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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Ha'azinu

Thoughts on Parshat Ha'azinu

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1. Redemption and Repentance
2. "He will atone for His land and His people"

Redemption and Repentance
Each one of us is accustomed to reciting the prayer in which we admit, "Because of our sins we were exiled from our land." Similarly, in this week's Torah portion, we read that the Exile came because of "Jeshurun thus became fat and rebelled... [The nation] abandoned the God who made it" (Deuteronomy 32:15).

In the spirit of the these days, days of kindness and repentance, we search expectantly to find mention of repentance as a condition for the Redemption, as in the Torah portion "Netzavim": "You will then return to God your Lord and obey Him... and God will bring back your remnants and have mercy on you" (Ibid. 30:2,3).

Yet, here, in "Ha'azinu," we discover a different approach. The Jewish people - whether they like it or not - bears responsibility. They are God's emissaries to the entire world. If the nation of Israel were granted complete freedom, it would be possible to make its redemption dependent upon its merit alone. Yet, because the Jews bear responsibility for the destiny of all humanity, it is impossible to take into consideration its spiritual level alone. If Israel is exiled from its land, if the Jews are humiliated among the nations, God's name is desecrated in the eyes of the entire world. Therefore, the Redemption will come not by virtue of Israel's merit, but by "virtue" of the wickedness and obstinacy of the nations; God will eventually decide to put an end to this situation. "I was concerned that their enemies would be provoked, and their attackers deny the truth, so that they would say, 'Our superior power and not God was what caused all this'" (Ibid. 32:27). (And who knows better than we, the generation of the Holocaust and the Rebirth, having witnessed these things with our own eyes).

It is interesting to note that this mistaken impression existed already at the time of our entering the Land of Israel. The Children of Israel believed that by virtue of their Torah knowledge and their good deeds they would merit entering the Land. Then, Moses was forced to reprimand them and to explain to them, "Do not say to yourselves, 'It was because of my virtues that God brought me to occupy this land' …It is not because of your virtue and basic integrity that you are coming to occupy their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations whom God is driving out before you. It is also because God is keeping the word that he swore to your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" (Ibid. 9:4,5) It was not by virtue of our own merit that we entered the Land of Israel in the time of Joshua, and it is not because of our uprightness that we are returning to her today. Once we have learned to understand this we will truly be capable of relating to the Land of Israel as God's land.

"He will atone for His land and His people"
The description of Jewish history portrayed in the song of the "Ha'azinu" Torah portion is a difficult one. It illustrates the terrible sufferings of exile. The end of this process is most surprising. If "because of our sins we were exiled from our land," one would expect to find a call to repentance at the end of the portion. Yet, this is not the case. "This song," says Ramban, "contains no condition of repentance and service." The providence of a God who can no longer bear the evil of the nations as they disgrace the Jewish people and demands revenge on their behalf - this is what will bring the Redemption. This will serve as atonement for the nation. When bearing hardship has reached its maximum, God will redeem them for the sake of His name even if they do not repent on their own.

The atonement that the nation receives is not theirs alone. The nation has a partner - a partner in both transgression and in atonement. Its partner is the Land. "He will atone for His land and His people" (Ibid. 32:43). This passage calls to memory the Scripture's words in the "Massey" Torah portion that call for avenging the blood of the murdered: "…It is blood that pollutes the land. When blood is shed in the land, it cannot be atoned for except though the blood of the person who shed it" (Numbers 35:33). The land, too, suffers the hardships of Exile. There comes a point in time when she can no longer bear being a "city of refuge for murderers of Jews." The Land demands rectification. She demands that justice be done to those corrupt persons who have settled her. She desires to see her children returning to her and showing favor to her dust.

Indeed, not by merit of its virtues alone is the nation redeemed. It is redeemed through the merit of the Land as well. "I will remember my covenant with Jacob as well as my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham. I will remember the land" (Leviticus 26:42). The Land participates not only in laying claim to redemption; she shares a portion, along with the nation, in the punishment of the Exile. Through that great emptiness which gripped the land during all of the years of the Exile, she participates in the process of atonement for the sins that were carried out upon her (Sforno, Or HaChaim). And with the redemption of the nation, the land too is redeemed (Rashi). "God, You have been favorable to Your land; You have brought back the captivity of Jacob." (Psalms 85:2).

"The Land of Israel is not something external, not an external acquisition of the nation... the Land of Israel is an essential unit bound by the bond-of-life to the People..." (Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, Orot).
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Some of the biblical verses here were taken from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's "Living Torah," and from the Jerusalem Bible (Koren).

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