In past generations, many people customarily memorized Ha’azinu. The Rambam (Hilkhot Tefillah 7:13) cites another custom to recite Ha’azinu every morning at the end of Shacharit, and the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 31a) states that in those days it was read every Shabbat. This Shabbat, take the time to read Ha’azinu diligently, and see why it was always considered the most important Torah reading. Perhaps you will even find your own life encoded in its enigmatic verses.

Wishing everyone a sweet and happy new year! Shana tova v’metuka! 

Yom Ha’Atzmaut Through Torah: Uniting the Secular and the Religious

Today is the 5th of Iyar, Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day.* It was on this day in 1948 that David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel. Immediately, the armies of three neighbouring Arab states – Egypt, Jordan, and Syria – declared war and invaded. Iraq and Saudi Arabia sent in additional forces. Lebanon assisted them as well. Yemen, Pakistan, and Sudan sent in even more volunteer fighters. On top of that, there were fighters of the Holy War Army – essentially a local Arab militia composed of over 1300 troops – as well as the Arab Liberation Army, with over 6000 troops from various Arab states. Despite being completely surrounded, outnumbered, and outgunned, the nascent State of Israel miraculously destroyed its enemies in just under 10 months.

HaRav David Cohen and HaRav Tzvi Yehuda Kook among soldiers at the newly-liberated Western Wall in 1967

HaRav David Cohen and HaRav Tzvi Yehuda Kook among soldiers at the newly-liberated Western Wall in 1967

The miracles did not stop there. In 1967, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq amassed 550,000 troops to “drive Israel into the sea”. With less than half of those numbers, Israel launched a pre-emptive strike that decimated the Arab forces in six days. Jerusalem was reclaimed, allowing Jews to freely and securely visit their most holy sites for the first time in centuries. The miracles continued through the Yom Kippur War of 1973, and even through the 1991 Gulf War (which Israel did not directly take part in), and continue in this day. Ben-Gurion’s famous words are fitting: “In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.”

Despite the fact that Jews once more have an independent state that is strong and prosperous – for the first time since the Maccabees defeated the Greeks and established the Hasmonean kingdom over 2000 years ago – there have been many, particularly in the Orthodox Jewish world, that have opposed the State. This opposition comes in various degrees, from those that simply don’t support the secular government; to those that refuse to participate in state programs, military or national service, and the like; to those that completely side with Anti-Israel groups bent on annihilating the State. Although, of course, the State of Israel is very far from perfect, and its secularization often takes reprehensible forms, opposing the State makes little sense, particularly in light of what Jewish holy texts tell us.

Meanwhile, the ultra-secular elements in Israel, who strive to expunge Judaism, make even less sense, considering that the only claim Jews have to the land is tied to the Torah – the fact that God gave us this land, and we are its indigenous people because we inhabited it in Biblical times. Without the Bible, what claim does a secular person have to live in Israel? Moreover, the secular are blinding themselves to the miracle that is Israel, failing to see God’s hand in every step of its history.

By properly exploring Israel’s miraculous existence, the gap between the secular and the religious may be bridged. The former can see the validity of God and His Torah, while the latter can see the State of Israel as a fulfilment of Biblical prophecy.

Prophecy Fulfilled

IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren at the newly-liberated Western Wall in 1967

IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren at the newly-liberated Western Wall in 1967

A look through history makes it clear: if it were not for God’s incredible miracles, the State of Israel would have never gotten off its feet, nor would it have survived to this day. God promises us in the Torah (Leviticus 26:8): “And five of you shall chase a hundred, and a hundred of you shall chase ten thousand; and your enemies shall fall before you by the sword.” This is precisely what has happened in every single war that Israel has participated in. In 1948, Israel tragically suffered 6000 casualties, while the Arabs suffered over 20,000. In 1967, Israel suffered as many as 983, but the Arabs over 24,000. In 1973, Israel was surprise-attacked on Yom Kippur – completely unprepared for battle – faced with an invasion that had over one million troops from literally all over the world, including nearly 4000 from Cuba! In comparison, Israel had maybe 400,000, reservists included. The highest estimates place 2800 Israeli casualties, yet once more, 20,000 among the instigators. In one famous story from this war, 150 Syrian tanks went up against just 3 Israeli tanks left with no ammo in the Golan Heights. The Syrians suddenly retreated in a panic, possibly thinking it was an ambush. One Syrian soldier would later claim that they were swarmed by an army of angels.

