Light from the Sidra

Ha'azinu ('Give ear')

Torah: Deuternomy 32:1-52. Haftarah: Hosea 14:2(1)-10(9)*;Micah 7:18-20;Joel 2:15-27

‘I don’t think we’re gonna make it.’

Shana Tova U'Metukah! May you have a good and sweet new year!

This morning I almost threw my radio out of the window. Which was difficult because it was my car radio and I was driving to work! The cause of my fit of pique was Thought for the Day on Radio 4. The speaker, a high-ranking clergyman, quoted the words of comfort Jesus spoke to a lady who was healed of her chronic haemorrhaging after touching his tzitzit as he passed by. Jesus told the lady that her faith in him had ‘saved’ her but, said the cleric, ‘he could just as easily have been talking about her faith in herself.’ That was when I reached for the radio.

The sad thing is that in the run-up to Yom Kippur, millions of Jewish people would find themselves in total agreement with the unorthodox priest. They imagine that by attempting to make amends for the wrongs done in the previous year and by giving to charity they can in some way avert ‘the evil decree.’ That, to put it bluntly, is having faith in yourself. But it goes against all we read in this week’s parasha and Haftarot.

Deuteronomy 32 is one of the most solemn passages in the Torah, foretelling in vivid detail the departure of Israel from their God and the consequences of their rebellion. But the Haftarah readings – written after everything Moses foretold had been fulfilled with remarkable precision – hold out hope for Israel. Although Israel had been unfaithful to their God and had suffered the consequences of their wrongdoing, God had not broken his covenant with them, and through Hosea, Micah and Joel he promises a bright future for Israel.

Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, religious Jews go to the sea or to rivers and empty the contents of their pockets into the water, praying that they might know the reality of Micah 7:18,19: ‘Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.’

The imagery of Micah 7 is taken from the Exodus from Egypt when God brought his people out of the house of bondage and through the Red Sea. In Exodus 14, as the terrified Israelites were caught between the Red Sea and the advancing Egyptian armed forces, they cried out to Moses, ‘Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt? … it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”’

Moses assured them: ‘Stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.’ There was no room at the Red Sea for the Israelites to have faith in themselves. Moses’ command was a call to Israel to have faith in their God.

The chapter concludes: ‘The LORD saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great power that the LORD used against the Egyptians.’ In the following chapter, Israel sings: ‘I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.’

Just as God saved the Israelites from the greatest military power in the ancient world so he promised to save the Jewish people from a greater and more powerful enemy: themselves. Sin is more than simply moral failure. Sin is a great enemy, more powerful than the army that pursued Israel into the Red Sea. Sin is part of the very fabric of who we are and we need to be saved from our sins. Former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who retired last week, stated at the beginning of his term as Chief Rabbi eleven years ago that the ‘glory of Judaism’ is its teaching that the greatest sinner, by an act of the will can become the greatest saint.

I like Jonathan Sacks. He is an outstanding moral philosopher but he appears to misunderstand some of the most basic teachings of the Hebrew Bible such as Jeremiah 13:23: ‘Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also can you do good who are accustomed to do evil.’

In the period of the second temple, Rabbi Sha’ul from Tarsus wrote to his protégé Timothy, the son of a Hellenistic Jewish mother, ‘Messiah Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Messiah Jesus might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.’

Sha’ul, who is better known by his Greek name Paul, had been transformed from the ‘foremost’ of sinners into one of the greatest Jewish saints of all time. But he didn’t make the change by an act of the will; Sha’ul was transformed by the mercy of the Jewish Messiah in order that he might be an example to others. If Jesus the Messiah could save and transform Sha’ul, he can do the same for anyone; even you and me.

In Joel 2:25-27, God promises to reverse the judgements he sent on Israel as a punishment for their sins: ‘I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten… You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God… You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the LORD your God and there is none else…’

Although we must repent, God saves them out of sheer mercy. No one deserves salvation. None of us merits a place in the Book of Life. We all deserve death and are therefore dependent on the mercy of God.

In the beautiful Hebrew poetry of the third Haftarah reading, Hosea 14, YHWH represents himself as a loving, wounded husband and Israel as a disgustingly insatiably and  promiscuous wife. In one great final plea he calls out to his bride: ‘Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. Take with you words and return to the LORD; say to him, “Take away all iniquity; accept what is good, and we will pay with bulls the vows of our lips.”’ (Hosea 14:1-2)

Some Jewish commentators have drawn the conclusion that these verses teach that the temple sacrifices were unimportant and that what really matters to God is ‘words;’ words of repentance and penitence. In the days when the temple was standing in Jerusalem, the people thought that all God required was sacrifices. They went through the motions of offering bulls, goats and lambs on the temple altar but without any genuine remorse for their wrongdoing. But sacrifice and repentance are inextricable. ‘Words’ are no better than sacrifices if they are mere formalities. Next week on Yom Kippur, Jewish people the world over will take words to God. And what words! The synagogue prayers are incredibly moving but isn’t it all-too possible to offer beautiful prayers to God without meaning them? 

Hosea 14 does not condemn the ancient Jewish sacrificial system as such. After all, the sacrificial system was established by a divine command: ‘For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life’ (Leviticus 17:11). What God was condemning through Hosea was the put-your-money-in-the-slot-take-your-bar-of-chocolate-from-the-machine mentality that prevailed among his people.

God promised that he would save Israel from their sins by casting their sins into the depths of sea, never to be brought to mind again. And that greater salvation would have to be achieved by an even greater sacrifice than the blood of the lamb that protected Israel on the night that the angel of death struck the Egyptians.

One of my favourite comedy films is What’s Up Doc? At the end of the movie Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neill are driving down a hill in San Francisco trying to catch a ferry. As the ferry moves away from the jetty, Streisand urges O’Neill to keep going: ‘We can make it! We can make it! We can make it!’ When the reality hits, it’s too late: ‘I don’t think we’re gonna make it.’

Too many religious people who thought all their lives that religion was enough to earn them a place in the Book of Life discover too late that they’re not gonna make it. Don’t be one of them.

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