The practice of hagba’ah, the lifting of the Torah scroll, is always dramatic, but especially when one can see unusual features of the scroll from a distance. This is the case with the poem Ha’azinu (Deut. 32: 1-42), which is presented as two narrow columns of parallel verse in phrases of three or four words. Scribes justify these narrow columns, and the visual effect is a pathway through the wilderness on which I imagine walking, bounded by hedges of holy words on either side.
Several of the phrases from this poem have made their way into our liturgy, and one into our halakhic lexicon—the rule that when three people have eaten together then one must “invite” the others to say the blessing after the meal comes from verse three, “when I call out the Name of the Lord, [you, plural] give greatness to our God.”
However, other verses are rather obscure. This year I am drawn to verse ten, which depicts God finding Israel like an infant howling in the wilderness (compare to Ezekiel 16:6 וָאֶעֱבֹ֤ר עָלַ֙יִךְ֙ וָֽאֶרְאֵ֔ךְ מִתְבּוֹסֶ֖סֶת בְּדָמָ֑יִךְ וָאֹ֤מַר לָךְ֙ בְּדָמַ֣יִךְ חֲיִ֔י וָאֹ֥מַר לָ֖ךְ בְּדָמַ֥יִךְ חֲיִֽי׃). Our passage says that God “found [Israel] in a desert region, in an empty howling waste. He engirded him, watched over him, guarded him as the pupil of an eye.”(JPS) The three verbs of the end of the verse are somewhat redundant which, as always, prompts rich rabbinic interpretation.
The first verb, יְסֹבְבֶנְהוּ (engirded, or perhaps encircled) is understood in Midrash Pesikta D’Rav Kahana to refer to the 7 clouds of glory with which God surrounded Israel in the wilderness, and which we recall with the Sukkah. The second verb, יְבוֹנְנֵהוּ is translated by JPS as “watched over” (see BDB on בין, p.106), but the rabbis preferred to read it either as “He built him up” (בונה) or better, “He gave him wisdom” (from בינה). The final verb יִצְּרֶנְהוּ is translated by JPS as “guarded” which makes sense in context of protecting one’s eye, and apparently derives from the root נצר, which means “guarding”.
Midrash B’Midbar Rabba (2:6) says that God first surrounded Israel with the clouds of glory to protect them physically, then gave them wisdom, and then told them to build a tabernacle so that God might, as it were, abandon heaven and move in with them. The medieval commentators share the understanding that “surrounding” refers to the clouds of glory (though Seforno suggests that it refers to Mt Sinai, which was “surrounded” before revelation to prevent encroachment), all agree that the second verb refers to the revelation at Sinai, and then most understand the final verb to refer to protection from pests and enemies in the desert.
Hasidic writers are drawn to this passage too. For example the Breslov commentary on Shulhan Arukh “Likkutei Halakhot” imagines that the initial surrounding is not a reference to divine protection, but to demonic attack. The “Other Side” surrounds the people of Israel, seeking to destroy them, but the Holy One protects them by finding their best qualities, and draws them back in repentance. We all struggle between our “better angels” and our “demons”—this internal effort to restrict our worst tendencies and express our best ones is here turned into an epic mythological battle between the forces of good and evil. Of course, this dualistic interpretation, so common in Kabbalah and Hasidut, is foreign to the integrated world view of the Bible and Talmud, which was especially opposed to the notion of two powers, a god of evil facing off against a god of good.
Here is my “drash” on this verse. God finds Israel in a state of weakness in Egypt, and swaddles her with love and protection, like a parent with their newborn infant. God then raises the child, protecting her (בין), strengthening her (בונה), and educating her (בינה). Finally, God grants Israel the dignity of being watched, not as a helpless object, but as a strong subject, as it were, looking her in the eye, and seeing there a reflection of divinity, the very Eye of God (כְּאִישׁוֹן עֵינוֹ). What one finds here is a developmental relationship, where Israel progresses from a state of total dependence to one of covenantal partnership. God’s patience in allowing Israel to stumble through the wilderness, making grave errors along the way, is what allows the people Israel to find the confidence to return again and again to God, not in perfection, but in imperfect effort, and to be received with a loving gaze. May God look at us once again with love, remembering us and sealing us for life in this still new year. גמר חתימה טובה
ספר דברים פרק לב, פסוק י. יִמְצָאֵהוּ בְּאֶרֶץ מִדְבָּר וּבְתֹהוּ יְלֵל יְשִׁמֹן יְסֹבְבֶנְהוּ יְבוֹנְנֵהוּ יִצְּרֶנְהוּ כְּאִישׁוֹן עֵינוֹ.
