D’var Torah: Ha’Azinu

by | Oct 6, 2022 | Hillel Ontario, Weekly D'var | 0 comments

Palimpsest is one of my favourite words because its meaning is so applicable to every aspect of life. It conveys the belief that something, whether a physical object or an idea, can be reused or altered and that traces of the original form will remain. A common version of palimpsests we may encounter are brick buildings where old adverts have started to fade away and graffiti tags are sprayed on top of them. Palimpsests are found throughout history and written text, such as this week’s parsha, Ha’Azinu [Deuteronomy]. 

Throughout Ha’Azinu God is speaking to Israelites through Moses, as God has done countless times before. God has criticised, praised, and commanded the Israelites previously, each time it is similar but different enough that traces from earlier messages remain. However, in the passage we read this week, there is one stark difference. In previous words from God, there was always an assumption that God would lead all Israelites over Mount Nebo towards the Land of Canaan. In this section Moses hears directly from God that he shall only be able to view Canaan from a distance and will remain behind as the rest of the Israelites venture forth. God cites Moses’ previous actions where he “broke faith with Me among the Israelite people at the waters of Meribah-Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin by failing to uphold My sanctity among the Israelite people [32:51],” for the reason why Moses shall never feel Canaan’s dirt beneath his feet. 

Doubt is one of the factors that lead to Moses being denied access to the primary goal he had pursued for much of his life. As God reminds us throughout Ha’Azinu; do not doubt them, do not forget them, do not forget to “take to heart all the words which I have warned you today. Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching [32:46].” Doubt is a powerful emotion, compelling us to waver in our certainty and sometimes, as this story with Moses illustrates, can have unexpected outcomes. 

Each of us carry the layers of words and actions taken by our parents, our ancestors, and by God. We cannot always separate one from the other, they are like layers of paint built up over time. We know these words and actions are within us and hold influence, but it is up to us to decide what to add next. 

At the heart of Ha’Azinu is an essential message that I often reflect upon, “for this is not a trifling thing for you: It is your very life [32:47].” We- like Moses- have a very real chance of labouring continuously towards a set of goals without knowing if we shall achieve it. The reward should not be achieving the goal, but celebrating the tenacity and chutzpah that went into pursuing our aspiration. The labour and life we lead is the reward itself. There is a possibility that we may only reach the equivalent of our Mount Nebo’s, never to fully descend into the land where our goal resides. Learning to be content with the act of living can help remind us that although we didn’t quite make it, our efforts do not exist in a vacuum. Our lives and labours are not isolated from one another and they will add to the layers of folks who shall come after us. All of us are the sum of labours taken by our friends, family, community and the ones who came before us. Perhaps there is a reason we are reminded of this passage towards the start of the new year. It is a time for us to humbly reflect and remember that if we do not live by the words of God as outlined in Ha’Azinu, we may not reach our Canaan’s, although our efforts will surely help others get there. May we each take our efforts, our multitude of layers, and faith in God and go from strength to strength in this new year.

Jemma Kaczanowicz
Director of Jewish Education & Accessibility Coordinator, Hillel York

Weekly D’var: Vayetzei

Weekly D’var: Vayetzei

This week’s parsha is one that is filled near to overflowing with iconic stories.  Covering Jacob’s travels to, life in, and departure from Haran, the home of his uncle (and eventually father-in-law) Laban, Vayetzei recounts the stories of Jacob’s dream of the ladder, his marriages, first to Leah, then to Rachel, the births of twelve of his children, and so much more.  

With all of this, I am struck by a couple of stories that are not explicitly in our text at all, but come to us in the form of Madrash, the traditional interpretations or explanations of our text that have come down from the sages.

The stories that have captured my interest are surrounding two verses that come at the very beginning of our text (Genesis 28:11 and 28:18) and are seeking to explain a seeming inconsistency between these verses. Just as Jacob is lying down to have his famous dream, we are told that “He took from the stones of the place and set it/them at his head and lay down in that place”, the Hebrew text being unclear on the number of stones Jacob had taken.  Verse 18, which picks up immediately after the dream, is by contrast, very clear, saying, “he took the stone that he had set at his head and set it up as a standing-pillar”. 

The first explanation comes from Rashi (11th/12th c. French commentator), who explains that Jacob had taken a number of stones and arranged them around his head for protection, prompting an argument among the stones, with each asking that they have the honour of holding the righteous man’s head.  Rashi goes on to say that at this point, the holy one fused the rocks into one. 

There are a number of others that appear in the great collection of Midrash, Breishit Rabbah, each offering a different number of stones.  One of the stories counts twelve stones to teach Jacob that he would be the father of twelve tribes; another, three stones, teaching that God’s oneness would be made known through Jacob; yet another, two stones, to teach that Jacob’s progeny would be worthy to form the people Israel.

Our tradition offers us all of these understandings of a single moment in the life of Jacob, each of them teaching him a different lesson.  We can find multiple interpretations of most stories from the Torah; that is part of the beauty of Midrash.  But I am struck by the form that these midrashim take, each of them recounting a lesson learned, each examining a single moment.  In this, I am reminded of the beauty of reflection, of a life examined, reminded that, within the hustle and bustle of our lives, and despite it, each moment has so much potential to teach us.

Rabbi Danny A Lutz
Senior Jewish Educator, Guelph Hillel

Weekly D’var: Chayei Sarah

Weekly D’var: Chayei Sarah

The second line of this week’s parsha tells us that Sarah, our matriarch, died in Kiryat Arba in the land of Canaan. The first verse, and the one from which we get the name of the parsha, Chayei Sarah, describes her life; “Sarah’s lifetime came to one hundred and twenty-seven years.” Abraham has just proved his dedication to God; he offered his son Isaac as a sacrifice before God, was commanded to spare him, and received a blessing. Abraham was promised that his descendants would outnumber the stars in heaven and the grains of sand, but his wife Sarah, his partner and his children’s mother, has now died. Abraham mourns Sarah and weeps by her. His experience of deep sadness is another low point in his turbulent story. Despite being offered by the Hittites and Ephron a burial place, he insists on paying them the full amount of silver it is worth and when Abraham dies at a hundred and seventy-five, he joins Sarah in the cave on Ephron’s land.

This parsha always makes me think of the ritual of shiva, the week of mourning following the death of a loved one. Mourners are joined by their community to provide comfort and meet the needs of the family and are present as those closest to the deceased say kaddish. The mourner’s kaddish is a fascinating and beautiful exaltation, a prayer for peace and for God to hear us and keep us, something that can feel jarring and distinct from grief and loss. The value of the Jewish ritual following death is that we gather to remember and reminisce the span of a person’s existence in our lives and their affect on the world around them for good, not simply to lament their passing. We’re told in the parsha that after they are wed, “Isaac loved [Rebekah], and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.” 

Jacob Brickman
Hillels Waterloo & Laurier