Building Blocks of Perfection, Straight and Alone

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Unchanging Perfection

Ha’azinu starts—and is mostly taken up with—a song that Moshe Rabbenu was told to teach the Jewish people, as a lasting witness of right and wrong ways to act. An early verse refers to

דברים פרק לב:ד הַצּוּר֙ תָּמִ֣ים פָּעֳל֔וֹ כִּ֥י כָל־דְּרָכָ֖יו מִשְׁפָּ֑ט

Devarim 32;4: The Rock, all his works are perfect, for all his ways are just…

Ramban sees the word haTzur, the Rock, as indicating the middat ha-din, Attribute of Justice, and says the verse is telling us that whatever that Attribute does is whole and complete, and will not change forever. The “will not change” comment reflects a view Rambam held as well, that perfection can never change (because it would imply that until then was not perfect; Ramban does not say it here, but especially since we think of Hashem as independent of time or space, we have a harder time saying that Hashem would change to meet new situations).

He is less focused on the static aspect of Hashem when it comes to the next phrase, which he takes as a reference to Hashem’s mercy [most obviously because he took tamim as about justice, but I think it’s also because the verse refers to derachav, His ways, which was what Moshe requested to learn just before Hashem taught him the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy]. Since he’s explicitly talking about mercy, the verse’s saying that all those actions are be-mishpat cannot have its usual meaning of justice but seems to me to mean that they are apportioned well.

Ramban’s reading makes sense in terms of the difference between justice and mercy as well. Mercy doesn’t need to be affirmed as unchanging or perfect, because mercies aren’t a principled stance. No one deserves mercy, it’s how Hashem acts with people above, beyond, or otherwise without paying attention to absolute right and wrong. Justice, that which makes Hashem HaTzur, the unchanging Rock, never alters, so that’s where the Song affirms perfection.

Applied to the world, justice is balanced with leeway for mitigating circumstances. There, the goal isn’t perfection, it’s disbursing mercy fairly and reasonably (justly, in a loose sense).

Ramban seems to me to be speaking of a balance between Hashem Himself, as it were, Who is whole, perfect, and perfectly just, who is a Rock all of whose works [by which he perhaps means endeavors Hashem conducts alone, as it were] fit that model, but Who also has ways, modes of interacting with other beings (people and, perhaps, living creatures) that incorporate mercy. Those can’t be perfect by definition, but they can be administered in a way that we can agree that it’s fair.

The People Are the Reverse

דברים פרק לב:ה שִׁחֵ֥ת ל֛וֹ לֹ֖א בָּנָ֣יו מוּמָ֑ם דּ֥וֹר עִקֵּ֖שׁ וּפְתַלְתֹּֽל:

Devarim 32;5: They have dealt corruptly with him, their blemish making them no longer His children, a wicked and twisted generation.

The end of verse four (the beginning of which we saw above) speaks of Hashem as tzaddik ve-yashar, righteous and straight. Ramban says that ikesh, crooked, is the opposite of yashar [Ramban, like Rashi, relates it to Michah 3;9, which says that all that which is straight ye-akeshu, they will make un-straight] and petaltol is the reverse of tzaddik.

Two points commended themselves to me: first, that the Jews’ flaws are mentioned and then the fact that they fail to hew to the straight and righteous path. To me, that’s because the flaws are what cause the later wrongful action. Sure, the actions are a problem, but the roots are worse.

Second, when the contrast is to Hashem, it might not be surprising that we fail to meet those standards. I think the way to understand it is that we’re not expected to be as straight and just as Hashem, we’re to understand that Hashem set up a situation where all we have to do is go straight (in a humanly very possible way), and we’ll be doing what’s right. It’s that we develop reasons or justifications to do other than that which is straight that gets us off the path.

The Foolishness of Ingratitude

דברים פרק לב:ו הֲ־לַיְקֹוָק֙ תִּגְמְלוּ־זֹ֔את עַ֥ם נָבָ֖ל וְלֹ֣א חָכָ֑ם…    (טו) וַיִּשְׁמַ֤ן יְשֻׁרוּן֙ וַיִּבְעָ֔ט…וַיִּטֹּשׁ֙ אֱל֣וֹהַּ עָשָׂ֔הוּ וַיְנַבֵּ֖ל צ֥וּר יְשֻׁעָתֽוֹ:

Devarim 32;6: Will you repay Hashem this way, ungrateful and unwise nation… Verse 15: And Yeshurun became fat and rebelled… abandoned the Gd who made him, and was ungrateful to the rock of his salvation.

The translations I saw do not notice that one of the adjectives in verse six has the same root as the verb at the end of verse fifteen. Ramban did, and cited other verses from Scripture to show that naval is the opposite of nadiv. nadiv does good for others for no reason, and a naval fails to do good for the other when there is a good reason (primarily, that that person has done well by him/her in the past). For the best-known example, Naval the Carmelite from I Shemuel 25 is described as fitting his name because he would not accept that David had done a favor for him in protecting his flocks, and therefore refused to give him anything in return.

That puts the Jewish people’s failure to serve Hashem properly in a new light. It’s not only that Hashem told them to, it’s that they are repaying Hashem’s many kindnesses with rebellion.

Worse than ungrateful, it’s self-defeating, in that Hashem made us, and made the rules by which the universe works, so to go against Hashem is to try to deny the way the world works.

On verse 15, Ramban identifies the ingratitude in the people’s rejecting Hashem– more than simply going elsewhere, they said that there was no utility in serving Hashem (as Malachi 3;14-15 quotes evildoers among the Jews as saying there was no benefit from following Hashem’s rules, or the wicked women of Yirmiyahu 44;18, who attributed their exile to Egypt after the destruction of the Temple to their failure to properly worship the hosts of heaven).

naval is ungrateful, and that refusal to recognize debts owed leads to foolish and self-destructive behavior.

The Benefits of Aloneness

דברים פרק לב:יב יְקֹוָ֖ק בָּדָ֣ד יַנְחֶ֑נּוּ וְאֵ֥ין עִמּ֖וֹ אֵ֥ל נֵכָֽר:

Devarim 32;12: Hashem leads him alone, and there is no foreign god with him.

The second phrase of the verse uses an unclear pronoun. The easiest possibility is that Hashem runs the world alone, without any other power’s participation. If so, that’s a common message of monotheism [although a complicated one for Ramban, since he thought Hashem in some sense delegated parts of running the world to angels, as we’re about to see].

But Ramban also offers the reading that it refers to the Jewish people, is a restatement of the idea that the Jewish people’s affairs are shaped solely by Hashem, not by the angels or heavenly powers that guide other nations. In this view, it’s reminding the Jews they are metaphysically different than other nations, more directly connected to and supervised by Hashem.

Then Ramban quotes a Sifrei that links Hashem’s guiding us alone to our having chosen to be alone, getting no benefits from other nations [I am not clear on when before Ha’azinu Sifrei thinks that happened; it could be Avraham, or it could be the time in the desert, although that wasn’t voluntary].

As a reward, the Jews will also be separate in the World to Come, other nations not getting any benefit from them. Or, as he says on the next phrase, “there is no foreign god with him,” no ruler of another nation will be able to control them. That makes it less about their getting benefit from us than their ruling over us—it’s by walking their own path that the Jews merit the independence of walking that path, and reaping its benefits.

In this first part of Ha’azinu, Ramban has stressed qualities of Hashem’s perfection, and the mistakes we make in failing to do what we can to join ourselves to Hashem.

About Gidon Rothstein

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