Ha’azinu (Rosh Hashana)

[based in part on a dvar torah written by by Rav David Silverberg]
Part of “Shirat Ha’azinu” describes the process of sin and punishment, mapping the progression of: Bnei Yisrael’s (BNY) abandonment of G-d; pursuit and acceptance of idolatrous faiths; and consequential punishment. As an introduction to the description of BNY’s sins, the song asks:

הַלְה’  תִּגְמְלוּ-זֹאת עַם נָבָל וְלֹא חָכָם הֲלוֹא הוּא אָבִיךָ קָּנֶךָ הוּא עָשְׂךָ וַיְכֹנְנֶךָ

“Do you thus requite the Lord?!… Is not He the Father who created you, fashioned you and made you endure?” (32:6).

This passuk appears to underscore BNY’s lack of gratitude toward Hashem; their abandoning and rejecting the “Father” who turned them into a nation and gave them all that they possessed.In the middle of this verse, the shira describes BNY as an “am naval ve-lo chacham” – which roughly translates as, “a despicable and unwise people.”

BNY is called out on on two matters: moral depravity (נָבָל – despicable) and foolishness (וְלֹא חָכָם – unwise). Read in context, the first adjective seems a more fitting description of BNY’s behavior than the second one. As stated, the verse seems to highlight BNY’s ungratefulness to G-d – as expressed by their rejection of Him – in spite of the ongoing kindness He showered upon them. Such ungratefulness clearly warrants the description of “despicable.”

But why does the verse also describe the nation as “unwise”? How does the lack of demonstrating gratitude make a person unwise?

The Ramban, expounding Targum Onkelos, associates the word “naval” with a term found earlier in the Torah, in Sefer Shmot (18:18) – “navol tibol” – which refers to fatigue, or weariness. The description of BNY as an “am naval” refers to them having “wearied themselves in intense fulfillment of the commandments of the Torah,” in the words of the Ramban; the perceived burden that G-d’s laws had become on their shoulders, prompting them to resort to other, new, foreign modes of religious worship. The Ramban says that were we wise, we would recognize that casting off Hashem only hurts us, not Hashem.

Using this as a springboard, perhaps BNY is also “unwise”, for were we to display more intelligence, we would recognize the beauty, priceless nature, timelessness and infinite depth of Torah, and thus avoid the spiritual fatigue that unfortunately develops with repetition and the passage of time. Human nature is such that we are willing to exert ourselves and make sacrifices for that which we deem valuable and attractive at that moment in time; once this sense of worth, importance and allure begins to wane, our willingness to dedicate time and effort and commit ourselves, fades or disappears entirely. The“naval” phenomenon results directly from being “lo chacham” – an inability to recognize the greatness of Torah.
This approach may help to shed light on a later verse in Ha’azinu, where the shira describes the idolatry practiced by BNY:

יִזְבְּחוּ לַשֵּׁדִים לֹא אֱלֹהַּ אֱלֹהִים לֹא יְדָעוּם  חֲדָשִׁים מִקָּרֹב בָּאוּ לֹא שְׂעָרוּם אֲבֹתֵיכֶם
They sacrificed to demons, no-gods, gods they have never known, new ones, who came but lately, whom your fathers never feared. (32:17)

The verse emphasizes the novelty of these idols; the fact that Am Yisrael had not previously discovered these false deities. At first glance, this emphasis is meant to underscore the gravity of the transgression – that BNY substituted Hashem, with Whom they had a unique relationship with for centuries – with foreign deities with whom they had never previously associated. But in light of the explanation of the Ramban, we can interpret this verse as explaining why BNY resorted to new, foreign religions: specifically because they were new and foreign. BNY grew tired of their relationship with the one, true G-d and the mitzvot He commanded; they felt the time had come for the latest fad, something new, something different, something seemingly innovative.

Furthermore, perhaps that is why the song invokes the concept of Hashem as our Father in  this verse – a parent is always the biological creator (partnered with Hashem, of course) of a child. No matter what happens, no matter how many years go by, no matter what other influences arise in a person’s life — a father or mother is a child’s biological parent (at the very least). Rhetorically, the song asks: “Is Hashem not your Father?” He made you! You are comprised of His essence. How could you deny Him and lose interest? For He is your Father, and your father’s Father, and that truth will never change.

Historical continuity is a central theme of Shirat Ha’azinu, as it says: “Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past… ” (32:7). New is not necessarily better. In contrast to most everything else in existence, Torah does not lose its value with time; it is only our appreciation of Torah that often diminishes with time.

Shirat Ha’azinu implores us to be chacham – intelligent enough to retain our perspective and sense of priorities and recognize the magnificent gift we have been given, to be the Am HaNivchar and to study and practice Hashem’s Torah.

If we are able to accomplish this, then, with Hashem’s help, we will avoid religious and spiritual fatigue, and not fall victim to the temptation to search for new (and ultimately unfulfilling and transitory) substitutes for mitzvot.

Rosh Hashana is a time of rebirth/renewal/hischadshus. A huge portion of the Rosh Hashana service is dedicated to proclaiming Hashem as Supreme King of the Universe – past, present and future.

May we be privileged in the coming year to feel the excitement of learning His Torah, and serving Hashem with gratitude, with intelligence and with passion.

Shabbat Shalom, Shana Tova, and Ketiva Vachatima Tova

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