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Parashat Ha’azinu – 5783

October 6, 2022

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Ha’azinu
By Rabbi Matthew Goldstone

Our parasha this week begins with calling heaven and earth as witnesses (see Deut. 31:28) as Moses sings his final song to the people. The natural imagery continues as Moses compares his words to rain and dew, and refers to God as the Rock (צור). This past week many of us have had rains on our mind as Hurricane Ian ravaged portions of Florida. Within the biblical theology of our parasha, such natural disasters are understood as an expression of divine displeasure at our sinful actions (e.g., Deut. 32:18-24). For many modern inheritors of the Hebrew Bible, however, such a theology no longer resonates and can even be offensive – particularly when employed as a weapon by religious extremists. So what meaning can we draw from our parasha’s conception of our relationship to the natural world for today?

The natural world serves as a guiding reference throughout Parashat Ha’azinu. At the beginning of Moses’ song, he invokes heaven and earth as almost autonomous beings that pay attention to his discourse and, at the close of his poetic recitation, he references God cleansing the land (Deut. 32:43). At the end of the parasha as a whole, Moses closes by referring to the land that will be given to the Israelites as an inheritance (Deut. 28:52).

These three references present us with three different frameworks for thinking about the natural world’s relationship to both us and God. The opening instance treats heaven and earth as free agents that may decide to listen to what Moses has to say – or may not. Neither God nor humanity is presented as a controlling force. Rather, the celestial and terrestrial realms make their own decisions for how to respond to human requests. In the second reference at the end of Moses’ poem, God is the primary subject, who acts upon the earth. This verse employs the verb כפר, which is quite apropos for our having observed יום כיפור this week. In the final mention of the world at the very end of the parasha, the focus is on land that is given to humanity, specifically the Land of Israel for the Children of Israel. This land is presented as our inheritance (Deut. 32:47) and is thus, at least partially, our responsibility.

These three guiding references offer us the possibility of an alternative paradigm for thinking about our conception of the natural world and its relationship to our actions. To some degree, the land is given over to us and is our responsibility. When we use excess amounts of energy, create massive amounts of carbon emissions, and ravage our natural resources we contribute to climate change and related natural disasters. But, while we have a responsibility to strive towards greater sustainability and protect the natural world, the creative and destructive forces of nature are not solely dependent upon our actions. Some natural events may be within the purview of the divine will and perhaps can be swayed by our prayers and petitions. Other phenomena may stem from the natural world as an autonomous system that does not directly depend upon the actions of others, be they human or divine.

As we are confronted by natural disasters such as Hurricane Ian, reading our parasha this week from a modern perspective allows us to respond in more nuanced ways than our ancestors. We must recognize and act upon our role in sustaining the environment without unduly placing blame on the human realm for those things that are beyond our control. As we transition from Yom Kippur, the period of great self-reflection upon our actions, to the holiday of Sukkot, on which we direct our attention to the natural world and pray for rain, may we be more attuned to our relationship with the natural world – putting in the effort to strengthen that relationship in the ways that we can while remaining humble enough to recognize the phenomena that our beyond our control.
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.