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Jewish Journal

Restoring Moses

Parshat Ha'azinu (Deuteronomy 32:1-32:52)


by Rabbi Karen Deitsch

October 9, 2008 | 11:53 pm

It isn't nice to say, but if I were hanging out in the desert with my friends -- all excited about moving in to a land of milk, honey and great falafel -- and an old man with a stutter insisted on "speaking into our ears" a weird doom and gloom poem, my likely remark would be: "That dude's got issues."

Had Moses been able to see a psychologist, imagine the intake sheet:

  • Abandonment issues stemming from parental desertion during early infancy;

  • Subconscious association between water and maternal rejection;

  • Repressed resentment toward stepfather;

  • Recurring identity crisis;

  • Homicidal tendencies;

  • Fear of ridicule due to speech impediment and unconventional spiritual practices;

  • Suspicion of women concurrent with post-traumatic stress disorder (note: subject was circumcised in adulthood ... by his wife);

  • Propensity toward introversion (subject at one point spent 40 days alone on a mountain) and anorexia (without eating);

  • Physical insecurity (subject was forced to hide unusual physical radiance with a veil for social acceptance);

  • Severe authority and individuation issues.
It's remarkable that despite a lifetime of personality-disordering circumstances, Moses maintained his composure as the conduit of God's word and directive for as long as he did. Only in this last parsha of his life does he begin to go a little meshuggeh.

Into the ears of every member of the congregation of Israel, as well as the sky, Moses insists upon the words "of [his] mouth: "My doctrine shall drop as the rain/my speech shall distill as the dew/as the small rain upon the tender grass/and as the showers upon the herb. For I will proclaim the name of the Lord" (Deuteronomy 32:2-3).

My doctrine; my speech; I will proclaim. This pessimistic prose distinguishes the wounded ego of a man that has consumed the inspired soul of a prophet. His Ha'azinu (literally, "give ear to") demonstrates how base and mundane his consciousness has become; he is infinitely distant from harnessing the receptivity of listening to the still, small voice of God. Instead, he projects the blaring violence of his own unrequited rage onto the ears of physical world, shouting, "The blemish of His sons/they are a perverse and crooked generation ... they shall be sucked empty by hunger, and devoured with burning heat" (Deuteronomy 32:5, 24).

This self-centered diatribe seals his fate: To die before entering the land that he devoted his life to promise.

"God spoke to Moses that same day, saying ... behold the land of Canaan, which I give to the children of Israel for possession ... because you transgressed against me among [them] ... at the waters of merivot [bitterness] in Kadesh ... because you sanctified me not in the midst of the children of Israel. For you shall see the land before you, but you will not go there into the land" (Deuteronomy 32:48-52).

I can empathize with Moses' uncontrollable urge to hit a rock and shout back at the unremitting kvetchfest of dissatisfied Yids. There was a time in my career when a congregant's complaint that I didn't pronounce their second cousin once removed's last name correctly at the oneg could send me blubbering to my shrink. (A therapist would surely seek to reassure Moses that he was still lovable.)

Meanwhile, God's response to His best employee's outburst while drawing water from a rock is punishment by unrequited death?

But we must consider: Perhaps God tests against the shortcomings of an individual solely according to their distinct potential.

Not only did Moses lose his temper before the people, disobeying God's instructions and producing waters of merivot for them to drink, but he never learned the lesson. He never returned to himself, nor to God; rather, he got lost in the noise of his own transgression.

Calvin Coolidge said, "No man ever listened himself out of a job." Had Moses been able to take, rather than deliver, the command to lend an ear; if he had stopped imposing the vibration of his utterances on water, or questioned the nightmare of false blame disguised as prophecy he was so consumed with articulating; if he had finally realized his only job was to surrender the burden of shouldering faith and understanding of the sanctity of God to the people -- he would have been the promise he imagined to be distant from the place he stood.

Alas, he was too injured to listen to anyone in the end, thus the peace that his lifetime of devotion ought to have rendered him remains our responsibility to restore. We are the children who inherited the promise. We are the Israelites in whose midst God must be sanctified. We are the redeemers; the ones whose words of blessing can sweeten the most bitter of waters and whose courage to listen in silence will amplify the gentle whisper of Truth on the wind.

Let us return him to wholeness through fulfilling in our lives what he failed to do in his own. Let us believe in the sustenance we have been promised and provided by the Eternal One. Let us declare and then quietly revel in our deliverance with faith and devotion to the Rock from which miracles stream endlessly forth.


Rabbi Karen Deitsch works as a freelance officiant and lecturer in Los Angeles. She can be reached at karendeitsch@yahoo.com.

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