This week, the Shabbat between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, we read Parshat HaAzenu, the chilling yet hauntingly beautiful poem that tells of the nature of Klal Yisrael’s relationship with G-d. The song charts the full range of this complex relationship, its hopeful beginnings, its maturation, its frightening turnabout, its seemingly irrevocable collapse and its promise of rebirth and renewal.
The Ramban, in his concluding comments on the Parsha, makes this very point. The Ramban sees the entire poem as a full fledged prophecy, meticulously detailing how G-d cared for us in the Midbar, brought us into Eretz Yisrael and established us in our land. The song then continues to describe how we turned our back on G-d, our ingratitude ultimately turning into religious rebellion, characterized by devotion to Avoda Zara. G-d’s reaction, beginning with famine and plagues in the land and culminating with our exile and scattering around the globe is then prophesied. As the Ramban points out, this is the first requirement of a prophecy, that it be complete and unerring in every detail. Hence, concludes the Ramban, even if the song came from a less prestigious source we would be bound to acknowledge its prophetic nature. Certainly, then, given the fact that these are amongst Moshe Rabbeinu’s last words to the nation, we should relate to them as we would to any other prophecy. Therefore, the promise of ultimate retribution against those who have oppressed and attacked us is also assured, not as a reward for our behavior, but rather as punishment to nations who have persecuted us as a way of demonstrating their contempt for G-d himself.
I would like to focus on two passukim in the Parsha, 26-27. ” I said I would scatter them into corners, I would make the remembrance of them cease from among men/ were it not for the heaped up wrath of the enemy/ lest their adversaries should misdeem/, and lest they should say our hand is high/and the Lord has not done all this.” (Jerusalem Bible translation, it is highly recommended that you look up the passukim in the original Hebrew.)
First, let us examine the word “afeihem”, translated here as “I would scatter them into corners”. The translation links the word to the root “peia”, known best to us as from the command to leave a corner (peia) of our fields for the poor. This is in fact the approach of the Radak, quoted by the Ramban on the passuk. Rashi adopts a similar, though not identical approach, understanding “peia” as referring to something which is ownerless or abandoned (hefker). Hence, we will be abandoned amongst the nations. A third approach is suggested by Rav Saadia Gaon, who sees the word “peia” as referring to the extreme. Peia is generally the far or extreme corner of our field. In the context of our passuk this means that G-d will be extremely strict in his judgement of B’nai Yisrael.
Other commentators reject the link between afeihem and peia. Onkelos sees the root as the word “af”, or anger. Says Onkelos, G-d is telling B’nai Yisrael that in his anger he will scatter them. The Ibn Ezra is most extreme, and, conceding linguistic defeat and suggesting that the word afeihem has no textual parallel, understands it as “to destroy them”.
It is clear from the overall context of the passukim that we have reached the end of the line. Despite all the suffering G-d has brought on the people, nothing has worked and now the final punishment awaits. While at the end of day, no matter how one understands the word “afeihem” the fate awaiting B’nai Yisrael is identical, I believe that Rav Saadia Gaon adds an element missing from the other commentators. Part of the punishment is the fact that G-d is no longer willing to give B’nai Yisrael the benefit of the doubt. While before He might have been inclined to Midat HaRachamim, to give B’nai Yisrael “one last chance”, now He is looking for the opportunity to punish them in the most extreme fashion possible. B’nai Yisrael’s consistent rebellion has now come back to haunt them. After all the suffering they have endured, suffering meant to remind them of their link to G-d, of the need and opportunity to return to G-d, suffering prescribed with hope and with love, with Midat HaRachamim, G-d shifts, in despair and with loathing, to Midat HaDin. Now He no longer hopes for repentance, but searches for justification to “scatter them to corners”.
This analysis is reminiscent of a different time and place and a different person unwilling to draw the necessary conclusions from his actions and their consequence. Pharaoh, when beset by the plagues, also refused to see the message behind them. Thus, he led his people to ruin, rather than recognizing the omniscience of G-d. The Rambam teaches us that Pharaoh had the choice to repent, but when he refused to do so the choice was stripped from him, rendering the remaining plagues a punishment rather than an opportunity.
Perhaps this is one lesson about Teshuva to ponder on Shabbat Shuva. The ability to repent is a gift from G-d, one that no less a prophet than Yona had difficulty grasping. Hence his desperate, and ultimately futile, flight from his mission to Nineveh.
Teshuva is by no means a given, its dispensation is not automatic. The famous mishna in Massechet Yoma (perek chet, mishna tet) puts it clearly. “He who says ‘I will sin and then repent’ will not be given the opportunity to repent”. Our attitude toward Teshuva can not be one of indifference or apathy. It is not something that we will get around to tomorrow, or maybe the day after, but rather something that must be perceived as precious and fleeting, to be grasped before it escapes. G-d is reaching out to us, are we responding?
I would like to take this opportunity to publicly request “mechila” from any of you who I might have inadvertently (or even advertently, a word which my spell checker is screaming does not exist) wronged over the past year or years. It would have been the last thing that I would have wanted to do.
May we all be blessed with a G’mar Chatima Tova, a year of helth and peace, for our families and for all Klal Yisrael.