The Song of Listening: The Rock
What is God?
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There are two major poems in the Torah. The first was the Song of the Sea, sung by the Israelites upon experiencing divine salvation at the shores of the Yam Suf. The second comes almost at the end of Deuteronomy and is called Shirat Ha’azinu, or the Song of ‘Listen’. The second word in that Hebrew phrase refers to the command form of ‘listen’. It was recited by Moshe to the Israelites as a warning for what would befall the Israelites after he died. ‘And now, write for them this song and teach it to the Children of Israel, place it in their mouths in order that this song be for Me a witness among the Children of Israel... And when many evils and troubles find them, this song will answer before them as a testimony, for it shall not be forgotten from their descendants; for I know their inclination that they have today before I bring them to the land that I promised’ (31:19-21).
The actual song is the entire next chapter. It is long (43 verses) and difficult (the Hebrew is complex, including parts that are almost impossible to translate clearly). But it certainly warns the Israelites about their destiny if they stay on the path that they appear to be headed. It is harsh at the beginning, harsh in the middle, and even harsh at the end. It is only in the very last verse that we find some solace for all the threats.
But it does manage to paint a new image of God, the final image that we will be exploring from the Chumash. This image comes from verse at the beginning of the song: ‘Listen heavens and I will speak, hear earth the words of My mouth...When I call in the name of Hashem, ascribe greatness to our God. The Rock is pure (perfect, complete) in his deeds, for all of His ways are just; a faithful God with no injustice, righteous and straight He is’ (32:1-4). A few verses at the end of the song confound this rather hazy image: ‘They (He) will say, “Where is their God, the Rock that shielded them? The fat of whose offering they ate, the wine of their libations they drank; Let them rise and aid you, let them be a shield for you”. See now, for I, I am He, and there are no gods with Me; I kill and I give life, I crush and I heal, and nothing escapes My hand’ (32:37-39).
Ha’azinu means ‘listen’. Moshe wants the Israelites to know what all of creation knows. He wants them to understand the true reality of their situation. They have been charged with a difficult mission. Somewhat surprisingly, he explicitly tells them that they will fail in this mission. They will come to the Promised Land, grow satiated and fat, reject God and run after foreign gods, annul the covenant, and then encounter all kinds of evils and wonder what they did to deserve them. This song lays all that out in advance. One has to wonder why Moshe is telling them in advance that they will fail in their task.
Perhaps he is simply telling them the truth. Perhaps this needs no prophetic insight other than the ability to understand human nature. They had lived for forty years on a diet of miracles and divine intervention. That would end abruptly in a few days. Over the centuries, the supply of divine intervention still available to them would steadily diminish. As time went on, there would eventually come a day that they would forget that it ever happened. On that day, this song would be there, reminding them that this was all too predictable.
What is the point of a mission that is bound for failure? Why bother with it in the first place? There is no easy answer to this question, which is obvious to anyone reading the Chumash with an open mind. Perhaps there is a purpose behind all this. Perhaps it was not for the sake of the success of the Israelites that the plan was initiated. Perhaps there was a different reason for it, one that is clear in the Torah but nevertheless almost impossible to accept. Perhaps it was to reveal a thing or two about God.
This image of God as a Rock must be understood. Why are we told that the Rock is perfect and pure, that it is Rock free of injustice and straight? What are those verses from the end all about? Is the Rock not as solid as we thought? What is that ambiguous image in the final verse, ‘I, I am He; I kill and I give life, I crush and I heal, and nothing escapes My hand’?
The Torah, more than any other reason, was given to tell human beings about God. What is God? How does God operate in the world? Why does God care about us? What does God want from us? How are we supposed to relate to God? This was the true purpose of the Torah and the true reason why the Israelites were assigned this impossible mission.
‘When I call in the name of Hashem, ascribe greatness to our God. The Rock is pure in his deeds, for all of His ways are just; a faithful God with no injustice, righteous and straight He is’. We relate to God by acknowledging God’s reality. We can deny it from here to tomorrow, but at some point we have to face the truth. Life just doesn’t work out without some Higher Being entering the picture at some point. Without God, we couldn’t be here. Without God everything that is, everything that happens, every thought we think, is just random meaninglessness. It is hard to accept, but it is still true.
