Friday, September 25, 2015

Ha'azinu: The Strength of Our Stature

            The Parasha Ha’azinu is the second to last chapter of the Torah and is written as a Shir, a poem or song. One definition of a song in the Torah is a parasha that is written in a certain pattern.  There are 5 such songs in the Tanach– and each marks a passage or critical event. It just so happens that we read two this Shabbat - Shirat Haazinu, our Torah portion, which takes place as the children of Israel are in the desert and are readying to enter Canaan; and Shirat David, our Haftarah (II Samuel 22:1- 51), which takes place at the establishment of the Monarchy (through King David's line). (The Hebrew word "shirat" means "the song of...") Shirat David is only read as Haazinu’s Haftarah when Shabbat Haazinu falls after Yom Kippur, as it does this year.
            The written structure of the Shirim is different than the rest of the Torah. Shirat Haazinu is written in two narrow columns reminiscent of two stacks of bricks, a somewhat shaky or unstable pattern.  Shirat David, its haftarah, is written in one wide column designed to look like one stack of interlocking bricks. It is said that a pattern of interlocking bricks is much stronger than a stack in which each brick lies directly above the one below it.  Rabbenu Nissim (Commentary to Megillah 16a) explains that because Ha'azinu speaks of the downfall of evil, it appears in the Torah like flimsy stacks of bricks, symbolic of evil's inability to stand for long. [The same is true of the list of the ten sons of Haman in Megillat Esther.]
            Shirat David, on the other hand, represents a time when the Monarchy was established and things look promising for the future and is therefore "constructed" in a strong way so that it can stand and even be added to.   If one looks at the end of parashat Ha’azinu, we see that the Torah returns to its regular, wide-column format, thus appearing to give Ha'azinu a solid footing to stand on.  And just as Ha’azinu ends on a solid footing, so does the parasha tell us that G-d will be there to intervene on behalf of the Children of Israel, no matter how far the people fall.
            One interpretation of Haazinu and Shirat David that always inspires me is the representation of the importance of the individual.  The proof that one person can make a difference.  Where would we be today without Moshe Rabbeinu, King David, Joshua, Deborah (the only female Judge) and others?  These individuals lived a long time ago and we still feel the impact of their actions today.
             In the present we have a different set of individuals to look up to and reflect on the impact of their actions. The many firefighters, policemen, EMTS and others on 9/11 who went above and beyond in saving the lives of so many during of the horrific events of that day. Malala Yousafzai, a young Pakastani woman, who became a human rights advocate for education and for women in her country after surviving an attack that would have turned others inward and toward hate. And just this week we have a visit in DC from Pope Francis, leader of the Roman Catholic Church, here to spread faith and optimism for a brighter future and a better world.
            If this season of Teshuvah, Tefilah and Tzedakah (repentance, prayer and acts of charity/justice), teaches us anything, it’s that the actions of one person can make a difference.  We may feel we are standing on shaky ground like Ha’azinu – but then find the courage within to remember that there is a firm base underneath us. Or we may have a more unstable set up like our haftarah, in which case we have to ask for the help of others to get back to firmer ground. May we all find our place and our individual ways to make a difference in this new year.

Also published in Washington Jewish Week, September 25, 2015