I’ve always thought it curious that it is customary on the holiday of Shavuot to eat foods made of sweet dairy — cheese blintzes, cheesecake and so on. In all my childhood and adult years, I never heard a reason for this that made sense.
One year, in my reading of this week’s parshah, an idea jumped out of the text: Almost the entirety of Ha’azinu is the Song of Moses. This is his second shirah, “song,” as the people of Israel stands poised to enter the Promised Land at the end of the wilderness journey.
The first shirah catapulted the people into this journey at the shores of the Sea of Reeds. This second poem is filled with images of God: circling, guarding and carrying the Israelites as an eagle would its young; a rock — steady, faithful and perfect; a father, who created and made us.
Most surprising in this poem are the many feminine images of God. First, the Rock: “You neglected the Rock who begot you, forgot the God who labored to bring you forth.”
And then there’s my favorite: “God set them atop the highlands, to feast on the yield of the earth; nursing them with honey from the crag and oil from the flinty rock.”
God fed us — suckled us — with honey from the rock. This primal metaphor of being nurtured by God’s goodness, wisdom and Presence is framed with milk and honey — dairy and sweet. It is not surprising, then, on the holiday in which we open ourselves to remember what it is must have been like to be so close to God’s revelatory Presence, we eat the foods that remind us of being suckled directly on that Divine sweetness.
Mothering, maternal, feminine images of God are not limited to this week’s parshah. Like Deuteronomy, the Book of Genesis comes to a close with blessings and poems. On his deathbed, Jacob gathers his sons around him and blesses them. To Joseph, he says,
“By the God of your father, who helps you, Shaddai, who blesses you, blessings of the heaven above, blessings of the deep that lies below, blessings of breasts and womb.”
This poem takes the form of poetic parallelism — couplets in which each part echoes the other. Our poem of Ha’azinu is similarly structured: “Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; let the earth hear the words I utter!”
In the Genesis poem, “God of your father” is parallel with “Shaddai,” as “heaven” is parallel with “earth.” Rabbi Arthur Waskow suggests that we understand the Divine Name, “Shaddai,” as “the Breasted God.” It is as obvious a suggestion as it is unconventional and unpopular. Rabbi Waskow notes the name Shaddai is concentrated in the Book of Genesis.
Indeed, at the burning bush, God tells Moses, “I am the Eternal. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name.” Moreover, Waskow points out, each time El Shaddai is invoked in Genesis is to invoke blessings of fertility.
This is Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of return and renewal — a call to hear the shofar’s cry, “Today is the birth of the world,” or “Today is pregnant with eternity.” Spiritual wholeness will mean engaging the range of images our tradition offers us — so that we can indeed be nourished by honey from the Rock.