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Parashat Ha’azinu

September 18, 2023
by Rabbi Matthew Goldstone

A D’var Torah for Parashat Ha’azinu and Shabbat Shuva

By Rabbi Dr. Matthew Goldstone

As we move from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, this week we read Parashat Ha’azinu, Moses’ farewell song. There are many fruitful portions of the parashah upon which to focus, but my attention immediately gravitates to the phrase וַיִּשְׁמַן יְשֻׁרוּן וַיִּבְעָט (“and Yeshurun grew fat and kicked”; Deut. 32:15). While working on my PhD thesis about the commandment of rebuke, this phrase emerged within one of the midrashim I explored from the very beginning of Sifrei Devarim:

“These are the words which Moses spoke, etc.” (Deut. 1:1): Now did Moses prophesy only these? Did he not write the entire Torah, viz. (Ibid. 31:9) “And Moses wrote this Torah”? What, then, is the intent of “These are the words”? We are hereby taught that they were words of rebuke, viz. (Ibid. 32:15) “And Yeshurun grew fat and kicked, etc.”

The midrashic passage begins by asking why the Book of Deuteronomy opens with the limiting statement that these are the words Moses spoke, since Moses is traditionally considered to have written the entire Torah why should only these words be designated as his? The response clarifies that Deuteronomy opens in this manner to teach us that in this part of the Torah Moses specifically offers words of rebuke to the people. The line from our parashah, “and Yeshurun grew fat and kicked,” serves as evidence of this proposition.

The Israelites are addressed through the epithet “Yeshurun,” which Jeffrey Tigay notes “sounds something like” “Israel.”[i] Moreover, Yeshurun appears as an ironic allusion to being “straight” or God-like, an aspiration to which the Israelites failed to live up. The theme of failing to live up to our aspirations resonates strongly at this time of year as we reflect on our past successes and mistakes.

It is interesting to note that our phrase from Deuteronomy also introduces language that metaphorically equates the Israelites to animals, particularly through the act of kicking (וַיִּבְעָט).[ii] As we stand in the midst of the High Holiday season, I can’t help but think of another place in which we are compared with animals – the iconic words from the וּנְתַנֶּה תֹּקֶף liturgy:

וְכָל בָּאֵי עוֹלָם יַעַבְרוּן לְפָנֶיךָ כִּבְנֵי מָרוֹן כְּבַקָּרַת רוֹעֶה עֶדְרוֹ מַעֲבִיר צֹאנוֹ תַּחַת שִׁבְטוֹ כֵּן תַּעֲבִיר וְתִסְפֹּר וְתִמְנֶה וְתִפְקֹד נֶפֶשׁ כָּל חָי

“and all creatures shall parade before you as a herd of sheep. As a shepherd herds his flock, directing his sheep to pass under his staff, so do you pass, count, and record the souls of all living” [High Holiday Mahzor].

In this liturgical unit we are considered like sheep being counted by a Shepherd who also assesses our misdeeds. I would posit that the words from Deuteronomy, coupled with rabbinic tradition, can perhaps yield a slightly different perspective on this judgement metaphor.

In Deuteronomy 32:15 it is the act of kicking that seems to particularly mark the Israelites as akin to animals. In the area of tort law, the early rabbis understood kicking to be an unexpected act by a domesticated animal for which the owner carries some liability for the resulting damage (Mishnah Bava Kamma 1:4 and 2:1). Applying this framework to our phrase from Deuteronomy and the High Holiday liturgy, both the animal (Israel) and God (as the “owner”) bear partial responsibility for the former’s misdeeds.[iii] The Israelite audience of the rebuke is not total culpable. Yet, their animalization also emphasizes the extremely base and vulgar nature of their actions. Unlike humans who have the capacity for rational thought and reflection, the rabbis believed animals do not know the difference between right and wrong.[iv] Hence, on the one hand, the animalization of the rebuked people in Deuteronomy criticizes them for not employing their rational faculty to do the right thing. But, on the other hand, if they are animals, then the Israelites cannot be held fully accountable for their actions. These contrasting orientations chastise and debase while simultaneously acquitting or at least blunting the force of the rebuke. In the context of the High Holiday metaphor, this suggests that the misdeeds of the sheep are a shared responsibility with the Shepherd. We are responsible for our actions (both good and bad) but that responsibility is not ours to bear alone, we share that responsibility with God.


If there is shared responsibility for our actions then there is also shared responsibility for our teshuvah. What this looks like may be different for each of us. Some may need Divine support to take a first step. Others may need Divine acknowledgement and affirmation of our repentance successes. For all of us though, I find this to be a helpful reminder that we are not alone – even on our very individual paths to teshuvah.

Shabbat shalom and Gemar hatimah tovah!

[i] Tigay, Deuteronomy, 306. The epithet “Yeshurun” also appears one chapter later in Deuteronomy (after the blessings of the individual tribes) where it refers to the Israelites as a whole (Ibid., 334).

[ii] Driver, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Deuteronomy, 361. Later in Sifre Devarim this portion of Deut. 32:15 is followed by a parable of a calf which breaks the yolk placed upon it by its master.

[iii] According to Mishnah Bava Kamma 2:6, a human is always considered completely liable for his actions whether purposeful or unintentional. By contrast, from the animal’s perspective, the owner is generally responsible for the actions of their livestock (Mishnah Bava Kamma 1:2). In our case, as God is the “owner” of the Israelites, God bears some of the responsibility for their misdeeds.

[iv] See Weiss, Sifra deve Rav, 92b for an explicit statement to this affect in comparing animals to people.


Rabbi Matthew Goldstone, PhD, is the Assistant Academic Dean at the Academy for Jewish Religion where he teaches courses in Talmud and Jewish Law. Rabbi Goldstone is the author of The Dangerous Duty of Rebuke: Leviticus 19:17 in Early Jewish and Christian Interpretation