Planting for the future

Planting for the future

Ha’azinu — Deuteronomy 32:1-32:52

In last week’s parsha, God commanded Moses to write down a poem and teach it to the Israelites. Here is how it begins: “May my discourse come down as the rain, my speech distill as the dew, like showers on young growth, like droplets on the grass.”

According to the Sifrei, an early rabbinic commentary on Devarim, “my discourse” refers to words of Torah. In fact, the rabbis often compare Torah to water. They say:

  • As water extends from one end of the world to the other, so Torah extends from one end of the world to the other.
  • As water descends from heaven, so Torah descends from heaven.
  • As water is free for all, so Torah is free for all.
  • As water is priceless, so Torah is priceless.
  • As water brings life to the world, so Torah brings life to the world.

As Moses spoke to the people who had spent 40 years in the wilderness — people who sometimes had to go several days without finding potable water — this imagery of gentle rain showers must have seemed to be the greatest of blessings.

But you would have a hard time making a case in Parsippany and Paterson, Connecticut and Vermont, that rain is always a blessing. Rashi makes this point, noting that rain can sometimes be a source of hardship and loss to travelers or to a farmer whose vat is filled with wine that would be spoiled by rain.

This is particularly apt for our parsha, because Moses’ message is not all sweetness and light. He says that in spite of all that God has done for Israel, the Israelites would eventually come to reject God, and that God, in turn, would hide His face from them. Ultimately, God would refrain from destroying Israel not because they were worthy of His kindness, but because the other nations would think that God had been powerless to save them.

Like the rain, words of Torah can be gentle or harsh. Moses gives the people difficult news — God will hide His face from them. However, he also tells them that in time this will lead to blessing. He reminds the people of God’s essential goodness and calls on them to change their ways.

Surely, this is why God wanted Moses to write down this poem and teach it to the people — so that he might plant a seed for the future. For this is how Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Przysucha (Poland, 1765-1827) understood this verse:

Words of Torah are like the rain. The rain does not reveal its influence on vegetation immediately but saturates the earth and germinates seeds. So too, words of Torah do not begin to influence us right away. When we first hear them we don’t sense the positive effect they will have on us. Just the opposite — they may even be inconvenient and uncomfortable. But over time they begin to positively influence those who are open to them.

Rabbi Simcha Bunim suggests that words of Torah can germinate seeds planted deep in our souls. And just as we cannot know which seeds planted in a garden will grow and flourish, we can’t always know how the study of Torah will influence us.

We read Ha’azinu between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. During this season, we make promises to God and to ourselves that we will do things differently this year, that we will be a little bit more observant or a little bit kinder. We make pledges of money and of time to shuls and schools and organizations that help those in need. We are planting seeds for the future.

And, Ha’azinu tells us, if we remain open to words of Torah, those seeds will grow and flourish.

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