Ha’azinu is the last song of the Torah. It details some wonderful attributes that paint a glorious picture of the relationship of G-d and His people. And it also admonishes the Jews for their lack of gratitude and wisdom in understanding their role in the creation.
Hashem discusses the folly of sin with the seeming redundant expression. “Is it to Hashem that you do this? Am naval, v’lo chacham! A nation unwise and vile! (Deuteronomy 32:6). It seems that there are two distinct problems with the rebellious people. They are called vile and foolish. Is the Torah waxing poetic, or can we garner more from the seeming repetitive words of admonishment?
The Dean of a prestigious Yeshiva gave his weekly shiur to a packed audience every Thursday. His words were calculated and the thoughts flowed in perfect succession with hundreds of students listening in concert. Hardly anyone dared to interrupt the lecture with a question or contradiction; rather they would wait until the class ended, when the Dean would answer each student with patience and clarity.
One morning, a new student entered the class and followed the brilliant dean’s lecture until the crescendo of his analytical discourse. Then, as the final argument was about to be made, the student rudely interrupted with a point that made no sense whatsoever. The Rabbi, shaken from the interruption, motioned to the young man to hold his fire. The student refused, shouting as if he had discovered gold, while trying to knock the entire lecture off its foundation. All who were in attendance were upset by the totally irrelevant points that ruined the train of thought for the hundreds of students.
The other students who saw their Rabbi’s frustration whispered to the neophyte that his question was frivolous and irrelevant as they tried to dissuade him from continuing his futile interruptions. But the young man did not stop. Finally the Rabbi himself left the lectern, smiled to the young man, then bent over and whispered something in his ear that quelled the burst of irrelevance.
After the lecture an older student took the new student aside and explained him that it was not right to interrupt the class and scores of serious scholars when he was not well versed in the topic. Then he showed him why he had no point and how his questions were an array of confusion. The young man realized his folly and was quite ashamed. “But I am not sure what the Rabbi meant when he whispered, ‘You cannot pose a question like a shikerer (drunken) foreigner’. It sure quashed my rudeness, but I am baffled by the meaning of the comment.”
A few moments passed and another student approached the neophyte. “The Rabbi would like to speak to you.”
The young man entered the office and apologized for his brazen interruptions. But the Rabbi waved his hand. “I did not call you to chastise you. I just wanted to explain what I meant by a drunken foreigner. “When an American drunk says something in his stupor,” the rabbi began, “we understand what he is saying, but he does not understand what he is saying. And when a sober foreigner makes a comment, he understands what he is saying, but we don’t understand what he is saying.
“But when a drunken foreigner makes a comment, neither he understands what he is saying nor do we understand what he is saying!”
Rabbi Yosef Shaul Nathanson commented on the aforementioned verse. “If the nation were wise and vile, perhaps we can reason with them. And if the nation were foolish but righteous, we could educate them. But when they are both unwise and vile, then it is almost a hopeless cause!
When listening to the Torah’s admonitions we must realize that Hashem is not berating us with an harangue of verbal put-downs. Rather, each invalidating adjective is carefully calculated, referring to a different aspect of our erroneous ways. As we approach the days of Yom Kippur and are about to verbalize our confessions for myriad sins, take the time to analyze the different expressions and phraseology, as they represent the complex indifference we often to display toward Hashem’s carefully worded admonitions. With a little inflection and reflection, we will merit the antidote to those words of admonition.
Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky Dedicated in memory of Fishel Yitzchak ben Shmuel Zisblatt by his wife, children and grandchildren
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The author is the Dean of the Yeshiva of South Shore.
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