Haazinu: Nursing Them with Honey from the Rock
Haazinu: Nursing Them with Honey from the Rock
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. (Perhaps I'll learn others as a result of this column.)
One year, in my reading of this week's parashah, an idea jumped out of the text: almost the entirety of Haazinu is the Song of Moses. This is his second shirah, "song," as the people of Israel stands poised to enter the Promised Land, 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 (Deuteronomy 32:10-11); a rock—steady, faithful, and perfect (Deuteronomy 32:4), a father—who created and made us (Deuteronomy 32:6).
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" (Deuteronomy 32:18).
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" (Deuteronomy 32:13).
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. (This phrase also names Rabbi Lawrence Kushner's exquisite introduction to Jewish Mysticism, Honey from the Rock—a book I read and reread.)
Mothering, maternal, feminine images of God are not limited to this week's parashah. 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" (Genesis 49:25).
This poem takes the form of poetic parallelism—couplets in which each part echoes the other. Our poem/shirah of Haazinu is similarly structured:
"Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;
Let the earth hear the words I utter!" (Deuteronomy 32:1)
Ear -- hear
Let me speak -- I utter
Earth -- heaven.
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".1 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 [YHVH]. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name YHVH" (Exodus 6:3). Moreover, Waskow points out, each time El Shaddai is invoked in Genesis is to invoke blessings of fertility:
"When Abram was 99 years old, the Eternal appeared to Abram and said to him, 'I am El Shaddai—walk along before Me and be pure of heart, and I will set a covenant between us, and multiply you exceedingly' " (Genesis 17:1-2)
"May El Shaddai (translated as 'God Almighty') bless you, and make you fruitful and numerous, so that you become a host of peoples" (Isaac speaking to Jacob, in Genesis 28:3)
"God appeared to Jacob again on his return from Paddan-aram and blessed him. . . . And God said to him, 'I am El Shaddai, be fruitful and multiply. A people and a host of peoples shall come from you, and kings shall go forth from your loins' " (Genesis 35:9, 11)
"By the God of your father, who helps you,
Shaddai who blesses you,
blessings of the deep that lies below,
blessings of breasts (shadayim) and womb" (Genesis 49:25)
This is Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of return and renewal—a call to hear the shofar's cry, Hayom harat olam, "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.
1. "The Breasted God," a Torah teaching for Va-y'chi, The Shalom Center, post date 9/8/2001January 2007).
Rabbi Shira Milgrom is a rabbi at Congregation Kol Ami and is part of a unique rabbinic partnership of two co-senior rabbis in White Plains, New York. She is the author of articles about Jewish spirituality, education, healing, and women in Judaism, and is the editor of a unique siddur used now for two decades in settings across the continent. She is blessed to learn continually about loving from her husband, children, and grandchildren.
Rabbi Milgrom brings out an intriguing dimension of the Song of Moses by focusing on the theme of the nurturing God in the language of the poem. Since the passage is poetry, the reader can uncover many hidden meanings that add to our understanding about God beyond the role of warrior and, instead, portray the Divine as nurturer of Israel in its time of need.
The Rabbis also understood that this text was a poem and subject to many levels of interpretations. The 19th century Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (the Netziv) acknowledged the multiple interpretations inside the Song of Moses. "One who is aware of the background of the allusions and figurative expressions of poetry can better appreciate its character than the person who has only an external apprehension of the immediate literal meaning of the words."1
Furthermore the rabbinic sages drew from this poem a message about the history of the Jewish people. In Deuteronomy, God exclaims, "For they are a folk (nation) void of sense" (Deuteronomy 32:28). The Rabbis wrote in Midrash Sifrei to Deuteronomy that on the surface God appeared to be condemning the Jewish people for their unfaithful behavior during the years in the desert. Rabbi Yehuda interprets the meaning of this verse to refer to Israel. Yet, Rabbi Nehemiah, on the other hand, says it means the Babylonians.2 The exegesis in the midrash is on the word goy, which can mean "nation" or "folk." Is it Israel or the nations upon which God sends divine wrath?
Ellen M. Umansky brings a lens to the poem which will speak to us today. In the Torah: A Women's Torah Commentary, she integrates the poetics with history. By commenting on verse 32, "Ah the vine for them is from Sodom," she reminds us that in the story of Sodom "God threatens to destroy those cities prompting Abraham to protest to God." Umansky continues, "Perhaps Haazinu can be seen as an invitation for us to act like Abraham and protest against what seems to be an indiscriminate, wholesale destruction."3 Given the recent war in Gaza, the poetry and prose may very well compel us to call upon a variety of metaphors about God to guide, inspire, comfort, and support Israel and world Jewry. Maybe history has lessons to teach the modern State of Israel as it contends with Hamas in Operation Protective Edge. This Shabbat Shuvah Haazinu reminds us of just how difficult it is to be a nation in the Middle East and for Israel then and today to face the challenges of hostile surrounding nations. May the rest of the holidays bring Divine light to Israel and the Jewish people.
Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim (Deuteronomy) (Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1980), p. 353
Ibid., Nehama Leibowitz, pp. 335-336
Ellen M. Umansky, "Contemporary Reflections in Parashat Haazinu," in The Torah: A Women's Commentary, Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L Weiss,. eds. (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008), p. 1,268
Rabbi Brad L. Bloom, M.S.W. D.D., is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam in Hilton Head, South Carolina. He is also enrolled in the DHL program in modern American Jewish history at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
Haazinu, Deuteronomy 32:1–52
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,555-1,566; Revised Edition, pp. 1,398-1,412;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,251–1,270