Parashat Ha'azinu

Choose Life

In Moses' final words to the Children of Israel, he implores them to choose life and keep the covenant.

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Provided by CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a multi-denominational think tank and resource center.

The story of our people begins with a song of triumph and freedom at the Red Sea and ends with the final song of Moses as we stand ready to enter the land of Israel. The unequivocal victory over Egypt has given way to ambiguity. Physical survival is assured, but spiritual health is still in question.

Neither God nor Israel has abandoned each other in spite of disappointments and anger, but the frustrations of God are clear, as if God must be convinced to protect the people of the covenant. Israel seems, as always, to be searching for itself, hoping to find in alien gods and other cultures a greater sense of wholeness.

Israel is uncomfortable with its status as a sacred and unique people, its obligations to follow God rather than the commonness of its neighbors. It is against the people's longing for the banal and the ordinary that Moses critiques:

O dull and witless nation,
Is not God the Parent who created you,
Fashioned you and made you endure

(Deuteronomy 32:6).

The commentators jump on this, realizing that the rejection of Torah is not toward a higher goal, but a repudiation of the Jewish mission to be a covenantal people. It is not simply that the environment around us is so compelling, but that we are tired of the burden. Sapped of energy, Israel displays spiritual exhaustion and disbelief that the world can be redeemed.

In the last words our tradition attributes to Moses, this prophet of prophets looks into the soul of the Jewish people and fears our desire to "escape from freedom." Moses calls on mountains and sky, on all the nations and past generations of Jews to witness the choice Israel must make--and he implores us to choose life, to affirm the covenant: "For this is not a trifling thing for you; it is your very life, through it you shall long endure…" (32:47).

David Elcott

David Elcott is Taub Professor of Practice in Public Service and Leadership at the Wagner School of Public Service at NYU and senior research fellow at the Research Center for Leadership in Action. He was the Vice-President CLAL, Interreligious Affairs Director of the American Jewish Committee, and Executive Director of the Israel Policy Forum.