Parshat Ha'azinu/Shabbat Shuva 5764
October 3rd-4th, 2003
8 Tishrei, 5764
It’s undeniable that failure is hard to handle...but success just may be
even more hazardous to our spiritual health. And One Who is even a greater
authority than the Surgeon General has informed us of this important
In this week’s portion, Moshe recites the beautiful words of an
extraordinary "song" (shira) "into the ears of the entire congregation of
Israel." This "song," communicated to Moshe by Hashem, prophetically
outlines our entire history as a people: our devotion to G-d in the
Wilderness of Sinai ("Hashem alone guided them, and no other power was
with them"), our subsequent disloyalty in the Land of Israel ("You ignored
the Rock Who gave birth to you, and forgot G-d Who brought you forth"),
our lengthy and ongoing exile among the nations ("…I will scatter them"),
and, finally, the ultimate redemption of our people ("When Hashem will
have judged His people, He shall relent regarding His servants…").
As the song makes clear (and as we Jews must always remember), even during
the time when our people strayed from the path of the Torah, and
experienced persecutions, our Covenant with G-d (and His special guidance
of our destiny) never ceased. Nor will it ever cease. [The Torah leaves no
doubt about this whatsoever, in very many places.]
Now, according to the words of this shira, what caused us to weaken in our
service of G-d in our homeland, and led us to experience (as a
consequence) the destruction of our Temples and the discomfort of exile?
Though many details of our spiritual history are provided in the books of
our Prophets, the Torah here zeroes in on the basic core of the "problem"
faced by the Jewish people:
"Butter of cattle and milk of sheep with fat of lambs…with wheat
as fat as kidneys; and you would drink
blood of grapes, delicious wine. Yeshurun [a
poetic name for Israel, related to the word yashar--"straight" or
"upright"] became fat and kicked. You became
fat, you became thick, you became corpulent—and
it [Israel] deserted G-d its Maker…" (32: 14-15;
In short, the problem that provided so very hazardous to our spiritual
health as a people was…material success, the physical blessings we enjoyed
in abundance in our beloved "Land of Milk and Honey." Our fervor in
keeping the Torah--clinging to its commandments, treasuring its holy
words--weakened as we enjoyed the "fats" of the Land. We allowed those
"fats" to clog our spiritual arteries, as it were, to deaden our ethical
sensitivity and entice us to pursue further pleasures…and, ultimately, to
follow foreign gods. For many of our ancestors, our lofty spiritual
mission--to be a "light unto the nations," and "people of holiness"--began
to take a back seat to enjoyment of the "good life."
Judaism does not glorify poverty, of course: it was always considered by
our Sages to be a very great potential disability. A poor person might
lack the peace of mind to serve G-d properly and carry out the Torah, or
he might be tempted to turn to thievery (or, at the very least, a
demeaning life of begging from other people) in order to survive. What’s
more, wealth has tremendous potential to be used for good, to be
sanctified by being spent on mitzvos (helping the needy, supporting Torah
education, etc.). The fewer financial resources available to us, the fewer
opportunities to do good with one’s wealth.
On the other hand--and a sizeable hand it is, indeed--our Sages (and later
ethical masters) saw material success as perhaps the more lethal spiritual
threat, potentially. After all, a wealthy person has the means, and often
the time, to pursue every manner of interesting (and frequently unhealthy)
hobby and entertainment. The pleasures of this beautiful world are there
for his taking…and that often proves to be too great a temptation for a
person with insufficient grounding in yiras shamayim (fear of Heaven).
Luxuries delight the body, but they can have the effect of dulling our
appreciation for the beauty of our spiritual treasure, the Torah, and can
lessen our appetite to work hard to achieve the Torah’s high expectations.
Certainly in our history as a people, the commentators point out, it has
been those periods of great material success that have more often weakened
our adherence to Torah than the times of poverty. Yeshurun became fat and
kicked…or, at other times, drifted away from G-d and Torah, to seek to
blend into the way of life of the other nations.
It could be that this is the very state in which we find ourselves as a
community today…at least in these (wonderful) United States of America.
Has there ever been a time in our history when we have had it so good,
materially speaking?! Have we ever been as fat (obese) as a people…in
every sense of the word?!
The solution is not to deny the great blessings we have been granted, or
ascetically shun the (permitted) pleasures they afford. Rather, we must
learn the lesson taught in this week’s parsha, and not let these material
blessings lead us away from G-d. We must strive to use the wealth we enjoy
to help us get closer to G-d! To increase our expression of gratitude unto
the Almighty, to increase the good deeds and Torah study (and spiritual
elevation in general) that wealth is ideally supposed to facilitate!
Wealth and success are, indeed, a great nisayon (spiritual "test," or
"challenge"), and we must strengthen ourselves so that they don’t become
our spiritual destruction. (That said, I do wish I had been the one to win
the recent $150 Million lottery, so I could have given that particular
nisayon my best shot!)
Rabbi Samson Raphael
Hirsch, in his commentary on this portion, writes movingly of the
challenge of success…and of the Torah’s vision for its proper use. There
is a crucial lesson for us to learn here, so I will quote him at length:
"…G-d wished Israel to ascend the summit of the dual heights of human
aims, the highest material good fortune and the
highest spiritual and moral perfection.
For Israel is to show the world an illuminating example of how a
life devoted entirely to spiritual moral
duties by no means entails a renunciation of
bright earthly happiness. On the contrary…the
highest degree of morality fits in very
well with the highest amount of earthly
happiness, and all material wealth and earthly
enjoyments can be turned into moral deeds and
spiritual achievements. But when the destined
Yeshurun-people get an abundance of all the good things
on earth for the purpose of fulfilling
this mission, when it has come out of the
wilderness into the land of milk and honey, then
[as we read here in the prophetic song] it
became fat and "kicked out." …Its moral
improvement did not keep pace with its material
good fortune. It did not understand how to
remain master of its riches and good fortune,
did not know how to use them for purposes of
mitzvos, and its better, spiritual, moral
self [was] ruined by it."
We should think about that as long as (G-d willing) our riches and good
fortune in this country last. And I hope we can increasingly learn to use
the good fortune we enjoy to improve our spiritual, moral, Jewish selves!
This is the Sabbath before Yom Kippur, known traditionally as Shabbos
Shuva (the Sabbath of Repentance). On the Day of Atonement, we stand
before G-d and plead for our lives: both our physical lives (and
conditions) in the coming year, and our spiritual lives. We pray to G-d to
restore us to our spiritual purity. We come before him emphasizing not how
rich, but how poor we are in all that really matters: how much we depend
on Him for everything we enjoy, how much we need His help to renew in us
the insight and sensitivity and strength to utilize our lives to pursue
what is holy. We have all been "fat," or spiritually insensitive, in the
past year (to one degree or another), we have all "kicked" against the
kindness of G-d! Now is the time to gird our loins…and humble our hearts.
And return lovingly to the spiritual riches of closeness to G-d, loyalty
to the Torah and love of what is good.
What is good? The Torah told us last week, in Parshas Nitzavim: "…to love
Hashem, your G-d, to walk in His ways, to observe His Commandments, His
decrees, and His ordinances…so that you will live, you and your
offspring…for He is your life and the length of your days."
May we all enjoy much success in the coming year, and may we utilize our
lives to choose what is Holy and what is Good…rather than get distracted
(or demolished), as our ancestors sometimes did, by the "good life."
My e-mail address is email@example.com
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