“Ha’azinu ha’shamayim va’adabera, v’tishmah ha’aretz imrei fi – Listen heaven as I speak, hear the words of my mouth” (Devarim 32:1).
Moshe is about to instruct the heavens to cease providing rain and the earth to cease producing food if the Jews fail to maintain their side of the bargain with G-d and neglect to keep His commandments.
This admonishment is in the spirit of “Im bechukosei teleichu ve’es mitzvosei tishmoru ve’asisem osam, venasati gishmeichem be’itam – If you follow my laws and are careful to keep my commandments, I will provide you with rain at the right time” (Bamidbar 26:3). But, if you don’t, the heavens will be instructed “Ve’atazar es ha’shamayim velo yiheyeh matar – to refrain from providing rain” (Devarim 11:17).
We know that the word “adabera” comes from the word “ledaber” which reflects a harsh tone of voice, whereas the word “imrei” comes from the word “lemor” which reflects a soft tone of voice.
The heavens have been programmed by G-d to supply rain. Instructing them not to do so is against their nature. It is only harsh and insistent words that will convince the heavens to go against their own nature.
Indeed, Rav Pinchas Ben Yair had to speak harshly to the river when he commanded it to split and let him pass through on his way to fulfill the mitzvah of redeeming captives (Chullin 7). The river rejected his initial request because, so it argued, it was commanded by G-d to perform its own mitzvah, namely to keep on flowing in accordance with the laws of nature.
But when it comes to the eretz, which symbolizes humans, a harsh tone of voice can be counter-productive. Humans respond better to gentle persuasion rather than to harsh coercion. If told softly that the combination number that unlocks rain is the 613 mitzvot, they will be happy to comply because the rewards will be convincing.
“Ya’arof ka’matar likchi – May my teaching drop like rain” (32:2). The choice of the word “ya’arof,” which means to drip, instead of the word “yizal,” which is the more commonly used word, is deliberate. “Ya’arof” also means to chop off, as in the Eglah Arufah, which is decapitated from the back of the neck. The Jews are called “Am keshei oref,” they are stubborn. They turn their backs on G-d and his commandments. “Yisrael azim shebe’umos” (Beitzah 25b), Jews are the stubborn one among the nations. Whereas the other nations only need the seven Noachide laws to keep them in line, the Jews need 613. When all else fails, their stubbornness is defeated by famine. When there is no food, even the wealthiest “self-made man” realizes that the gateway to his success is keeping the 613 commandments. But famine is a harsh lesson. Moshe prefers the stubbornness of the Jews to be defeated by the soft words of limud Torah rather than by the sharp pains of hunger.
“Ha’Tzur tamim pa’alo, ki kol derachav mishpat, Kel emunah v’ein avel, tzadik v’yashar hu – The Rock, perfect is His work, for all his paths are justice, a G-d of faith without iniquity, righteous and fair is He” (32:4). Often, we wonder why the righteous are rewarded with a difficult life and the wicked with an easy life.
The problem is that we cannot tell the difference between what is ultimately good for us and what is ultimately bad for us. Not all of our prayers should be answered, because not all of our wishes would benefit us if they were answered. We pray each Rosh Chodesh, “She’yimaleh mishalaos libeinu l’tova”: May G-d only fulfill those of our wishes that will be good for us.
One is reminded of the story of the gadol who could not find a job in Europe and so, unlike his rabbinic colleagues who found positions there, he had to leave Europe and emigrate to America. Why did G-d do that to me, he might have complained. But he was among the few who survived the Holocaust.
G-d has all the time to inflict punishment on the wicked and if he does not do so immediately, it is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength. The word “Kel” means strength. Restraint is the greatest display of strength and if G-d takes his time before exacting judgment from the wicked, He has his reasons. We have to retain our belief in the justice of His ways. That is the meaning of Kel emunah, we must believe that G-d is just in his restraint and that this restraint is for our own good and is not there to harm us, “ein avel.”
“Shiches lo, lo bonov mumam – Corruption is not G-d’s fault, it is His children’s fault” (32:5). Don’t blame G-d for creating you an evil person. He did not. We all have freedom of choice. And if we choose the wrong path, it is our own doing, not His. We are called Yeshurun, because were created yashar, as honest human beings. It is up to us if we wish to corrupt ourselves and become crooked, not Him. “G-d made man upright, but man chased after many intrigues” (Koheles 7:29).
“Zechor yemos olam, binu shenos dor va’dor, she’al avicha veyagedchah, zekeineichah v’yomru lach – Remember the days long gone by. Ponder the years of each generation. Ask your father and let him tell you and your grandfather who will explain it” (32:7).
Why, one might ask, did the generations after the flood live shorter and shorter lives until there were reduced from about 1,000 years per person to 70 years in the time of David. The answer can be found in the annals of history and human behavior. When one is hale and hearty and can live forever, one believes one does not need G-d. So one can behave like the generation of the flood, do what one likes, be cruel to one another and rebel against G-d. If life and health are taken for granted that way, then G-d has to reduce our years and compromise our health to remind us that it is not “Kochi ve’otzem yadi,” my success is not dependent on me, but rather on G-d who gives me the strength to succeed, “Vezacarta es Hashen Elokechah ki hu hanosen lecha ko’ach la’asos chayil.”
“Hashem badad yanchenu v’ein imo eil nachar – G-d alone guided them and there was no alien power with him” (32:12). Unlike the nations of the world, we have no mazal, no star that guides our fate. Our star is the star of allegiance to G-d and his Torah. Without that, we cannot survive. No lucky star will ensure our survival. In fact, our star is the star of destruction.
Avram understood this when he told G-d that he would not survive as a nation because he could not conceive children. G-d admitted that Avram was right. Avram would not survive because his star predicted annihilation. But Avraham, with G-d in his name, would survive, but only so long as his descendants would be faithful to the Torah. And this lesson was learned again in the time of Haman. The fate of the Jews was “lehasmid velaharog vela’abed” (to be utterly destroyed), and it was only the reaffirmation of their allegiance to the Torah, in the spirit “kiyemu vekiblu hayehudin aleihaem,” that saved them.
“Astirah panei meihem, er’eh mah acharisam – I will hide my face from them and see what their end will be” (32:20). If the Jews want to depend on their lucky star and not on G-d, G-d will hide himself and the outcome will be tragic.
“Vayishman Yeshurun vayivat – Yeshurun became fat and wicked” (32:15). The word “vayivat,” can be read vay ba’at: Woe unto the one who kicks his benefactor. And the word “ba’at” contains the same letters as “teva,” which means nature. We all have a tendency to take the miraculous in our lives for granted. If the miracles keep on coming, that must be the product of nature, not the intervention of G-d. As we take miracles for granted, we kick against G-d. “Vai teva,” woe is to the one who kicks against G-d who created this miracle called “nature.”