Tag Archives: Song

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! 

Donald Trump and the Year of the Rooster

This week’s Torah portion is Bo, which describes the last of the plagues on Egypt, the first Passover night, and the long-awaited end to the Israelite captivity. While the parasha recounts the First Redemption, the world is now eagerly awaiting the Final Redemption. This sentiment has become particularly intense since the inauguration of Donald Trump, which seems to have everyone anticipating the End of Days. While some see the new president as a messianic figure, others believe he is another tyrannical pharaoh. It is truly too early to tell which of these Trump will turn out to be. In any case, the world is a very different place now than it was just a few weeks ago.

Chinese Zodiac (Credit: powerofpositivity.com)

Interestingly, all of this coincides with the start of the new, 4715th Chinese year. According to the Chinese Zodiac, we have now entered the “Year of the Rooster”. At first glance, this may appear unrelated to anything that has to do with either geopolitics or Torah. However, there are actually a great number of parallels between the Hebrew Calendar and the Chinese Calendar, and between the ancient teachings of both cultures. [Might there be a deeper connection between Sinai (סיני) and Sin (סין), the Hebrew for “China”?] And the confluence of Trump’s presidency with the Year of the Rooster may in fact be very significant.

The Rooster’s Call

Jewish mystical teachings suggest that all things in the universe – both living and non-living – are constantly singing to their Creator. A popular text called Perek Shirah, “Chapter of Song”, describes what it is that everything in nature is singing to God. Each creation is chanting a unique verse. The first two chapters of Perek Shirah tells us what the stars and skies sing, the seas and rivers, fields and deserts, day and night, Heaven and Earth, wind and rain, and so on. The third chapter speaks of trees and plants; the fourth, fifth, and sixth of different animals. Pretty much all of the species mentioned sing a single verse. However, one organism is given a whopping eight lines: the rooster.

The rooster’s lines are all concerned with God’s final revelation and the World to Come. They are presented in sequence, with the rooster giving a total of seven calls, one after the other. A careful reading shows that these seven calls of the rooster parallel the seven-year narrative of the End of Days given by the Talmud (Sanhedrin 97a):

Our Rabbis taught: in the seven year cycle at the end of which the Son of David will come, in the first year, this verse will be fulfilled: “And I will cause it to rain upon one city and cause it not to rain upon another city” (Amos 9:7); in the second, the arrows of hunger will be sent forth; in the third, a great famine, in the course of which men, women, and children, pious men and saints will die, and the Torah will be forgotten by its students; in the fourth, partial plenty; in the fifth, great plenty, when men will eat, drink and rejoice, and the Torah will return to its disciples; in the sixth, [Heavenly] sounds; in the seventh, wars; and at the conclusion of the septennate the Son of David will come.

Just as the Rabbis prophesy that in the third year “Torah will be forgotten”, the rooster’s third call is to “busy yourselves with Torah, so that your reward in the World to Come shall be doubled.” Just as the Rabbis prophesy that in the seventh year there will be wars, the rooster’s seventh call is to stand up and “act for God”, to battle those that are trying to destroy the Torah. After the wars, the Rabbis say Mashiach ben David will come, and after the rooster’s seventh call, the chicken proclaims God’s everlasting kindness.

A New Star

In the run-up to the presidential election, it was often pointed out that the gematria of Donald Trump (דונלד טראמפ) is 424, the same as Mashiach ben David (משיח בן דוד). I don’t think too many actually believe Trump himself is Mashiach ben David, but many do feel that his presidency will usher in the coming of the messiah. As we saw above, our Sages taught millennia ago that the coming of Mashiach will be preceded by a specific seven year sequence of events, and that the rooster will proclaim its beginnings. It is therefore quite intriguing to point out the convergence of Trump’s presidency with the Year of the Rooster.

The position of the new star, to appear in the “swan” constellation Cygnus

More fascinating still, the Talmud prophesies that in the sixth year there will be signs from Heaven. If 2017 really is the start of the seven year cycle, that makes the sixth year 2022. Recently, astronomers discovered that a “new star” will appear in the night sky in 2022, the result of a massive celestial collision that happened some 1800 years ago. The star will be visible with the naked eye, and will be among the brightest objects in the sky for about six months. Some rabbis have already stated they believe this to be the prophesied star of Mashiach.

Of course, this is all highly speculative, and may indeed be nothing more than coincidence. In the meantime, it is best to heed the rooster’s third call: “Arise, righteous ones, and busy yourselves with Torah, so that your reward in the World to Come shall be doubled.”

Should Jews Believe in Astrology?

This week’s parasha, the second last of the Torah, is Ha’azinu. This parasha is unique in that it consists almost entirely of one lengthy song – clearly visibly when looking at a Torah scroll, where the text of Ha’azinu is split into two narrow columns. Moses sang this prophetic song to the nation right before his passing.

