God can be scary… At least the God portrayed in our High Holiday services, coming just around the corner. God, the King, sits on an exalted throne and we approach, with fear and trembling, awaiting the Shofar’s blast and God’s Judgement “Who shall live and who shall die… who by water and who by fire… who by famine and who by thirst… who by earthquake and who by plague…” It is no wonder that this period is called, Yamim Noraim, “Days of Awe.” The frightening God is also front and center in our weekly portion. Haazinu, “Listen-up,” is a dramatic poem that is part of Moses’ final words to the Israelites before he dies and they enter the Promised Land. The Torah here seems to promote the principles of “tough love,” and middah kenegetd middah, “measure for measure.” If the people are loyal and follow the correct path, they will be rewarded. If not, God declares, “I will pile hardship on them…wasting famine, devouring plague…and fanged beasts I will send against them…” (Deuteronomy 32:23-24).
As we engage in spiritual and ethical reflection, appropriate to the season, can we not ask; “Is this the Divine role model we wish for?” “Are we meant to believe that the people of Houston, Haiti, Florida and other victims of natural devastation deserve their Judgement?” Is this the kind of Parent/Teacher/Manager we want?” “Is this the kind of Parent/Teacher/Manager we want to be?” I am not suggesting that we stop reading Haazinu and stop reciting Unetaneh Tokef. Rather, I believe that we can, and should, wrestle with our core traditions, even at our most sacred moments.
Fortunately, our Parasha also contains a metaphor for God that is like a ray of sunshine amidst the bleak clouds. Kenesher yair kino, al gozalav yerachef (Deut 32:11). God is compared to a raptor, hovering over its nest, ready to protect and feed its hatchlings. Here is the image of a nurturing God who loves unconditionally. With such a heart-warming model in mind, I hope that, as we near the days of awe, and undertake a rigorous moral inventory, we can also learn how to give and receive love unconditionally, and nurture those in our community rather than rendering judgement.
David Bernat PhD, Executive Director, Synagogue Council of MA, Lecturer in Judaic Studies, UMass Amherst, SSDS Alumnus and Alumni parent.