When Will We Ever Learn?


As we celebrate the new year, more and more of our relatives and friends are recovering from devastating disasters — a hurricane and flood in Texas and the Southeast, fires in the Northwest and, beyond our borders, an earthquake in Mexico and deadly monsoons in Bangladesh.

Natural disasters are no longer something that only happen to other people far away. And they are no longer “natural” in quite the way they once were.

Shabbat Shuva, the Sabbath of Return, falls in the midst of a season dedicated to turning inward, to taking account of our actions, to finding the resolve and forgiveness we need to turn our lives around. But our weekly Torah portion, Ha’azinu, is a warning not to limit our focus to our own individual lives. Ha’azinu is a call to recognize how our individual lives and actions are part of a much larger story.

Ha’azinu is Moses’ swan song, his final speech to the people he has led for 40 years. Soon, the people will go forward to new lives in their new land, and Moses will not be going with them. As he prepares to take his leave, his message to the people is not hopeful.

Ha’azinu presents a grim prophecy in the form of a poem. In it, Moses foresees that the Israelites will turn their backs on God. They will spurn God’s care and commandments, and then they will suffer terrible punishments: disaster and plague, famine and violence.

Ha’azinu is a grim message for this hopeful time of year. In it, Moses acknowledges that all of his efforts with the people were likely for naught. After all of his sermons and speeches, after decades of commandments and cajoling, Moses faces death nearly certain that all the Torah he taught will be forgotten.

Why is it so hard for humans to take life lessons to heart? Why do we persist in turning our backs on the very wisdom that will sustain our lives?

The human-fed disasters that now assail earth, heavens, humans and other living things are all manifestations of same problem that Moses confronts at the end of his life: We humans are not very good at learning our lessons.

The story of Ha’azinu sweeps us up in a story that is bigger than our own lives, bigger than the sacred story of our people. It is a story that ripples through the entire cosmos, encompassing heaven and earth.

This year, may the call of the shofar wake us up! In renewing our own lives, may we renew heaven and earth.

Rabbi Mira Wasserman directs the Center for Jewish Ethics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Pennsylvania.

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