Sermons and Parsha'iot     Parshat Ha'Azinu: Deuteronomy 32:1-52, 
                               Parshat V'Zot Ha Brakha: Deuteronomy 33:1 - 34:12

Summary 

Parshat Ha’azinu, Deuteronomy 32, is the shortest parasha in the Torah. It consists of only one chapter of just fifty-two lines. The first 47 lines are a poem (or a song; it’s not clear which medium it was intended to be) that Moses sings at the threshold of the Promised Land, within hearing distance of all the people of Israel. Ha’azinu hashamayim, he begins. “Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; let the earth hear the words I utter!” Moses calls upon “heaven and earth,” i.e., everything, to witness that God is true and just; it’s Israel who is deceitful. In beautiful poetic language, the poem describes how God brought Israel out of the wilderness and fed Israel from the bounties of the land. God created and sustained the people in the desert. Israel (called here Jeshurun) became complacent and arrogant and worshipped other gods, spurning God’s covenant. The poem describes God’s anger and the punishments which Israel will face because of its perfidy. The poem ends with denouncing the useless gods of the Canaanites. After the end of the poem, Moses tells the people that they must remain devoted to the Torah, since “this is not a trifling thing for you; it is your very life.” The parasha closes dramatically with God’s directing Moses to ascend Mount Nebo and look at the Promised Land. God tells Moses that he will die on the mountain.

Commentary

Deuteronomy 32:7, “Ask your father, he will inform you, Your elders, they will tell you,” is the basis for the commandment to kindle the Chanukah lights According to the Talmud (Shabbat 23a), this verse says that your father and elders will tell you of God’s miracles, obligating you to light the Chanukah candles. This parasha has another connection with Chanukah: Six times, it refers to God as a “Rock”; and the expression “tzur yeshuati” – the “Rock of my salvation” – was incorporated into the Chanukah song “Maoz Tzur.”

Some Thoughts and Questions

  1. God is referred to as a “Rock” six times in the poem. What qualities does this conjure up? (Don’t just think “solid”…) Can you think of other names for God that are used in the Torah or in the siddur? (Some examples are: “Source of life,” “Creator of light,” “Shepherd,” “Maker of peace,” “Shield,” “Redeemer,” “Healer,” “Friend,” “Mother or Father.”) How can God have so many different names? Do you have a special name that you call God? 

  2. The phrase “That very day” appears three times in the Torah: Genesis 7:13, when Noah gets on the ark “that very day”; Exodus 12:41, when the Hebrews left Egypt “that very day”; and in Deuteronomy 32:48, when God tells Moses to ascend Mount Nebo to die “that very day.” Our sages have provided a code for the words “that very day.” They mean that an event happened despite tremendous opposition and threat. Thus, Noah entered the ark despite all his contemporaries threatening to kill him and break the ark. The Hebrews left Egypt, despite the Egyptians trying to kill them. What’s the opposition and threat in Deuteronomy 32:48? 

  3. Think of the best teacher you have ever had. What made this person such a great teacher? How did this person use words to express him/herself? Can you think of examples of people whose words are like rain? Like showers? Like dew? 

  4. Moses wants the people to remember their history and all that God has done for them. He tells them to “Ask your father, he will inform you, Your elders, they will tell you” (Deuteronomy 32:7). Why is history important? What Jewish lessons have you learned from your parents or teachers? What history, customs, ideas and values will you want to teach your children someday?

Parshat V'Zot Ha BrakhaHa'Azinu: Deuteronomy 33:1 - 34:12

Summary

V’Zot ha Brachah (“This is the blessing …”), is the final Torah portion. Moses first praises Adonai and notes that the people have accepted the Torah: “Moses commanded us a Torah as a heritage of the congregation of Jacob.” Each tribe is then blessed. The lengthiest blessings go to Levi and Joseph. Only the tribe of Shimon is not mentioned. In Chapter 34, Moses goes up to the top of Mount Nebo from where he views the Promised Land of Canaan. He dies there at the age of 120, “his eyes undimmed and his vigour unabated.” The Israelites mourn Moses for thirty days. The Torah ends with the sentiment that never again would there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses, who knew God face to face. Chazak Chazak V’Nitchazek: Be Strong, Be Strong, May we strengthen one another!

Commentary

  • The first verse of chapter 33, which introduces the poetic blessing of the tribes, but is not part of it, refers to Moses as the “man of God.” This appellation, which is unusual in the written Torah – this is its only occurrence – is much more common in later books of the Tanach. (The rest of the Tanach refers to Moses as “man of God” only four times; others are called by that term as often as 71 times.) Moses is only referred to as a “navi” (prophet) twice in the written Torah. A much more common appellation of Moses in the written Torah is “servant of God.” This appellation of Moses, along with the reference to his death in the third person usage has led many scholars to think that this verse as well as parts of the following verses (v.2 “and he said”; v.7 “and this he said of Judah”; etc.) were written by a later prophet. 

  • The last word of the Torah is “Yisrael” and the last letter of the word “Yisrael” is lamed. The first word of the Torah is “Bereshit” and the first letter of the word “Bereshit” is bet. If you put the lamed and the bet together, the last and first letters of Torah, it spells “lev” which in Hebrew means “heart.” From this we learn that the Torah is the heart of the Jewish people.

Some Thoughts and Questions

  1. Judaism stresses the importance of remembering and memorializing those who have died. The body of one who has died must be treated with respect, buried soon after death, a week of shiva is observed and then an additional 30 days of semi-mourning, followed by a year of saying kaddish. Within a year after the death, a grave marker is erected on the burial site. Kaddish is then recited each year, on the anniversary of the death, and during Yizkor services. This is all done for any Jew, yet Moses, a very special individual within Jewish tradition, has no marked grave and we observe no yahrzeit for him. Why does the text emphasize that the site of Moses’ grave is unknown? How do we as a Jewish people memorialize and honor Moses? How do we honor our own dead without venerating them and without focusing exclusively on their deaths rather than on their lives? 

  2. The Ba’al Shem Tov said, “The purpose of the whole Torah is that each person should become a Torah.” What do you think the Ba’al Shem Tov meant by this statement? What does Torah mean to you and how can you become a Torah? 

  3. What lasting words and feelings did Moses want to leave with the Israelites? In Judaism there is a tradition of writing ethical wills. An ethical will is a personal legacy of values, morals and ethics which an individual wishes to pass on. Have each member of your family take some time to begin writing an ethical will. Things to think about when writing: what ethics, ideals, and behaviors do you cherish which you hope future generations will also come to value?