God is the ‘Rock’. Rocks are solid. The Rock is pure or perfect in His ways. We may not like the way things go, but that doesn’t mean that something went out of whack. It just means that the way things went wasn’t the way that we would have liked them to go. With all the evils that go on in life it is all too easy to get cynical and blame God for everything. It is even easier to throw up one’s hands and declare that there is no God, for how could God have allowed things to get this bad? To this common complaint, the song sings. The Rock is perfect in His ways. We may not understand why it had to be this way, but that is the way that it had to be.
‘For all of His ways are just’. Was the world ever just? Wasn’t it always filled with falsehood and trickery and selfishness and greed? Probably, the answer to this question is a qualified ‘yes’. In all likelihood there have only been isolated pockets of true justice that lasted for a short time that had to bow to more powerful forces. But the ideal of justice has always been around, usually in some theoretical sense, but occasionally as a genuine social goal. That goal is the echo of God’s voice. It is that Biblical echo that we still hear if we really put our ears to the wall. It never vanishes completely, for it comes from the Rock.
‘A faithful God with no injustice, righteous and straight He is’. God is faithful. No matter what we may think of God’s running of the world, we can never lose sight of the basic fact that God has stuck to the plan. The world was created to reveal God to creation. It has succeeded, though not exactly with flying colors. God can only do so much revealing before spilling too much of the beans and giving away all the answers. We have to do our part in searching. God sticks to the plan, straight as an arrow, even though it makes things more difficult in the short haul. God is the Rock.
‘They (He) will say, “Where is their God, the Rock that shielded them? The response to whatever this question is and to whomever it is directed is clear: ‘See now, for I, I am He, and there are no gods with Me; I kill and I give life, I crush and I heal, and nothing escapes My hand’. This is God speaking in a clear and resounding voice towards the end of the song. This is God reminding everyone who He is. God is ‘He’, the only God. All the others are fakes. God may be harsh and seem cruel at times. God may have to kill and crush without remorse and without divine mercy. But God also gives life and heals. There is always some hope that remains no matter how bad things get, no matter how unjust and evil things become. God kills but God gives life; God crushes but God heals. Nothing escapes God’s hand. God is the Rock.
The two word phrase ‘I, I’, is unusual even by Biblical standards. The Hebrew word in both cases is ani – the classic Hebrew word for ‘I’. The second use of the word goes with the next two words: I am He. I am God, and there are no other gods that I share My position with. The first use is confusing. ‘See now, that I’ – what does this phrase mean? What is it doing here? Perhaps it is the Bible’s way of telling us that when all the dust clears there is only God. God is right there in every thought, in every action, in every war and disease and death. But God is also there in every moment of life and healing and beauty.
When people ask ‘where is their God, the Rock who shielded them’, God gives the answer. ‘I, I am He’. I am that Rock and there are no others who can make that claim. Death and defeat may be a perpetual feature of reality, but that is because God makes them so. Life and healing are just as perpetual, but that also is because God makes them so. Nothing escapes God’s hand, for God is the Rock.
Perceiving the Image
The Rock is an easy image to imagine but one that is difficult to accept. The reason for this is that we want God to be more pliant, to bend the rules every once in a while. When there isn’t enough time in the day we would really like it if God would add a couple of hours on, just that once, to allow us to finish whatever it is that is so pressing. When things aren’t going fast enough, we demand of God that He speeds things up a little. When we need any of a whole assortment of open miracles that seem downright Biblical in perspective but that we would never dream of considering possible, we don’t hesitate to voice our suddenly religious faith to God. When we just need a break from all the stress and the unfairness, when we just need things to be good, only once in a while, we beg God to be a little more flexible in His rock-like insistence of letting people have free choice in their affairs.
It is tough to accept the rock image. But it must be accepted nevertheless. It is really the only way of getting through all the vicissitudes of life in one piece. No matter what happens; no matter how bad it gets; God is always there making sure things run the way they are supposed to run. If that means that things don’t go the way we would like them to, that’s fine as long as Somebody knows what’s going on. When it seems like the whole system is falling apart and there is no hope or recourse, we always have the Rock to fall back on to reassure us that it will work out in the end. It may be a bit of a crutch, but who says that we don’t need or can't use a crutch to get through life? The Rock is our anchor through the storm, the refuge that will always be there when we need a place to hold on to. God is the Rock.
The Rock image has a good side and a bad side. Why is it so tough to accept the bad with the good?
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