It isn’t just in military victories that God has clearly blessed the State. In under 70 years, Israel has flourished and is among the most developed and prosperous countries in the world. Isaiah prophesized (35:1-2): “The wilderness and the parched land shall be glad; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose. It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice… they shall see the glory of Hashem, the excellency of our God.” Indeed, Israel and its parched lands have blossomed abundantly. It is now self-sufficient in its food production (meaning no one will starve if Israel stops all imports of food) and exports over $1.3 billion in food every year.

Israel exports a great deal of innovation and technology, too, and is a global leader in science. Its high-tech sector, appropriately nicknamed “Silicon Wadi”, is second only to Silicon Valley. Despite its short existence, Israel ranks 12th in per capita Nobel prizes – higher than Canada, Germany, and the US. (There are nearly 400 million Arabs across 22 countries, and altogether they have 6 Nobel Prizes, while 6 million Jews in Israel have won 12.) There is no doubt that Israel, with God’s blessing, has lived up to the Biblical ideal of being a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6).

History makes it clear that the establishment and survival of the State of Israel is nothing short of a divine miracle, and would not happen were it not for God’s support. Indeed, before Moses passed away, he sang his final song to the people, and told them: “Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations…” (Deut. 32:7) Consider the historical facts: does history not make it so plainly obvious? “How could one chase away a thousand… if not for Hashem who delivers them up?” (Deut. 32:30) Is it logical that 3 tanks can scare off 150? That a million invaders can be subdued by thousands? Is it not obvious that God is orchestrating it?

A Land That Vomits

Finally, the Torah also tells us a well-known principle: the land of Israel is holy, and “vomits out” anyone who does not deserve to live there. In light of this, the great Moroccan sage Rabbi Avraham Azulai (c. 1570-1643) wrote in his Chessed L’Avraham (Ma’ayan 3, Nahar 12):

And you should know, every person who lives in the Land of Israel is considered a tzadik, including those who do not appear to be tzadikim. For if he was not righteous, the land would expel him, as it says ‘a land that vomits out its inhabitants.’ (Lev. 18:25) Since the land did not vomit him out, he is certainly righteous, even though he appears to be wicked.

Thus, all Israelis – secular and religious – are righteous in their way, and for any one side to label the other as “wicked” is incorrect, and perhaps even sinful. We mustn’t forget that the Holy Temple was destroyed because of sinat hinam, baseless hatred and incessant infighting. Instead of opposing one another, we should all strive to support one another, and make Israel – the one homeland that we all have – the best that it can be. Instead of segregating, the orthodox should open their doors to show the beauty of Judaism, and inspire a return to traditional values and sage wisdom. Instead of imposing, the secular can open their arms and inspire unity and progress. And most importantly, we should all take the words of this week’s parasha to heart: “And you shall love your fellow as yourself – I am God.”

*Note: although Yom Ha’Atzmaut officially falls today, it was celebrated yesterday in order to avoid conflicting with the Sabbath.

Abraham’s Revolution & the Purpose of the Jewish People

This week in the parasha of Lech Lecha we begin reading the story of Abraham, the principal forefather of the Jewish people. Abraham is considered history’s first Jew, being the one to whom the covenant of circumcision was first given, together with the Promised Land. The most pertinent question to ask is: why Abraham? What exactly was it that Abraham did to merit being the first Jew? What was so unique about him that made him the forefather of an entire nation, not to mention a multitude of other nations, too? (This is the meaning of his Hebrew name, as Rashi explains on verse 17:5 that Avraham stands for Av Hamon Goyim – “father of many nations”.)

The most common answer that is suggested is that Abraham was the first monotheist, and introduced monotheism to the world. A quick look through the Torah negates this argument very quickly. For instance, we know that Abraham’s life overlapped with that of Noah, who was obviously a monotheist, having communicated directly with God. Jewish tradition holds that Noah’s son Shem had a yeshiva, together with his grandson Ever, where our forefathers studied, and which long pre-existed Abraham’s arrival onto the scene. Earlier, we see that Enoch “walked with God”, too. There are many more examples we can bring to show that Abraham was certainly not the first monotheist, nor was he the first to teach monotheism to the world.

We must find another answer then, and to do this it may be easier to begin with another question: why is there a Jewish people at all? Why is there a need for a “Chosen People”, and what exactly are the Jewish people chosen for?

Back to the Garden of Eden

Originally, God had created man in a perfect world of no evil. There was no Judaism in the Garden of Eden; Adam and Eve were certainly not Jews. They chose to introduce evil into the world, and man was thus “expelled” from the Garden. Henceforth, it has been our mission to return to a perfect world—to repair the damage that was done, to remove evil from our midst, and to restore Godliness to the universe. We are in the world of tikkun, “repair”, and since the time of Adam, it has been man’s mission to recreate an immaculate world of pure goodness.

