‘Haazinu’ – Deuternomy Chapter 32 – is almost the end of the Torah, the five books, and represents what one might call Moses’ ‘Swansong’ – this term is based on the legend that, shortly before it dies, the swan bursts into beautiful song – and then expires.
The song that Moses sings, and teaches the people, is a strange one, a long one, repetitive at times. But it is also a powerful one. He starts by calling out to the heavens and the Earth to listen. God is described as perfect, faithful and just. This is contrasted with the behaviour of the peoples, who too easily forget the blessings that they or their ancestors enjoyed in the past. When the people grew sated and contented – they forgot God. They approached other gods and thanked THEM for their good situation instead and, not unnaturally, this provoked God into an angry reaction. God threatens to destroy the people, for this is what they have deserved. Then in verse 26 comes a remarkable admission of what factor is holding God back from this move: The worry that other people may get a negative impression! Further, that Israel’s enemies might arrogantly assume that they, and they alone should take the credit for this destruction, and that God’s own part might be overlooked! For if Israel is behaving stupidly, Israel’s enemies are, if anything, even more stupid!
This raises many theological issues – not just for the Israelites at the time but for all later Jewish history. Yes, there are many disasters, there are expulsions, defeats, exiles, massacres; cities and temples are destroyed – there are many, many times for despair and for grief. Yet here, says Moses, is the reason why these things could happen: Because God lets them happen, maybe even Makes them happen! Without God’s active participation, none of Israel’s many enemies would be able to triumph over them! They might THINK that they are big and strong and able to conquer Israel and therefore conquer Israel’s God, but in fact they are only able to prevail because Israel’s God has decided that they should – because it is God who wants the people to be punished for their misdeeds.
I confess I find this approach rather simplistic, rather black-and-white, indeed naive – but do we have a better one? Can we find a better explanation for some of the many troubles that have afflicted the Jews over the centuries, than that this is part of a divine plan? One that we do not necessarily understand? Would we rather believe in a God who wanted to stop these things happening but was unable to do so, was too weak, was outmanoeuvered, outnumbered, outgunned?
Of course Theology would be so much easier if the news were always good, if the harvests were always plentiful, the weather just what one wanted, all the neighbouring countries were mild and friendly and peaceable…. If every report from the front indicated yet another resounding victory…. if the country were at endless peace with no sense of threat or danger…… There are and always have been false preachers and false prophets who talk like this….. The trouble is, says Moses, that it is precisely when things are running so well that people are most likely to forget God and forget to be grateful for their blessings; they will instead take them for granted, or they will believe that their success is all due solely to their own efforts….. they will become complacent, ungrateful, proud, arrogant.
It’s a fine balance that is required, between acknowledging that we are responsible for our own actions, and acknowledging that at the same time we are part of God’s creation, that there are rules in the Universe independent of those we make for ourselves. To some extent the current debate about the climate or our planet reflects this. If we become so used to excess and surplus and luxury, to having the right to throw away good food because we are sated, to having the right to use up natural resources that cannot be replaced, to having the right to create complex compounds or machines that are designed to be used only once and then thrown away, to having the right to destroy whatever we fancy at the moment – eventually the time will come when it will become clear that there is a price to be paid. And that time is coming.
The song of Moses does have what might be called a ‘happy ending’ – actually a rather gruesome ending in that the blood that has been spilt will be avenged, that Israel’s enemies, who were used by God to punish Israel, will themselves be punished by God for their brutality. It is not a happy ending in the sense that there will be peace and harmony everywhere and, in fact, there is a horrible quasi-prophetic implication that the cycle may simply continue.
Moses himself, however, will not. Once he has sung this song and taught it he charges the people with the duty of passing on these teachings, and then he prepares for his own death. Whatever comes afterwards will not be HIS problem. He has done all he can to teach, to warn, to prepare the people for what comes next. Now they must take the responsibility for themselves.
And we, today, here, celebrating the Shabbat that falls just after the individual reflection and penitence of Yom Kippur, and just before the beginning of the week of Sukkot, are a part of that continuity too. Something we must never forget.