Two columns of parashat Ha'azinu

Two columns of parashat Ha’azinu

In the verses that introduce it (Deut. 31:19), we see God commanding Moses to write the song and “teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it in their mouths so that this song will be for Me a witness for the Children of Israel.” God wanted Moses to diligently teach this song to the entire nation. In fact, the actual wording of the verse has God commanding everyone – each member of the nation – to write the song for themselves. It is based on this verse that the Sages drew the mitzvah of writing a Torah scroll (or participating in writing one), even though the plain text of the verse states only to write this particular song, Ha’azinu.

Perhaps because of this, the Ramban taught that Ha’azinu contains the entire Torah within it. Moreover, he believed that every detail of every person’s life is somehow encoded within this song! In one famous story, when a student of the Ramban, a man named Avner, heard this teaching, he was so baffled by it that he left Judaism entirely, converted to another religion, and became a prominent anti-Semite. When Avner later confronted the Ramban, the Rabbi showed him how one verse in the song did indeed accurately point to this man’s life. Avner was so ashamed that he disappeared, never to be heard from again.

Heavenly Princes

And so, each and every one of the song’s 43 verses has a great deal to teach us. The eighth verse begins by telling us that God gave each nation their lot, and the ninth verse says that “Hashem’s portion is His people, the lot of His inheritance.” The Zohar comments on these words that while God established Heavenly “princes” to watch over every nation in the world, Israel is watched over by God Himself. The Ramban (in his Discourse on Rosh Hashanah) elaborates:

He gave each and every nation… some known star or constellation, as is known by means of the science of astrology… Higher above [the constellations] are the angels of the Supreme One, whom He appointed as “princes” over them… It is further written, “So shall you be My people, and I will be your God, and you will not be subject to other powers at all.” (Jeremiah 11:4)

When we often say that Hashem is our God (as we so in the daily Shema), or when the Tanakh writes that we are God’s people, this does not mean that gentiles cannot have a relationship with God, or that there are other gods out there for the non-Jewish world. Rather, it means that while God oversees absolutely everything in His universe, and has created all people, He has also appointed various Heavenly (or astrological) forces above each nation – except Israel. These forces are not independent in their own right, as they are subject to the angels above them, and these angels ultimately serve God. As such, the nations of the world have various Heavenly intermediaries between themselves and Hashem. Israel, however, has a direct connection to Him. In fact, this is the hidden meaning within the name “Israel” (ישראל), which can be read as yashar El. (ישר-אל), “straight to God”.

Ain Mazal L’Israel

Long before the Ramban, the Sages of the Talmud debated whether the constellations had an effect on people (Shabbat 156a). The consensus of the Rabbis was that constellations do impact people, but Jews are free from this influence. They learn this from the prophet Jeremiah, who prophesied: “Thus said Hashem: Learn not the way of the nations, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the nations are dismayed at them.” (10:2) God tells Israel not to draw meaning from heavenly signs as the other nations do. The Talmud goes on to tell us a story about Abraham, who cried out to God: “Master of the Universe! I have looked at the constellations and find that I am not fated to have children.” To this, God replied: “Stop your star-gazing! Israel has no constellations.”

Hebrew Zodiac from a 6th Century Synagogue

Hebrew Zodiac from a 6th-Century Synagogue

Elsewhere, the Talmud tells us that Abraham was once a powerful astrologer, and great men from around the world came to consult with him about their fortunes (Bava Batra 16b). When Abraham looked into his own fate, he saw that he would not have children. God commanded him to desist from astrology, for the Jewish people have the power to transcend the stars. Of course, Abraham went on to have many children.

Later on, Moses would record in the Torah the prohibition for Jews to consult various fortune-tellers and astrologers. The Rambam codifies the law in this way:

It is forbidden to tell fortunes. [This applies] even though one does not perform a deed, but merely relates the falsehoods which the fools consider to be words of truth and wisdom. Anyone who performs a deed because of an astrological calculation or arranges his work or his journeys to fit a time that was suggested by the astrologers is [liable for] lashes, as [Leviticus 19:26] states: “Do not tell fortunes.” (Sefer HaMadda, Hilchot Avodah Zarah, Chapter 11, Halacha 9)

Transcending Nature

We see from the above that various Heavenly forces, angels, and constellations do exist, and certainly do influence the world. Astrological signs can be potent forces. Ironically, earlier in his discourse, the Ramban points out how astrology is intricately tied into the Jewish calendar: it is no coincidence that Pesach is celebrated in the month of Nisan, the sign of which is Aries (the ram, or sheep), since the main mitzvah of Pesach was to sacrifice a lamb; and it is no coincidence that Rosh Hashanah – judgement day, when each person is put on trial – is in the month of Tishrei, the sign of which is Libra, the scales of justice. The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Shemot 418) even tells us how each of the 12 Tribes of Israel corresponds to one of the 12 astrological signs of the zodiac!