פסיקתא דרב כהנא (מנדלבוים) פיסקא ג – זכור ד”ה זכור וגו’ (דברים
כך כשיצאו ישראל ממצרים, הקיפו הק’ /הקדוש ברוך הוא/ בז’ ענני כבוד, שנא’ יסובבנהו יבוננהו (דברים לב: י).
במדבר רבה ב, ו. יְסֹבְבֶנְהוּ יְבוֹנְנֵהוּ וגו’, יְסֹבְבֶנְהוּ שֶׁהֵקִיפָן בְּעַנְנֵי כָּבוֹד, יְבוֹנְנֵהוּ שֶׁהֱבִינָם בְּדִבְרֵי תוֹרָה, יִצְרֶנְהוּ אַשְׁרֵי הָאָזְנַיִם שֶׁשָּׁמְעוּ. עַד הֵיכָן חִבְּבָן, עַד הֵיכָן שְׁמָרָן, עַד הֵיכָן נְצָרָן, כִּבְיָכוֹל עַד כְּאִישׁוֹן עֵינוֹ, רְאֵה הֵיאַךְ שְׁמָרָן, עַד הֵיכָן שְׁמָרָן, הֵיאַךְ נְצָרָן, שֶׁאָמַר הָאֱלֹהִים לְמשֶׁה, משֶׁה אֱמֹר לָהֶם שֶׁיַּעֲשׂוּ מִשְׁכָּן בֵּינֵיהֶם, כִּבְיָכוֹל אֲנִי מַנִּיחַ אֶת הָעֶלְיוֹנִים וְיוֹרֵד וְשׁוֹכֵן בֵּינֵיהֶם
ליקוטי הלכות, יורה דעה, הלכות חלב ודם, ג׳:א. וְזֶה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר שָׁם בְּשִׁירַת הַאֲזִינוּ (דְּבָרִים לב), “יִמְצָאֵהוּ בְּאֶרֶץ מִדְבָּר וּבְתֹהוּ יְלֵל יְשִׁמֹן וְכוּ'”, הַיְנוּ בְּחִינַת הַטּוֹב שֶׁהוּא חֵלֶק נִשְׁמוֹת יִשְֹרָאֵל הַנִּמְצָא בְּאֶרֶץ מִדְבָּר וּבְתֹהוּ וְכוּ’, דְּהַיְנוּ שֶׁהוּא כָּבוּשׁ בְּמִדְבָּר וּבְתֹהוּ בֵּין הָעַכּוּ”ם וְהַסִּטְרָא אָחֳרָא. וְזֶהוּ יְסוֹבֲבֶנְהוּ יְבוֹנֲנֵהוּ וְכוּ’, שֶׁהַסִּטְרָא אָחֳרָא מְסַבֶּבֶת אוֹתוֹ וּבוֹנֶה עָלָיו וּמַקִּיף אוֹתוֹ בְּכַמָּה מְחִצּוֹת שֶׁל בַּרְזֶל, אֲבָל ה’ יִתְבָּרַךְ חוֹשֵׁב מַחֲשָׁבוֹת לְבַל יִדַּח מִמֶּנּוּ נִדָּח וְעוֹשֶֹה תַּחְבּוּלוֹת לְעוֹרֵר אֶת הַטּוֹב הַהוּא כַּנַּ”ל. וְזֶהוּ יִצְּרֶנְהוּ כְּאִישׁוֹן עֵינוֹ כְּנֶּשֶׁר יָעִיר קִנּוֹ וְכוּ’, דְּהַיְנוּ שֶׁה’ יִתְבָּרַךְ בְּרַחֲמָיו נוֹצֵר וְשׁוֹמֵר אֶת הַטּוֹב הַהוּא וְכוּ’, וְעוֹשֶֹה תַּחְבּוּלוֹת לְעוֹרְרוֹ וּלְהַזְכִּירוֹ שֶׁיָּשׁוּב לְשָׁרְשׁוֹ.