The Best Disguised Happy Song

A colleague of mine, Cantor Ira Rohde of New York, contrasts The Song at the Sea with Haazinu. The former is an expression of joy, meant to be sung loudly to the whole world. The latter is meant to be an internal song, as Moses is commanded to teach it to the Israelites and "put it into their mouths." In other words, this song goes inward, not outward. It doesn't convert its Sabbath to a Sabbath of Song. It is memorized, and placed into the heart.

Even so, where is the happiness? Does it not need to be happy?

Maybe it doesn't, or maybe the last verse, which prophecies the end of the exile and how "The land shall atone for its people," is enough happiness to justify its designation as a song. Perhaps. Maybe we can look further.

Rabbi Levy Yitschak of Berditchev claims that the entire song has an undertone of happiness to it, perhaps a deeper happiness than even The Song of the Sea. He quotes the Talmud saying that the purpose of exile was for the Jewish nation to attract converts. He continues to explain that those converts were the sparks of holiness among the nations which gave them the merit to contest Israel.

Once those sparks leave the nations and cleave to Israel, the nations have depleted their holiness and will cease. That is the meaning of the phrase, "And he taught it to the Israelites until their completion." The completion referred to is that of the nations. Thus, the exile itself prepares the ultimate redemption. That is happy.

The Torah, however, gives other reasons for exile. Specifically, it is punishment for sins of idolatry, to a certain extent sexual licentiousness, and the violation of the Sabbatical Year. So what does the Talmud mean when it says that exile is for Jews to attract converts? How can the Talmud contradict clear verses in the Torah?

These three sins, idolatry, the sabbatical year and sexual immorality all have one thing in common: they represent a subordination to the physical world, rather than to God, who is above the physical creation. Sexual immorality is an addiction to physical pleasures. It is devoting one's actions to material things. The sabbatical year represents a recognition of God's dominion over the land, by extension over physical possessions. One who violates that has put their material possessions over God's dominion. Idolatry, at its core, represents obedience to the forces of nature. The pagan gods are gods of nature, of the sun, of the River Nile, of fire and water, and so forth.

Another strange reading that we do is the book of Ecclesiastes, a fairly depressing work about the futility of pursuing material things. Why is this strange? Because we read it during the holiday of Sukkot, a holiday called "the time of our rejoicing." Why read such a depressing book?

Because it is not really depressing. It is liberating. Once we learn that true happiness and human fulfillment lie in a Godly life of spirituality, we can feel that true happiness.

I think the same thing is implicit in Haazinu. When the Jews go into exile, they live among the nations that are unburdened by the Torah and its laws. A Jew who looks at all of the restrictions that his religion places upon him may feel jealousy towards his Gentile neighbors. They can indulge freely in physical pleasures. The Canaanite nations created religions that sanctified orgies. They can dedicate their deeds to physical pleasure, and dedicate their property to material desires. Jews might be jealous.

And then, something incredible happens. Converts to Judaism arise. Jews do not proselytize, and yet there are Gentiles who either join the Jewish religion, or adopt many Jewish ethics and practices. Indeed, many evangelicals subscribe to the exact Torah values of spirituality and the subjugation of materialism to it that we have talked about.

A Jew may find himself in Los Angeles, for example, where he sees the palaces of the rich and famous. And then he finds out that that rich and famous person is studying Kabbalah. He looks at a billionaire like Donald Trump, and then he finds out that Trump's daughter has converted to Judaism and leads an observant lifestyle. And the Jews says to himself, "perhaps this materialism thing isn't enough, perhaps I have everything a human needs in my own traditions!"

I believe Rabbi Levy Yitschak is telling us something deeply significant. He is telling us that Haazinu is showing us the true power and joy of the Torah lifestyle. Wherever the Jews go, their presence awakens the sparks of spirituality among the nations they live. They raise up those sparks, and the ones who reach highest convert. It leaves the pagan ideology to wither and die, "until their completion." The exile represents the victory of Torah over all other ideologies.

That is a truly happy message. That's why it's a song, because the rebuke of the section implies the wonderful treasure that we have. "Blessed are you, oh Lord our God, who has chosen us from amongst the nations and gave us His Torah." Just as Ecclesiastes is a truly happy book, because it shows us that true happiness is not in material things, so too is this chapter.

