Texts and beliefs By Rabbi Zahavit Shalev 13th Oct 2016

This week and next week our readings include poetic farewell speeches by Moses. This week it’s the Song of Moses (Deut 32:1-43), and next week, the Blessing of Moses (Deut. 33:1-29).

Let’s compare these two poems, starting with the Blessing of Moses, next week’s reading. Each of the twelve tribes is named and addressed in turn. Each is given a personal blessing which references past events or characteristics particular to that tribe.

Now for the Song of Moses, this week’s portion.

The speech begins with recollections about Israel’s early life. God is “the Rock, His deeds are perfect” (Deut 32:4), whereas Israel are “children unworthy of Him, that crooked perverse generation” (Deut 32:5).

God is a parent, guarding its young like an eagle (32:11) and caring deeply for them. In fact, although masculine pronouns disguise the references to the intense physical work of breastfeeding and labour, God is described as a mother, entirely devoted to keeping her babies alive. For example:

He set him [Israel] on top of the high places, and suckled him with honey from the rock, and oil from the flinty rock. (32:13)

You [addressing Israel] neglected the Rock that gave birth to you, the God who brought you forth. (32:18)

But the relationship sours, as Israel grows up to be ungrateful and rebellious:

So Jeshurun [Israel] grew fat and kicked. / You grew fat and gross and coarse. / He forsook the God who made him / And spurned the Rock of his support. (Deut 32:15)

God fantasies at length and in some detail about punishing Israel:

I will sweep misfortune on them / Use up my arrows on them: / Wasting famine, ravaging plague, deadly pestilence and fanged beasts / Will I let loose on them, / with venomous creepers in the dust. (Deut. 32:23-24)

These are harsh words describing a vengeful furious God that we might be uncomfortable acknowledging. But I like them. Now this is partly because I am quite an angry person and enjoy seeing anger expressed in holy texts because it makes me feel better about myself! But it’s also because I genuinely think that anger is a valid emotion, and specifically believe that we can and should acknowledge the anger our children can provoke in us.

The Song of Moses is a terrific illustration of maternal ambivalence – the feelings of hate that accompany the feelings of love we have for our children. It’s normal, when your baby wakes you for the umpteenth time in the middle of the night, to feel resentment, and even rage. But these feelings are hard to admit to. It’s very powerful, therefore, to see maternal ambivalence not only represented here but given full vent!

The Song of Moses and the Blessing of Moses mark the start and end of parenting. The early days are chaotic and frustrating. Later on there are people with histories and personalities. It takes blood and sweat and milk and tears and time – and a great many emotions – to get from Ha’Azinu to V’Zot Habracha.

Zahavit Shalev is a Rabbi at New North London Synagogue.

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