Return to the Rock of Israel – Parashat Ha’Azinu

“Tsur Yisrael, kumah be’ezrat Yisrael – Rock of Israel, rise in support of Israel…”. These are the words we sing on Shabbat mornings – and in that moment it is actually the congregation that rises for the recitation of the Amidah. We do so in awareness that God is the Rock of Israel and its redeemer.

The connection between redemption and the Rock of Israel also appears in a rather unexpected context: Israel’s Declaration of Independence of 1948 speaks of the redemption of the Jewish people and of the trust in the “Tsur Yisrael”. Using this expression, secular Jews referred to the strength of the Yishuv and the perseverance of the Jewish peoplehood, while religious Jews understood it as an allusion to God’s protection and redemptive power. With this formula the founding generation of the State of Israel offered a Solomonic solution for the identification of all strata of the Jewish population with the newborn political entity, which was intended to be a modern and democratic state but rooted in the traditions, values and sites of Judaism.

Tsur – Rock – also constitutes a Leitwort in this week’s parashah Ha’azinu, consisting of Chapter 32 of Deuteronomy. It is mentioned eight times in this chapter alone, mostly as a synonym for God.

The image of a rock symbolizes reliability, eternity, support, perseverance. Only at a second glance is it obvious that this image constitutes a counter current to the heavy words of doom and admonition in this chapter. One can hardly fail to hear the bitterness in Moshe’s speech, delivered in expectation of his very imminent death, knowing that he will be denied the chance to accomplish the fulfillment of his life’s project to lead Israel into the Promised Land. Moshe’s harsh admonition of the people is a mirror of his own feelings of being rejected by God for this task. It is hard to say whether it is his frustration that breaks through here, or whether Moshe is just the loudspeaker for God’s own disappointment with the increasingly independent ways that the Children of Israel have taken. Or does the disappointment of the two “father figures” re-inforce each other in Moshe’s prophecy?

Next to the symbol of the rock, images of parenthood recur in the parashah, for instance in verses 5-6: “His unworthy children … is it not your Father who created you?” Or in verse 11: “Like an eagle who rouses his nestlings, gliding down to his young, so did He spread His wings and take him, bear him along on His pinions.”

We know that closeness in relationships is a powerful and supportive feature. But where there is closeness and a strong interest in each other, there is also a high potential for vulnerability and disappointment. Between parents and children there is usually strong love, closeness and interest but there is also always a chance of hurting each other. For parents it is not easy to see the growing independence of their children, their testing and crossing of boundaries, their insistence on committing their own mistakes. Why can’t they simply do what they are told? Is harsh punishment or giving up of the relationship the solution?

It is the mark of a stable relationship that it endures also rocky times and that both sides remain faithful to each other, even under changed circumstances. What is true for a family “of flesh and blood” can also be said about the nature of the relationship between God and Israel. The second century Tanna, Rabbi Meir, affirmed God’s affection for Israel also in dire straits with the words: “For good and for bad, you are called children!” (Sifré to Deuteronomy, Re’eh 96).

The image of the rock, accompanying the admonition, hints at the continuity and continuance of God’s covenant with Israel. God remains the reliable Rock of Israel but also the Children of Israel have to make their commitment to this relationship manifest. Healthy relationships are never One-Way-streets.

On this Shabbat Shuvah between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we contemplate ways of return. Though each of us has to answer this question personally for his/her own life, we should keep in mind that our relationship with God is not primarily a personal but mainly a communal one. The covenant has been established between God and Israel, thus it requires from the Children of Israel not only a commitment to an individual life according to God’s commandments but also an affirmation of the peoplehood of Israel. In the same way the Rock of Israel upholds the covenant with Israel as a community, also the Children of Israel have to stick to the covenant by not allowing that the people be divided. Conceding to an extreme minority within the people of Israel the claim to be its exclusive representation undermines the Jewish peoplehood and its covenant.

In the light of the cancellation of the Kotel agreement from the side of the Israeli government, and witnessing a growing Haredization of the public space and sites in the State of Israel, we have to return to the spirit of the Declaration of Independence where the trust in the Rock of Israel offered space and identification for all Jews. May we all be inscribed together for a year of peace and unity.

Shanah tovah and Hatimah tovah!


About the Author:

Rabbi Dr. Ulrike Offenberg is a graduate of Hebrew Union College, Jerusalem, an active member of Women of the Wall and serves as a rabbi in Hameln and Berlin (Germany).