Responsibility For Each Other

As the children of Israel prepared to enter the holy land, they are commanded to go to the two mountains near Schechem, Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval. There, they are too divided into two by tribes, with half of the tribes ascending Mount Gerizim, and the other half climbing up Mount Eval. The former are then to bless the people of Israel, and the latter are to issue the admonitions/curses. These include such things as, "Cursed is the man who worships idols in secret..." Other things being cursed include certain incestuous relationships.

The Torah only enumerates the admonitions, and does not list the blessings. This is strange. But what is more strange is the entire ceremony. Moses repeatedly warns the people of the consequences of their sinning, so why is this dramatic ceremony on the two mountains necessary? And why are only certain behaviors cursed, while others, such as murder, adultery, and the like, are not mentioned? What is the criteria?

The commentary Ohr Hachaim perceives a common thread among the things listed: they are done away from the eyes of the public. These are private sins, which the sinner does not wish anyone not directly involved (such as the relative with whom the incestuous relationship is taking place) to know about. Nonetheless, says the commentary, all of Israel are responsible for one another, and even private sins impact the nation.

Now we can understand why the tribes of Israel must be the ones to deliver these blessings and curses. If the sins have been public ones, the justice system would've dealt with them. Because they are private, and the perpetrators are not caught, the communal responsibility that the Jewish people have would kick in and the entire nation could be held responsible. Thus, it is the people themselves who must publicly warn and admonish the would-be sinners that their actions have a deep impact on the entire people of Israel.

Now, on the surface, one could say that a society where sinners only do so in private is actually in good shape. There is no anarchy, there is no public lawlessness. Such a society has seemingly fulfilled the basic commandment to have a system of laws and justice. Individuals recognize that and take care not to be caught. And, yet, the Torah gives us a resounding "no." Such a society is not the ideal, and it is not sufficient to achieve that level. We must build a society where people do not sin even in private. We must strive for a world where people fear the Lord, not just the policemen.

To achieve that, education is critical. Many, if not most, people never progressed beyond the basic level of moral development where fear of punishment is the prime motivator. In other words, many people never grow past childhood, where bad behavior is avoided in order to avoid the spanking. Those who do, reach a level where good behavior is its own reward. They reached the stage where they can be tested and withstand the test, just as Joseph did with Potiphar's wife. At that moment of temptation, say the sages of the Talmud, Joseph saw the vision of his father's face. He remembered his mission, and he remembered the education that his father had given him. He stopped cold and did not sin.

Jacob's education of Joseph is the paradigm for the society we wish to build. A place where all people are inherently moral is a wonderful place to live.

I wish to go a little further in understanding this concept of mutual responsibility. It is a difficult concept, because it seems unfair. If someone in my people commits a private sin, why should I be responsible?

The Hebrew term is roughly translated as guarantor. In practical terms, it means that we are interchangeable. If Jack lends money to John, and John has Jeff become his guarantor, Jack can reclaim the money directly from Jeff if John is unable to pay. Jeff, therefore, takes John's place in the transaction.

Translating this into society, it means that we must build a society based on a deep love of our fellow beings. Jeff would only be a guarantor for John if he had a caring relationship with him. He must wish to help him. So, too, we must wish to help each other. If someone sins, even privately, it may indicate that we have not reached out strongly enough. We have not touched them with the love of the right, but only with the fear of the law. That is not sufficient.

While this may not seem to be an easy level to reach, there may be a very simple but immensely powerful way to do it. I will summarize it in three words: keep it positive. When someone misbehaves, the natural tendency is to be critical of them. Let's face it, we get a perverse pleasure out of complaining and condemning. But what does that accomplish? It just pushes the other person in further down, and makes those within earshot disdain them even more.

Now, imagine if we try to the other way. Imagine if we reached out to the sinner, showed them acceptance, and strove to teach them a better way. Imagine if we felt sadness when someone sins and is caught, not pride and mirth. While it might not change their behavior now, it leaves the path open for them to return later. That is what a spiritual guarantor would do. Such a person cares deeply about his or her fellow, and feels sadness, not joy, if the fellow stumbles.

For this reason, it is the people themselves need to pronounce the blessings and the curses. Where are the blessings? There are too many of them to pronounce at that ceremony on the mountains. That is because the blessings are the daily encouragement, the ongoing acts of kindness, the persistent caring of one human being to another. All of those little deeds, performed millions and millions of times, are the true blessings of a blessed people. The curses, on the other hand, are a formal ceremony to publicly put on notice all would-be sinners. But in private, one-on-one, it is the blessings that must predominate.