Parashat Ha’azinu 5780

A D’var Torah for Parashat Ha’azinu
By Rabbi Isaac Mann

Moses’ final message to the assembled Israelite people came in the form of a poetic song (shirah) that described in brief the spiritual history of their relationship with the Almighty. As with all poetry, what appears to be a simple, readily understood expression can upon careful examination actually contain layers of deeper meaning. One such verse is the following (Deut. 32:6):

“Do you thus requite the Lord, O vile people and unwise (am naval ve’lo hakham)? Is He not your father who has created you, who fashioned you and made you endure?”

The word naval, which is found only twice in the Pentateuch (in this verse and again a few verses later, in v. 21), denotes a person or a nation that repays its benefactor with evil. It is used most famously to refer to the husband of Avigail in the Book of Samuel (I Samuel, chap. 25), who was criticized for being an ingrate. Thus, in our passage the Jewish nation is similarly castigated for its ingratitude to the God who chose it, favored it and treated it in loving ways (see, e.g., Rashi ad loc.). In v. 21, the word naval has a more sinister connotation referring to a vile nation (goy naval) that God would send to cause distress to Israel because the latter provoked God by worshipping false deities.

Interestingly, Targum Onkelos does not translate naval in our passage but rather interprets it – da ama de’kabilu Orayta v’la hakimu, which means “a nation that received the Torah and are not wise.” This is in contrast to his rendering of naval in verse 21 as tafsha* (in reference to the nation that will afflict Israel). At first glance, the Targum’s phraseology seems to be almost blasphemous. How could it be said that after accepting God’s Torah the people remained unwise? Of course, the real meaning is that their being unwise was not a result of accepting the Torah but despite their acquiring it. As to why the Targum did not translate naval in verse 6 as he did in the later verse, one might suggest that Onkelos was reluctant to apply the same pejorative designation to the Jewish people, who are the subject of our verse, as the Torah applies to the persecuting enemy nation, which is the subject of verse 21. He therefore mitigates the severity of having the same Biblical adjective applied to both through his careful interpretation of the former rather than a straight translation.

In contrast to the plain reading of the text, according to which the Israelite nation is faulted for not adhering to the dictates of the Torah despite the wisdom contained therein, we find an alternative interpretation, which might speak more directly to us. Rabbi Joseph Saul Nathanson** (d. 1875), a prominent rabbinic authority in Galicia, suggested that the interpretation of the Targum can and should be understood as Moses criticizing the Jewish people not for disobeying the Torah’s commandments but rather for not adhering to the spirit and values that underlie the Torah’s instructions. He refers to Nahmanides’ interpretation of kedoshim ti’hiyu (“You shall be holy” – Lev. 19:2), in which he uses the term of naval bir’shut ha-Torah (a despicable person acting within the letter of the Law) to describe the behavior that the Torah condemns in its directive to the people to be holy.

Holiness, suggests the great medieval commentator, comes from moderation and self-restraint in behavior that is permitted. Excessive indulgence in physical pleasure, e.g. eating large quantities of meat, drinking wine to excess, engaging in ceaseless sexual activity (with one’s spouse), etc. are examples of activity that negate holiness and render such a person a naval bir’shut ha-Torah. If he were writing in our day and age, perhaps Nahmanides would have also included endless TV watching and cellphone texting.

Moses thus castigates the Jewish people, according to this interpretation, and refers to them as am naval for not rising to the level of holiness that the Torah demands of us. Adhering to the letter of the law without regarding its spirit and the values that underlie it falls short of what God expects of us. To be a wise nation – an am hakham – requires us not only to follow the details of the laws of the Torah but also its spirit. Then and only then can we truly be called a wise nation.

* tafsha is similar to the Hebrew word tipesh, meaning ‘stupid’ or ‘foolish’.

**Note: My comments are based on R Nathanson’s interpretation that is quoted in Peninei Torah, by R. Shlomo Yahalomi.
Rabbi Isaac Mann is a former member of AJR’s Rabbinic faculty. He is currently the rabbi of the Austrian Shul on the Upper West Side and serves as chaplain at Metropolitan Hospital and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.