Redemption deserved or not
Ha’azinu | Deuteronomy 32:1-35:52
Rosh Hashana haiku
The Days of Awe: Ten.
God made that many so there’s
no Rosh to judgment.
– Ron Kaplan
September 3, 2013
Ha’azinu, according to commentators, is the most important parsha of all. Nahmanides calls it “ed emet v’ne’eman,” “a true and faithful testimony” that “explains everything that will happen to us.” It is a summary statement of Jewish history by Judaism’s greatest prophet, Moses himself. Imagine the fervor with which it must have been read throughout the ages by Jews intent on ferreting from it the secret of Jewish history.
Indeed, Nahmanides does locate a secret within it: the message of God’s unfailing love, drawn from the Kabala.
Nahmanides lived in Gerona, Spain, in a time of heightened persecution. In 1263, he took part in the famous Disputation of Barcelona and shortly after fled to Eretz Yisrael. Like many Jews, he sought a reason behind Jewish suffering and found it in Ha’azinu. Simply put, Israel’s tribulations are punishment for its sins. But God never forgets us; when the time is ripe, God will redeem us.
So far so good — talmudic tradition regularly guarantees redemption at the end of time, assuming we mend our ways. But Nahmanides goes further, with his notion that ein bashira hazot tana’ei biteshuva v’avoda — the yearned-for redemption requires neither repentance nor prayerful petitioning. God takes us back just because God is God: a parent who offers unqualified love.
This is reminiscent of the Christian doctrine of “grace,” which emphasizes human sinfulness and the need for God to offer loving redemption even to those who do not deserve it. Nahmanides’ radical suggestion remained, therefore, something of a minority position in Judaism. Jews, overall, remained convinced that we must act deservingly before redemption dawns. But Nahmanides’ corrective never went away.
The polar views of God as a demanding judge (on one hand) and an all-compassionate parent (on the other) live in tension. We ought to act as if God demands that we deserve deliverance. At the same time, God knows perfection is beyond us, and when we are about to give up hope, we should remember God really offers unconditional love in the end.
All of this matters — not because of God but because theological models are templates for the way we humans, made in God’s image, are supposed to behave to others (a matter of some urgency during the Days of Awe).
We are held to the highest standards when it comes to people who depend upon us or who come into our orbit: we must apologize especially to those we love, and strive to correct the behavior that hurts them. But if friends and family ask pardon of us — we ought not be unreasonably demanding. Rather, like God, we can welcome them back with the grace of love that asks nothing beyond their sincere overture across the divide that separates us.
Redemption need not be only a cosmic vision of a better time when history comes to an end. It can be that state where our personal relationships are made whole, because on the one hand, we have tried to do our best, and, on the other, we have refrained from the temptation of expecting perfection.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD, cofounder of Synagogue 3000 and professor of liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is the author or editor of 35 books, including the series “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries” (Jewish Lights), and winner of the National Jewish Book Award. His latest book is All These Vows: Kol Nidre (Jewish Lights).