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Shabbat Haazinu & Shabbat Shuvah

Deuteronomy Chapter 32 - Kicking Over The Traces

by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

In this second phase of Moses’s final speech to the Children of Israel, he returns to poetry. The Hebrew word Shir can mean either a poem or a song. Words, or sounds. A poem is easy to learn, at least easier than prose, particularly if it is set to music. Moses has offered both. He has covered his bases as if to assert that we are all different and have different ways of absorbing information.

Amongst the messages of the song this week is the statement “Yeshurun got fat and kicked.” Yeshurun, the Upright Ones, is another way of referring to the Jewish people. This obscure phrase is taken to mean that when we do well materially, we tend to kick against Judaism and rebel against its values, like a well-fed ox or horse kicking over the traces. Only hardship and suffering seem to keep the Jews together. Persecution works better than affluence and peace. Over the long period of Jewish history, there might seem to be some validity in this.

On one level now, being wealthy makes it easier to be Jewish and our society accepts manifestations of Jewishness much more comfortably than it did (given all the different minorities and cultures that have migrated and proliferated over the past fifty years). And it is so much easier to be observant and still play a full role in society. Affluence has enabled many Jews to own private jets, go on kosher cruises, and live luxurious lives. With separate kitchens, and a proliferation of kosher stores, restaurants, and food products it has never been easier to be a Jew. And yet many Jews are far from being wealthy and there is a divide between the haves and the have-nots!

The danger, these days, is not that Jews assimilate for the sake of wealth as once they did. There are no excuses nowadays. What worries me are all those Jews who are not wealthy and who find it very difficult to buy kosher, to belong to synagogues, and to give their kids a Jewish education. Perhaps the real concern today is that when Jews get wealthy, they are in danger of forgetting or rejecting not Judaism, but other less fortunate Jews, and that would be just as much a disaster as the original interpretation.

But there’s another way of looking at it. When we are poor or suffering, we tend to cling together for support. We rise to the occasion. But when we are wealthier, we often become more self-important and intolerant of others. More aggressive about protecting our private patches. And vast amounts of money are spent on political battles for power instead of helping the poor and underprivileged.

This is happening today both in Israel and the Diaspora. The religious world is plagued by rival dynasties and internal dissent. Different religious sects vie with each other for supremacy and more elaborate displays of wealth and power. They delight in manifestations of petty, religious excessive strictness.

Many of the secular too have become more possessive and intolerant. They are less willing to try to understand religious sensibilities and the desire to protect their way of life. Just as some of the religious want to impose their values on others. The elites do not want to relinquish the privileges that have dominated the upper reaches of Israeli society. We are all bulls kicking over the traces. And the vast amount of money spent on achieving power only exacerbates the conflict.

Once upon a time, we came together to resist external threats. We are so self-centered now we don’t seem to care about the other. Moses was right. We get fat and smug. We pull apart. And yet miraculously we survive!

Shabbat Shalom, Gemar Tov, and a meaningful fast.


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