Light from the Sidra

Ha'azinu ('Give ear'). 27 September 2014. 3 Tishri 5775

Torah: Deuteronomy 32:1-52.Haftarot: Hosea 14:2-10;Micah 7:18-20;Joel 2:15-27

Can we make it?

Shana Tovah!

One of my favourite comedy films is What’s Up Doc? Towards 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 they watch the ferry pull away from the jetty, Streisand urges O’Neill to keep going: ‘We can make it! We can make it! We can make it!’ Reality hits just before their Volkswagen Beetle sails off the jetty and lands in the Bay. ‘I don’t think we’re gonna make it,’ says Streisand.

In the next week, in the run-up to Yom Kippur, millions of Jewish people will attempt to make amends for the wrongs they have done in the previous year, hoping that by performing extra mitzvot and tzedaka they can avert ‘the evil decree.’ They hope that by the end of Yom Kippur, they will have done enough to have tilted the balances in their favour so that their name will be inscribed in the Book of Life. I have yet to meet any pious Jew who can say with certainty at the end of the Day of Atonement that their name is in the Book.

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 where they 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, Who pardons iniquity and overlooks transgression for the remnant of His heritage? He does not maintain His wrath forever, for He desires kindness. He will once again show us mercy. He will suppress our iniquities. You will cast all their 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, ‘Were there no graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the Wilderness? What is this that you have you done to us to take us out of Egypt? “… it is better that we should serve Egypt than that we should die in the Wilderness!”’

Moses assured them: ‘Do not fear! Stand fast, and see the salvation of HASHEM, that he will perform for you today; for as you have seen Egypt today, you shall not see them ever again! HASHEM shall make war for you, and you shall remain silent.’

The chapter concludes: ‘On that day HASHEM saved Israel from the hand of Egypt, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great hand that HASHEM inflicted upon Egypt.’

In the following chapter, Israel sings: ‘I shall sing to HASHEM, for he is exalted above the arrogant, having hurled horse with its rider 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 the great enemy not only of the Jews but also of all mankind. Sin is a force more powerful than the army that pursued Israel into the Red Sea; it is part of the very fabric of who we are, and we need to be saved from it.

Former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who retired last year, stated at the beginning of his term as Chief Rabbi twelve 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, great scholar that he is, Rabbi Sacks misunderstands some of the most basic teachings of the Hebrew Bible such as Jeremiah 13:23: ‘Can a Cushite change his skin [colour] or the leopard its spots? So too, can you — in whom evil is engrained — do good?’

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, better known to us 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 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 repay you for the years that the abundant-locust, the chewing-locust and the demolishing-locust and the cutting-locust — My great army that I sent among you — consumed. And you will eat, eating and being satisfied, and you will praise the name of HASHEM your God… Then you will know that in the midst of Israel am I, and that I am HASHEM your God, there is none other; and My people will not be ashamed evermore.’

Although we must repent, God saves us out of sheer mercy. No one deserves salvation. None of us can merit 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, HASHEM represents himself as a loving, wounded husband and Israel as a disgustingly insatiably, adulterous and promiscuous slut. In one great final plea he calls out to his bride: ‘Return, Israel, unto HASHEM your God, for you have stumbled in your iniquity. (Hosea 14:2)

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! I find the synagogue prayers incredibly moving and when I read them I feel that if I was HASHEM I would forgive. But HASHEM who knows the hearts of all men is not moved simply by beautiful prayers.

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 soul of the flesh is in the blood and I have assigned it for you upon the Altar to provide atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that atones for the soul (Leviticus 17:11. Emphasis added). What God condemned through Hosea was the put-your-money-in-the-slot-and-take-your-bar-of-chocolate-from-the-machine mentality that prevailed in Israel.

God promised to 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.

Too many religious people who think that religion is 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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