Unfortunately, Adam and Eve were unsuccessful in this task, and so were their immediate descendants. By the third generation, the Torah tells us that people began to profane the name of God. By the tenth, the world was full of corruption and immorality. Instead of repairing the world, people were only damaging it further. In last week’s parasha, we read how God essentially hit the “restart” button, yet promised to never do so again. The reason for this is fairly plain: God created the world for us; an infinite God requires nothing for Himself. It makes little sense for God to continue recreating the world if Man will keep destroying it. In effect, God was saying that henceforth it is up to man to take care of our own world.

Another ten generations after the Flood, the world was corrupt once more. Since God wouldn’t be destroying it again, from where would the solution come? Who would rise to the challenge? This is where Abraham comes into the picture.

Abraham’s Revolution

From a very young age, Abraham recognized the cruelty that permeates the planet, and made it his life mission to make the world a better place. He quickly deduced that there must be one singular God, and made the effort to find the answers to life’s big questions. But it didn’t end there.

Unlike Shem, Ever, and their kind, Abraham actually wanted to do something about it. Shem and Ever could not confront the rampant idolatry and corruption of their society, so they fled and opened their own secluded yeshiva. All who were interested were welcome to join, but otherwise Shem and Ever were silent.

Abraham, meanwhile, was far more proactive. He understood that man’s mission is to perfect the world. He understood that there is nothing to wait for. Abraham actively entered the battle, fighting the immorality of the day head-on and starting a massive education campaign. Jewish tradition teaches that Abraham built his home along a busy intersection, with a door on each side to make it as easy as possible for people to enter. Food and drink were both abundant and free of charge for all who were willing to listen. Abraham is even said to have written a book of several hundred chapters outlining his arguments against idolatry, immorality, and corruption, while presenting a summary answering the biggest questions of life. Abraham was so passionate about his work that he even risked his life for it. It came to a point where his movement threatened King Nimrod, and the latter threw him into a flaming furnace.

It was only at this point that God stepped in. It is incredible that until this moment, Abraham had done all of that without ever having communicated directly with Hashem. Until then, he was in the same boat as all of us are today—in a world with no prophecy or revealed Godliness; in a world full of immorality and atheism. Nonetheless, his knowledge and faithfulness in God never wavered, nor did he abandon his mission. This is precisely why God chose Abraham. In many ways, it is more appropriate to say that Abraham chose God.

The Chosen People

And this is the true purpose of the Jewish people. We are meant to continue the work that Abraham started nearly four thousand years ago. Like Abraham, the Jews as a whole have always been on the side of righteousness, and morality, regardless of what society said, or how much we were persecuted. A “light unto the nations”, the Jews have revolutionized the world in each generation, moving civilization forward, and bringing it ever closer to a perfect world.

It is no surprise that roughly 25% of Nobel Prize winners are Jewish (despite being just 0.2% of the world’s population!) nor is it surprising that in 2013, the UN passed 21 out of 25 resolutions against Israel. One of the world’s tiniest countries, with a population that makes up just 0.1% of the planet, somehow earns 84% of the world’s resolutions! The world’s eyes are constantly focused on Israel. The Jewish State is held to a far higher standard than any other. The world looks to us for moral guidance, and for higher consciousness (and they are rightly upset when we fail to uphold this ideal).

This is our task as Jews, just as it was the task of Abraham. This is why Abraham was different, and why Abraham was chosen. We are continuing his work in repairing this world and bringing it closer to the primordial state of Eden. And we are finally living in a time where this is no longer just a dream. Technology has brought the world together in a way that was never possible before. Jewish teachings say that every person on Earth will one day hear the shofar of Mashiach. This was once relegated to the category of miracles. Today, it is possible for anyone with a smartphone and an internet connection. The prophets Isaiah (11:9) and Habakkuk (2:14) both state how the era of Mashiach will be one where the world is saturated with knowledge. We are indeed living in a world where we are constantly bombarded with information, and any question can be answered within seconds by a simple Web search. In other words, we are now living these ancient prophecies.

The fulfilment of man’s original mission—the one that Abraham took upon himself, and that the Jewish people have continued throughout the millennia—is nearly upon us.

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For another fascinating perspective on Abraham’s unique contribution to the world, click here to read an article by Rabbi Dr. Akiva Tatz.