The 19th century hasidic master Reb Simcha Bunim of Peshischa famously taught that a person should always carry a note in each of their pockets. On one should be written the biblical verse, “anokhi afar va-efer / I am dust and ashes” (Gen. 18:27), and on the other should be written the rabbinic dictum, “bishvili nivra ha-olam / for my sake was the world created” (M. Sanhedrin 4:5).
Like many people, I love this teaching; but it occurred to me recently that the texts written on these respective slips of paper are not exactly parallel. Remembering that we are but dust and ashes certainly instills a sense of humility, as Reb Simcha Bunim intended. But I’m not so sure that asserting the world was created for my sake is as empowering as the master thought it would be. After all, if the world was created for my sake, then, logically, couldn’t it also be destroyed on my account as well? This is the question that occupies Moses in Parashat Ha-azinu.
Parashat Ha-azinu is, of course, the penultimate portion in the book of Deuteronomy and indeed the entire Torah. As such, it represents the culmination of Moses’ parting words to the Children of Israel before he dies and they cross over the Jordan into the Promised Land. The last parashah, V’zot Ha-b’rakhah, is less a final teaching than the benediction that follows it. In Parashat Ha-azinu, Moses frames his climactic lesson as an epic poem that describes God’s relationship with Israel through dramatic metaphors, prophesying that Israel will eventually betray God and that God, in turn, will spurn Israel.
To understand the meaning and message of this poem, let’s spend a little time unpacking its language. Moses begins by describing how Israel’s relationship with God was formed, and how God tenderly cared for us from our earliest days as a people:
כְּנֶ֙שֶׁר֙ יָעִ֣יר קִנּ֔וֹ עַל־גּוֹזָלָ֖יו יְרַחֵ֑ף יִפְרֹ֤שׂ כְּנָפָיו֙ יִקָּחֵ֔הוּ יִשָּׂאֵ֖הוּ עַל־אֶבְרָתֽוֹ׃
As an eagle who rouses its nestlings,
Gliding down to its young,
So did [God] spread wings and take them,
Bear them along on pinions.Deut. 32:11
God, in other words, relates to Israel as a mother eagle to her young, hovering nearby and watching over them, protecting them, nurturing them; it’s an intimate image of concern and care. But, if you’ll pardon the pun, you eagle-eyed readers out there may have noticed that the Hebrew verb translated as “gliding,” יְרַחֵ֑ף, is actually a very rare word, used only one other time in the entire Torah. Side-note for you grammar nerds out there: there is actually a Greek term for a word that only appears twice in a text: “dis legomenon.” Who knew? In any case, the only other instance of the verb רחף in the Torah is at the very beginning, all the way back in the book of Genesis. In Genesis chapter 1 verse 2, we read that, as God began to create the world:
וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃
the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep and God’s spirit was מְרַחֶ֖פֶת over the water.
Different translations render the term מְרַחֶ֖פֶת in various ways: sweeping, soaring, flitting. But all recognize that the image evoked by the word is that of an eagle protecting its young, noting the way it is used in our parashah. Rare words in the Torah are quite meaningful; and when a verb, like this one, is used in only two places it is extremely likely that the Torah is deliberately trying to draw a connection between those two passages, between God’s relationship with the Jewish people and the creation of the world.
And, as a matter of fact, the language of Moses’ poem here in Deuteronomy evokes many parallels to the story of creation in the book of Genesis. For example, in verse 10, Moses says that God first encounters Israel v’tohu, which our chumash translates as “in an empty [place].” If you’re paying attention, you will likely remember that the same term, tohu, appears in the very same passage from Genesis, often translated there as “void.” Again, the Torah deliberately connects God’s relationship with the Jewish people to the creation of the world.
And later, when Moses predicts that Israel will eventually reject God, the poem utilizes similarly cosmic language: the fire of God’s wrath will descend all the way to Sheol, to the deepest depths of creation before leveling mountains and ultimately consuming everything on earth. As a consequence of Israel’s betrayal, they will experience “wasting famine, ravaging plague, [and] deadly pestilence” (32:25). The animals over which God gave humanity dominion in Genesis will be loosed destructively against their former masters, before they will finally be “reduced to nothingness, making their [very] memory cease” (32:36); the result of Israel’s rejection of God will be that it was like they never existed. The question thus emerges: in what way is God’s relationship with the Jewish people connected to the creation of the world?
In order to answer this question, we must first examine the nature of the betrayal to which Moses envisions Israel will eventually succumb. According to Moses, Israel will betray God by turning to other divinities: “They incensed Me with no-gods,” Moses imagines God saying, “and vexed Me with idols” (32:21). Now, I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t seem to me at first blush that the punishment fits the crime here. Does Moses mean to tell us that God is really petty enough to utterly annihilate the Jewish people, and maybe even to destroy the whole world, simply because we started worshiping other gods? When rabbinic tradition considers what sins led to the first major cataclysm in Jewish history, the destruction of Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple by the Babylonians, they said it was not only because of idolatry but also because of widespread bloodshed and sexual violence. Similarly, the rabbis identify unfettered hatred as the transgression that led to the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans. For these sins, we can certainly understand God’s righteous indignation; and whether as punishment or as inevitable consequence, national catastrophe would seem a quite fitting result. But in what way is idolatry itself a sin worthy of such intense divine wrath?
