Commentary on the Weekly Torah Portion from Rabbi Jonathan’s Recent Book



וַיֵּֽנִקֵהוּ דְבַשׁ מִסֶּלַע וְשֶׁמֶן מֵֽחַלְמִישׁ צֽוּר:

Va’yeinikeihu d’vash misela, v’shemen mei’khalmish tzur.

God suckled them with honey from the rock, with rich oil from the flinty crag (Deuteronomy 32:13).

Ha’azinu (“Give ear” or “Listen”) is one of two poems attributed to Moses. In Exodus 15, he leads the Children of Israel in שִׁירַת הַיֶּם Shirat Ha’yam, the “Song of the Sea,” after they have crossed the Sea of Reeds to safety. Now, at the very end of the journey, Moses imparts this epic poem.

The Hebrew of Ha’azinu is exalted, the language wonderfully rich. We are reminded that the Torah is a great literary creation. Ancient Hebrew poetry did not utilize rhyme, but is rich in assonance, rhythm, meter and repetition. It’s beautiful. The poem opens:

Give ear, O heavens, let me speak

Let the earth hear the words I utter!

May my discourse come down as the rain,

My speech distill as the dew,

Like showers on young growth,

Like droplets on the grass.

Moses then paints verbal pictures of the long relationship of YHVH with the Children of Israel. Moses likens God to a father who watches over Israel, the apple of his eye. But God is equally likened to a nursing mother, and to an eagle hovering over her nestlings and bearing them gently on her pinions. God finds Israel as a foundling in the howling wilderness, and rescues her and raises her, but Israel becomes a spoiled child, grown fat and rebellious. In another section, God is likened to an avenging warrior with a flashing sword, routing Israel’s enemies.

This plethora of metaphors makes clear that the Torah does not have a singular or literal description of YHVH, the Source of Life. How could that which is infinite be captured in a single image? I’m certain that one of the reasons that the Second Commandment forbids making an image of God is the fundamental truth that God transcends form and cannot be contained in any fixed image or phrase. The Torah abounds in descriptive names and adjectives for YHVH, and that poetic approach to speaking about God continues in Judaism to this day. A literal and reductive approach to Torah will always miss the point; one cannot speak about God in literal terms, and our ancestors understood this. They instead offered abounding metaphors.

This abundance of imagery frees us to choose the metaphors that resonate for us at any given moment of our lives. If we feel abandoned in a howling wilderness, perhaps we can imagine God as mother, grabbing us up and clutching us to her breast. If we are overcome by awe, perhaps God can be a Sovereign of the Heavenly Hosts, presiding in majesty over the cosmos. If we are facing a struggle, perhaps God can be the warrior, striding ahead of us and clearing the path. But God is not limited to anthropomorphism. Sometimes, God is a quality in the natural world: In some places in the Torah, we find God described as the Breath of All Life; in others, God is the Source of Living Waters. God is also named by abstract qualities:הַרֲחָמָן  Ha’rakhaman — the Compassionate: even שַׁלוֹם Shalom — Peace. And all these names — infinite metaphors, in fact — are subsumed within God’s ineffable name YHVH, a name we do not pronounce and which contains all multitudes. Perhaps awed silence is our most certain recourse for naming the unnamable. Yet language is also sublime, and so out of the silence, we offer God names.

In Ha’azinu, one metaphor appears eight times, far more than any other: God as צוּר Tzur, Rock. I find this metaphor compelling: God as our Rock, צוּר יִשְׂרָאֵל Tzur Yisrael, “The Rock of Israel”; our foundation, solid and everlasting; our source of stability and support; a place to stand firm; an elevated place; a fortress; a refuge. As I let my imagination play over this metaphor, as I see myself stand on that rock, I feel more grounded, balanced and powerful.

Ha’azinu soars, moving into the transcendent. God is not merely a solid, unmoving rock. God is a rock that also flows with sustenance: “God suckled them with honey from the rock, with rich oil from the flinty crag” (Deuteronomy 32:13).

How rich, indeed! Imagine a rock that also produces nourishment. Honey and oil! YHVH, the Source of Life, is both stability and flow, security and sustenance. A nursing mother, maybe Mother Earth herself: A rock that sustains us!

God as the sustaining rock in the wilderness is a frequent metaphor in the Tanach (Hebrew Bible). Repeatedly, we hear the famous story of God instructing Moses to draw water from the rock so that the parched people can drink (e.g., Exodus 17:6, Deuteronomy 8:15, Isaiah 48:21, Psalm 78:20, Psalm 105:41). Psalm 114, from the Hallel psalm cycle, concludes that YHVH is the one “who turns the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a bubbling spring!”

YHVH is the power in the universe — and also inside us — that can take a problem and find an unexpected solution. YHVH can take an apparently immovable object and find an opening through which to pass. YHVH can take a hardened heart and crack it open, so that tears and life pour forth. The world, and each of us, is filled with unseen life and possibility. This hidden potential can be made manifest by the skillful application of love and vision, patience, trust and faith. Even a rock can turn into a bubbling spring! Or, as Dr. King liked to say, God is the power in the universe that can make a way out of no way. I might add: God is the power inherent in every human being that can let the sweet honey of life flow through even the most armored heart.

I might also add: May your encounters with Torah flow with sweet nourishment for your soul. May you be suckled with honey from the rock, with rich oil from the flinty crag. May my discourse come down as the rain, and my speech distill as dew: may holy metaphors animate your inner life.