Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Haazinu (Deuteronomy 32:1- 32:52)
By Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel – “Remember the days of yore, understand the years (shenot) of each generation.” (Deuteronomy 32:7)
Are we commanded to study world history? Certainly, I would say, on the basis of the simple meaning of the verse cited at the head of this commentary in accordance with the commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808–1888). A proper study of history will reveal the consistent interplay between Israel and the nations of the world, the intellectual streams which influenced us – and in turn – which we influenced, and the hidden finger of God which guaranteed Jewish survival under the most difficult of conditions. And I would argue that the proper translation of the biblical verse cited above, as one may deduce from the biblical commentary of Rabbi Hirsch, is “understand the differences [shenot, not from ‘shana – year,’ but rather from ‘shinui – difference, change’] of each generation.”
It has aptly been said: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is mystery, today is a gift granted to us by God, and that is why it is called ‘present.’” I would add that “today” is all that we really have to utilize, and we must utilize it well, with wisdom and with dispatch. But we cannot treat “today” with proper understanding and circumspection unless we are sensitive to the forces of history which preceded it, especially to the changes in zeitgeist (the temper and spirit of the time), which makes “today” different from “yesterday,” and the new opportunities which may enable us to set the stage for a better tomorrow.
The truth is that God revealed Himself to Moses as the God of history. It is also true that in the Book of Genesis El Sha-ddai or Elo-him is revealed as the God of power and creation; however when in the book of Exodus, Moses asks God for His name, the divine response is “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh,” literally, “I shall be what I shall be” (Ex. 3:14). In effect, God is here introducing Himself first and foremost as the God of future tense, the God of history, the God of becoming, the God of future redemption (“Jehovah,” literally “He will bring about” redemption). This is very much in keeping with Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi’s Kuzari, who sees God as revealing Himself first and foremost in history, based upon the first of the Ten Commandments, “I am the Lord thy God, who took thee out of Egypt, the house of Bondage” (20:2).
And take note that this Name Ehyeh is very different from Maimonides’ emphasis on the God of power and creation, Elo-him; Indeed Maimonides even goes so far as to explain Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh to mean I am that I am, I am the God of being, I am the Ground of Being (Paul Tillich), I am the essence of creation (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Foundations of Torah 1:1), completely overlooking the fact that Ehyeh is literally a future verb, “I will be.” Hence both ideas are correct: God is the powerful God of Creation and God is also the Redeeming God of history.
And this name Ehyeh is not as definitive as is Elo-him, the God of creation. The God of creation “worked” (as it were) alone in creating the world; in contrast, the God of history is dependent upon the world scene first and foremost on Israel. (For example, according to most interpreters redemption was in the divine plan almost immediately after the Exodus, but the refusal of Israel to conquer the land delayed the process immeasurably. There will eventually be redemption, as all our prophets guarantee in God’s name, but since redemption requires Israel’s intervention, and the eventual cooperation of the entire world of nations, God must leave the “end of days” open-ended.
And so the Bible after presenting the name Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh goes on to say, “So shall you [Moses] say to the children of Israel: ‘The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, has sent Me to you; this is My name forever, and this is My remembrance for all generations’” (Ex. 3:15). Note an interesting linguistic nuance: In Deuteronomy chapter thirty-two, the text reads “dor vador,” understand the differences “of each generation” whereas in Exodus chapter three, we find “dor lador,” “this is My remembrance for all generations.” There are two names of God expressed in this passage in Exodus: the God of the patriarchs is the God of Jewish tradition from generation to generation, the God of eternal Torah and halakhic continuity, the God of the Shulĥan Arukh, if you will; the God of history is the God of each generation, with that generation’s specific demands conditioned upon the historical situation of the specific time.
Hence Rabbi Shimon Schwab records in his memoirs how, as a studious bar mitzva youth, decided to go to the Yeshiva in the city of Rodin because he was anxious to have contact with the Ĥafetz Ĥayim, Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, the gadol hador, the great luminary of the time, who lived in Rodin. The sage asked the youth if he was a Kohen-priest. When young Shimon answered in the negative, the Torah giant commiserated that when the Messiah will come, only he – a Kohen – would be privileged to enter the sacred precincts of the Holy Temple. The reason for the priests’ elevated status is that their tribal ancestors answered positively to Moses’ call, “Whoever is with God, come to me.” Since young Shimon’s tribal ancestors did not heed that call, he would be excluded. The Ĥafetz Ĥayyim concluded:
And, I do not say these words lightly in order to hurt you. I merely wish to prepare you: in every generation a Divine Voice calls out the particular summons, challenge, and opportunity of that generation. Do not repeat the mistake of your forbears. Listen for God’s voice in your generation, and make sure that you respond to God’s call!
Clearly the Divine Voice in our generation is calling out to us to come to Israel, to prepare for our palpable redemption, to world redemption.