Parashat Ha’azinu is the last parasha in the annual cycle of Torah readings read as part of the weekly Shabbat portions. In it are the final words Moses speaks to the Israelites, reminding them of their history and warning them yet again not to ignore the commandments of God. The bulk of the speech is composed as a song, paralleling the song at the sea early on his leadership, when the people have escaped Egypt and the pursuing Egyptians and crossed the Reed Sea in safety At the end of the parasha, God tells Moses to ascend to the top of Mount Nevo, where he will die. But first God will allow him to see the whole of the Land of Israel, the place he has been journeying towards with the Children of Israel, but which he will not be allowed to enter.
Moses is hugely angry in his final song, and greatly anguished. He desperately wants the people Israel to do the right thing, to foreswear pagan ritual. He knows that they won’t. Just as he, in an unthinking moment, struck the rock instead of pointing his stick, demonstrated an inability to do exactly as God wanted, so too will Israel go astray after easier practises. Their punishment will be just as desolating and terrible as his, after being decimated they will have to come to terms with the knowledge that they too will be alienated in exile, aware that the punishment has been brought upon them by their own previous actions – it will have been their own fault.
Such is one theme within this song of Moses. He warns of the future, yet knows that his warning will not avert that future. People are people and whatever their good intentions may be, they will inevitably be thwarted by their own ordinary human inadequacy.
It seems such a strange message to stress in this period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Here we are trying to start afresh, yet we are being warned that not only will we not be able to live up to our newly planned lives, but that our inadequacy to do so will inevitably bring its own pain and desolation. We are forced to ask then if it is worth all the painful soul-searching, is there any point in our trying to live our lives in a more godly fashion.
Clearly Judaism teaches that there IS a point in such behaviour, that it is the process of trying which is far more important than the goal being reached. Also, this rather sad message can be seen as being helpful – rather than go into deep depression about our ultimate inadequacy to do God’s will, and rather than despairing about our inability to grasp or even glimpse the meaning of God, we are comforted by the knowledge that this possibility is indeed beyond our mortal minds. And once we stop trying to reach the impossible, then a great burden is lifted from us and we have the time and energy and focus to work upon the possible. The possible for us is on a much smaller scale – we have one life here, and our task is to use it as best we can. The material we have to work on is our selves, the way we can best be in the world, the way that we can do our bit to maintain this world and to make it better for our having been in it. We cannot dictate the future, except to know that it will not be as wonderful as we would like, and we cannot expect perfection, not of ourselves and not of other people. Such knowledge is immensely freeing, limiting our choices to actions here and now, choices made in the knowledge that while we won’t achieve perfection, we are still expected to make our best attempt.