Nine years ago today, America suffered a devastating attack. As the whole world watched, thousands of people were killed, and our nation’s psyche was permanently scarred by the horror. In the days and weeks that followed, many people, especially the younger ones, kept asking the question “why?” (Why did they do this to us? Why do they despise us?) Why?
Personally, I always hated that question, because posing the question implied that there could be some rational answer. There is no rational justification for mass murder. And there’s always gonna be someone claiming that we somehow deserved it. It’s not a line of thinking that I embrace.
But when we look at today’s Parasha, the parallels are striking… and deeply disturbing. God accuses the young Jewish nation of taking His gifts for granted, of becoming fat and complacent, of turning away from his commandments to worship inappropriate deities at sinful altars. He warns that we will suffer terrible destruction at the hands of our enemies, and that it will be our own fault, for betraying the holy path. He speaks of his disappointment with his Chosen people, who don’t seem to be up to the responsibilities of their special status.
Does any of this sound familiar? Did America, God-shed-His-grace-on-thee, the land of so-called Manifest Destiny, ignore its obligation to be, like Israel, a light unto the nations? Did we take for granted our special position in history? Did we build two insanely tall altars to the gods of greed and gluttony, and go there daily to worship? Some have gone so far as to say that we became so fat and selfish and despicable that we actually brought an attack upon ourselves.
Again, I must say that I cannot embrace this line of thinking, despite the troubling hints of truth within it. Yet, how do we grapple with this parasha? As we conclude a year of reading the Torah, trying to fathom God’s nature, and our place in His world, how do we embrace this harsh, vindictive, and downright arrogant image of God?
Let me tell you, I’ve been wrestling with this one. But once again I try to go back to the approach of Rabbi Edward Feinstein: don’t get too caught up in the details or the presentation – instead, seek the essential truth in the story.
Perhaps the essence of this reading, and of our own nation’s situation, can be found in the title of the parasha – Ha’azinu. It means “listen.” But not the distant “listen” like the word Shema. It’s a more personal “listen,” like with your own individual ears. It comes from the word “ozen,” which means ear.
Whether we like it or not, there is an essential truth in life that if you don’t listen, don’t pay attention, don’t be careful and proceed properly, there will be a price to pay. Were the children of Israel listening? Was American paying attention?
In the case of young Israel, God’s accusations appeared to be prophetic. The history that followed soon after their entry into the Promised Land is filled with attacks, defeats, cycles of failure and reclamation, with the clearly stated idea that each defeat was due to Israel's failure to obey God's commandments. Of course, many of us today don’t take the message literally… that each time Israel chose not to obey the Commandments, they were defeated in battle. But we can certainly understand the idea of losing your focus, being tempted by evil, and suffering the inevitable consequences.
In the case of modern-day America, there are some uncomfortable questions to consider. Did we fail to pay attention? Did we ignore evidence of mounting resentment against our self-important attitude? Were we so busy worshipping the almighty dollar that we didn’t HEAR the needs of the world? Did we forget our place as a beacon unto the nations? Did we turn away from God’s commandments when they interfered with our popular culture? Were we so arrogant about our supremacy that we let down our guard? Did we lose our focus, stray from the mission of our founding Fathers, and give in to evil temptations?
But really, the most important question is…“what now?” How do we proceed? Are we listening now? How do we heal our nation? How do we interact with the peoples of the world? What are our goals and values? Just as the children of Israel faced hard choices in their new life as a nation, we here in America have some hard choices to make. And the world is listening, watching to see what we do.
We consider our nation as the standard-bearer, but what are our standards? When we allow resentment to guide our re-naming of French Fries, we’re not setting a very high standard. When we allow ourselves to be distracted by a constant, non-stop media circus of hate-mongers and meaningless celebrities, surely we have lost our focus. When some of our citizens seem to think that burning Korans is a reasonable idea, we are pitifully oblivious. When we plan to resurrect the destroyed buildings even taller than before, apparently our arrogance remains unchecked. What kind of standards are these? Are we paying attention at all?
One of the purposes of Shabbat is to sit back from our daily endeavors and think. We need a little distance. If Americans would sit back a little, get a little distance, and LISTEN, maybe we could get an idea of how others see us, of how God sees us and our actions. Maybe we would make wiser choices about how to proceed.
Ha’azinu: listen! Are we paying attention? God is.