August 7, 2018

Share your Torah (Ha’azinu)

We’ve almost reached the end of the Torah and in Ha’azinu we find Moshe’s swan song in which he communicates some of the most important lessons he has learnt throughout his life in a stunning and inspiring song. In Ha’azinu Moshe speaks of the love and justness of God, and the danger and impact of sin. But beyond this, Ha’azinu teaches us that Jews should share their wisdom with the wider world.

One of the many beautiful metaphors used in Ha’azinu is rain, and early on in the song Moshe instructs Bnei Yisrael ‘May my teaching drop like rain and my saying flow like the dew’ (Devarim 32:2). As Rashi explains, ‘The Torah that I gave to Bnei Yisrael is life for the world, just like rain is life for the world’ meaning that while the Jewish nation have been given the Torah, it is ‘לעולם’ – for the world.

This may be obvious to some, but let us not forget that just a few days ago during Mincha of Yom Kippur we read the story of Yonah who, as our Rabbis explain, decided on his own volition to protect the honour of the Jewish people by ignoring the spiritual welfare of the wider world (see Mechilta, Bo). Of course, one of the main messages of Yonah is that such a calculation in profoundly flawed because, to quote Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, ‘Neither justice nor repentance, sin nor restitution, have ethnic or religious boundaries. The people of Nineveh are God’s creatures no less than others. That is what the book of Jonah is about’ (To Heal a Fractured World p. 118). But beyond Sefer Yonah, where else are we taught that Jews should consider the spiritual welfare of the wider world? According to our Rabbis, we learn this lesson from Sukkot which we will be celebrating in the coming week.

The Torah teaches us that 70 bull sacrifices were offered over Sukkot (see Bemidbar 29:13-33) which, according to Rabbi Elazar, corresponds to the 70 nations of the world (see Sukkah 55b). Clearly the fact that the Jewish people offered sacrifices on Sukkot for the rest of the nations of the world indicates their concern for the spiritual welfare of the wider world. But what is particularly fascinating is that the inspiration for this concern is rain.

Mishna Rosh Hashanah (1:2) teaches us that the rainfall of the world is decided by God on Sukkot, and it was for this reason that the 70 bull sacrifices were offered on Sukkot ‘to atone for them so that rain shall fall throughout the world’ (see Rashi on Sukkah 55b). Sadly, towards the end of the Temple period it seems that the non-Jewish nations were unaware of this, leading Rabbi Yochanan to lament, ‘Woe to the idolaters, for they had a loss and do not know what they have lost. When the Temple was in existence the altar atoned for them, but now who shall atone for them?’ (Sukkah 55b). However, this was not the case in the early years of the Temple.

When Shlomo Hamelech built the Temple, he expressed his hope that this would be a gathering place for all people and in his time, leaders of non-Jewish nations would come to Jerusalem for Sukkot to observe the bull sacrifices and to pray for rain. According to the Netziv (Harchev Davar on Bemidbar 29:12), the attendance of this broader audience for Sukkot was the motivation for Shlomo to teach his book of Kohelet on Sukkot which contains timeless Torah messages that can be understood by both Jew and non-Jew. Thus, the reading of Kohelet on Sukkot was established by Shlomo to share the wisdom of the Torah with the wider world.

Moshe compared the Torah to rain and told Bnei Yisrael to share the wisdom of the Torah with the world, and on Sukkot, when the nations of the world came to Jerusalem to pray for rain, Shlomo used this opportunity to teach them the wisdom of the Torah. Thus it seems entirely appropriate to be reading Ha’azinu on the Shabbat just prior to Sukkot.

Finally, we are told that at the end of days, all the nations will come up to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of Sukkot (Zechariah 14:16). It is for this day that we hope, yearn and pray.

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