And yet, all the sources are clear: Jews are not to dabble in astrology, for we have no need for intermediaries, and we have all the power to break free from the influence of the constellations. It is precisely when we believe in astrology that it becomes real, just as Abraham had no children as long as he believed in the heavenly signs that he saw. Every Jew must realize that we are Israel, yashar El, and that Hashem alone is our astrological sign. There is no need to believe in what the Rambam calls “emptiness and vanity”. The Rambam ends his laws on this subject by telling us to live up to the Torah’s call (Deut. 18:13) to be of “perfect faith with Hashem, your God.” When one has perfect faith in the Master of the Universe, anything is possible, and this is how God finished his rebuke to Abraham:

“Stop your star-gazing! Ain mazal l’Israel. What is your calculation? Is it because Jupiter stands in the West? Then I will turn it back and place it in the East!”

The Incredible Story of Serach bat Asher

In this week’s parasha, Vayigash, Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers. He then invites the whole family to join him in Egypt, and the Torah records how Jacob’s family of seventy migrates southward. This begins the Jewish people’s sojourn in the land of Egypt, which would end 210 years later with the Exodus.

The identities of the seventy members of Jacob’s family that descended to Egypt are given in verses 46:8-27. Of the seventy, thirteen are his own children (the twelves sons and his sole daughter Dinah). The remaining 57 are Jacob’s grandchildren. In fact, only 56 are actually mentioned. On verse 15, Rashi explains that the unmentioned one is Yocheved, the mother of Moses, who was born during the voyage. (It is also possible that the 57th is Jacob himself, to make a total of 70 family members.)

When reading through the names, we see that of the 56 grandchildren mentioned, just one of them is a girl! This is Serach, the daughter of Asher (recall that Asher was Jacob’s son through Zilpah, original Leah’s handmaiden, and later Jacob’s fourth wife). Naturally, if Serach is the only granddaughter mentioned, there must be something special about her. But that’s not all.

Centuries later, the Torah describes the census that was taken in the wilderness before the Jewish people entered the Holy Land (Numbers 26). Again, we see a long list of names, almost all masculine. And then, amidst the long roster of sons, there is mention of a daughter: Serach bat Asher! This was roughly 250 years after the events of Jacob’s family coming down to Egypt. All the other members of that originally family of 70 had long passed away. Yet Serach’s name is still prominently displayed. What was so special about this woman?

The Immortal Serach

The Midrash describes Serach as a girl with a sweet voice who tended to her grandfather Jacob in his old age. When Joseph sent the brothers back to Israel to bring the whole family to Egypt and inform Jacob that he is still alive, the brothers did not know how to break the news to their father. After all, Jacob was already quite frail, and the shock of hearing such news could have been too much for him to bear. Perhaps the brothers were also afraid of Jacob’s reaction should he learn of their plot to get rid of Joseph many years earlier, and how they showed their father his bloodied tunic to suggest Joseph had died. So, instead of doing it on their own, the brothers asked Serach to find a way to gently reveal the news.

Serach waited while Jacob was praying, then sang the news in a soothing tune with the rhyming lyrics: “Joseph is alive in Mitzraim (Egypt), and has two sons on his knees, Menashe and Ephraim.” For breaking the great news to him, the joyous Jacob blessed Serach: “the mouth that spoke the news of Joseph’s life shall never taste death.”

Serach went on to live an incredibly long life. She lived through the entire time the Jews were in Egypt, as well as the forty-year period in the wilderness. In fact, the Midrash describes her as a sort-of matriarch in Egypt, an authority figure who gave credibility to Moses when he arrived on the scene, and informed the people that he is indeed the redeemer that Joseph spoke of before his death. Moreover, she helped Moses find Joseph’s sarcophagus in Egypt, to fulfil the vow promised to Joseph that his remains will be taken to be buried in Israel.

Later still, Serach is identified with the “wise woman” who helped King David and his general Yoav in one of their battles (II Samuel 20).

The Passing of Serach

Various traditions exist as to when Serach finally left this world. In one version, she lived to be one thousand years old, like Adam and Eve were meant to live, and died around the time that the Assyrians destroyed the Kingdom of Israel, exiling the northern tribes, including her tribe of Asher.

In other versions, she lived on all the way to the Talmudic period. When Rabbi Yochanan (who lived roughly 180-279 CE) was debating how the splitting of the Red Sea looked like, Serach stopped by the yeshiva and explained exactly how it occurred, saying that she had been there.

Another millennium onwards, the Jews of the Persian city of Isfahan (where some of my own ancestors are from, including the originator of the Palvanov family name) believed that Serach lived among them until the 1100s CE! The site of a synagogue named after her, with an adjoining two-thousand year old cemetery that once had a tombstone marking her grave, still exists in Isfahan today, and was a pilgrimage destination for many centuries.

Some say that Serach actually escaped the great fire that consumed that synagogue (once the central synagogue of Isfahan) and that she may still be living! Others say that long ago she was taken up to Heaven alive so that she wouldn’t have to experience death. Some even say that Serach has her own yeshiva in Heaven where she teaches the depths of Torah.

Whatever the case may be, all we can say for sure is that she is the sole granddaughter of Jacob who is explicitly mentioned in this week’s parasha!

To read more about Serach, click here to read Moshe Reiss’ “Serah bat Asher in Rabbinic Literature”.