Ha'azinu 2016 - 5777

Post date: Oct 14, 2016 2:32:59 PM

10/14/2016, 13 Tishrei 5777

Parshat Ha’azi’nu

“Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

This Shabbat, like Shabbat Shuvah last week, falls in the midst of many chagim – many holidays. We have moved through Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and now enter a z’man simchateinu – a time of our rejoicing – as Sukkot approaches. In the journey of our people through the desert and into the land of Israel, this is the penultimate chapter. Being almost the end of one journey, and a transition into the next, this week’s parsha, Ha’azi’nu, is an odd one.

The majority of the Torah portion this week (which is actually only one chapter in the book of Devarim) is devoted to a poem. In some places, there is rhyme, and in all places, there is a unique and unusual cadence not found in the rest of the book of Devarim. The poem is spoken by Moshe, said to the people Israel, and will be one of the last things he utters before his death.

Moshe uses metaphors and imagery to convey the story of a relationship – the relationship between God and the people Israel. Beginning with God’s relationship with Abraham, the poem moves to recounting the strange gods that the Israelites sacrificed to, presumably referencing the golden calf they created in the desert. Moshe talks about God as so viciously angry that God says:

“I will heap evils upon them; I will spend Mine arrows upon them; The wasting of hunger, and the devouring of the fiery bolt, and bitter destruction; and the teeth of beasts will I send upon them, with the venom of crawling things of the dust; … I thought I would make an end of them, I would make their memory cease from among men.”

The message does not become much more pleasant from here. And then, to end the parsha on an even more grim note, God instructs Moshe – after he has finished relaying this poem to the people Israel – to go up to Mount Nebo to die.

When reading this parsha, it was hard not to feel badly for Moshe – he is reminded over and over of his previous wrongdoings, and his eventual punishment of not being permitted to enter the land of Israel. And now, as the moment of his death approaches, he has only this terribly depressing poem from an angry God.

Here, I think it is form that triumphs over function. It is difficult to read the translation of this week’s parsha in English, but there is something, somehow different when reading it in Hebrew. The gentle rhythm and meter of the Hebrew belies the anger hidden in the words. And isn’t this what we do in our daily lives? We couch our message, sandwich negative comments with praise, and make liberal use of euphemisms to disguise our true intent.

I don’t believe this is always something negative. When we need to say something, we need it also to be heard. Sometimes, a message can only be absorbed when given gently. Poetry, verse, and song – these allow us to convey what must be told, in a way that can be heard. Sometimes, comedy is a vehicle to let us bear our most difficult situations.

Or as Robert Sherman said so sweetly in the iconic Mary Poppins song, “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, in the most delightful way.”

-Yvonne Asher