08/30/11

47. Ha’azinu

Ha’azinu

According to legend, the poem that consists of this week’s entire Torah episode is recited one day before Moses dies. The second opening stanza of his swan song reads:

May my discourse come down as the rain,
My speech distill as the dew,
Like showers on young growth,
Like droplets on the grass.

Dvarim 32:2 (JPS Bible)

The King James Bible translates:

Drop as rain doth My doctrine;
Flow as dew doth My sayings;
As storms on the tender grass,
And as showers on the herb.

And the Aramaic of Pseudo-Jonathan:

My doctrine shall be soft as rain; let it be received as the dew, and my word be as the breath of the rain that breathes upon the grass, and as the showers of the latter rain upon the herbage.

What awaits here beyond the metaphor of rich rain in the parched desert of a bitter old man? Note the three different choices of translation for the image of ‘rain on the grass’: Storm, Droplets, Breath of rain.

There is a whole vocabulary in the Torah devoted to kinds of speech: songs, doctrine, hymns, teachings, prophecies, words. The Hebrew word used here is ‘LEKACH’ f- ’sacred teaching’, or ‘discourse’ or ‘doctrine’, a word that is derived from the primitive root for ‘take’ and by extension here to ‘take what has been given’: in other words, to receive. Perhaps some types of wisdom are received by us as we welcome rain – receiving a gift that nourishes our life. But also, how often we do carry umbrellas when gifted with rain? So it is with the sacred teachings. Or do we dance and sing in THAT rain? What does wisdom feel like to us – Storms, droplets, breath of rain, other?

Though the King James gives a sense of possible violence to the words Moses will deliver (“storms”), all the other translations convey gentleness, a discourse like a soft Spring rain-like benevolence of this “doctrine” which rains softly on tender ground, is the feminine noun ‘emrah’.. If we hear ancient echoes of the story of creation, we are no doubt meant to: On the third day of creation God brings forth the grass and herbs, and the same word is used there and here: ‘deshe’.
There are certain ways to telling story that manage to open our heart, fill our eyes with tears, and wet our appetite for the exploration of mystery. Such is Moses’ last poem and such is all great art.

It was a Christian saint—Benedict—who spoke of listening “with the ears of the heart.” Just a few days before Rosh HaShana, here is an opportunity to examine our private reservoirs of received rains: what is the wisdom that we, like grass lawns, have received and absorbed? And what are the new ones we yearn for? The secret power of speech, the words we always remember, the songs that reach our heart and stay there, deeply listened to, celebrated as rain to a thirsty lawn.