It is important to know that the Jewish insistence on monotheism is not simply a mathematical concern. It’s a moral one. To believe in only one God is to believe in only one creator. And if there is only a singular source for all creation, then everything that exists is precious to the Creator, and, even more importantly, every human being is inherently and equally a child of God. To believe in multiple divinities is to relate to the world as inherently divided and hierarchical: some things, and indeed, some people, are of this god, while others are of that god, which invariably must mean that some are greater and some are lesser, some more worthy of consideration and concern, and some fundamentally less valuable.
I want to be clear here that I am not talking about religious traditions that envision one God manifesting in many different ways, or that use the metaphor of divinity to identify natural forces and processes. When I say “idolatry,” I’m talking about believing that there is literally more than one God, or else venerating someone or something other than God, considering someone or something that is not God on a level that is equal to or higher than God. And from the Torah’s perspective, the problem with idolatry of this sort is that the one who believes in multiple divinities must of necessity also believe that anything which doesn’t resemble, or isn’t of, their preferred deity, is inherently less than that which resembles or comes from that deity.
The one who venerates a particularistic image of God therefore inevitably denigrates anyone and anything that they believe is distinct from that divinity. Either I believe that the same God who created me also created you and everyone else – and that therefore your life and your needs are not only as important as my own but also that your welfare is bound up in my own (and vice-versa) – or I believe that we are fundamentally separate and inherently unequal. The former belief leads to justice and peace; the latter to oppression, violence, and, ultimately, destruction. In other words, monotheism by definition results in equality and harmony; idolatry to injustice and annihilation. Which also means, crucially, that tolerating inequality and bloodshed is tantamount to idolatry, whereas embracing monotheism is evidenced only by the extent to which one actively pursues a just and peaceful society.
Seen from this perspective, creation itself depends on humanity’s exclusive loyalty to God, in principle, but more importantly in practice, because our deeds are what ultimately testify to our loyalties. Regardless of what we profess to believe, if we treat every human being equally as a child of God, pursuing justice and advancing peace; indeed, if we treat all of creation as thoroughly precious to God, then creation itself will be sustained. And if not – again, regardless of what we might profess to believe – creation will unwind into chaos, existence will be reduced to nothingness.
But Moses’ message isn’t directed to humanity as a whole. It’s directed to Israel, because the Jewish people’s loyalty to God is meant to serve as an example to all. As Moses says earlier in the book of Deuteronomy, when others look upon the kind of society Israel has created by putting monotheistic faith into practice, they will marvel at, and seek to emulate, us. This is the essence of our covenantal relationship with God, to be a mamlekhet kohanim, a nation of priests; just as a priest brings people closer to God, Israel is charged with connecting all humanity with their Creator. “Imru ba-goyim Adonai malakh,” says the psalmist, “proclaim to the nations that there is but One sovereign” (Ps. 96:10).
Again, this is less about principle than it is about practice. It ultimately doesn’t matter what we or anyone else believes in our hearts. What we do reveals what we really believe. The Jewish people are not tasked with converting the unwashed masses into our faith. Rather, we are charged with inspiring and leading others through our example to live in such a way that reflects a recognition that God is one. The stakes of our rejecting this responsibility are grave; all of existence depends upon whether Israel succeeds at its mission; the world needs us to lead by example. That’s what Moses means when he asserts, כִּ֛י חֵ֥לֶק יְהֹוָ֖ה עַמּ֑וֹ, we are God’s very stake in creation (32:9). The integrity of the entire world is undergirded by our loyalty to God, demonstrated by our deeds.
But what of the claim that the chosenness implied by our parashah undermines the moral message I am claiming is inherent to monotheism? If God indeed has the uniquely intimate relationship with Israel that Moses is describing, doesn’t that imply a human hierarchy and justify inequality? Isn’t the Torah teaching, to paraphrase George Orwell’s classic line in Animal Farm, that all people are equal, but some people are more equal than others?
In a word, no. If Israel is defined by its loyalty to God, and loyalty to God, in turn, is about behavior rather than belief, then anyone – regardless of their ethnicity, nationality, or even religious identity – is an Israelite so long as they act in the world in a way that reflects the monotheistic ideal. And conversely, anyone whose behavior betrays an idolatrous worldview forfeits their claim to be part of God’s people, even those whose Jewish ancestry is unimpeachable. “הֵ֚ם קִנְא֣וּנִי בְלֹא־אֵ֔ל, those who incense me with no-gods,” Moses imagines God as saying, “וַאֲנִי֙ אַקְנִיאֵ֣ם בְּלֹא־עָ֔ם, I will avenge them by rendering them as no-people.” God, in other words, disowns and disavows anyone whose actions reveal an idolatrous mindset, whereas God’s chosen people are those people who demonstrate, through their deeds, that they are choosing God.
Any person who is loyal to God is therefore part of God’s people. And the more of God’s people that there are in the world, the more creation is held together; the fewer of God’s people that there are in the world, the more creation collapses into chaos.
When the rabbis of the Mishnah taught “bishvili nivra ha-olam,” that every person must remember the world was created for their sake, they were not speaking metaphorically. The world indeed depends on each and every one of us. Through our choices and our deeds our world can either be sustained and, indeed, perfected; or plunged into chaos and, ultimately, destroyed. The question our teacher Moses poses to us in our parashah, then, is – which path will you choose?