Haazinu: The poem is a port in any storm

Haazinu: The poem is a port in any storm

Congregation Beth Shalom, Pompton Lakes, Conservative

This week’s Torah portion, Haazinu, is mostly a farewell poem by Moses, with an appendix that speaks of Moses’ death on Mount Nebo, where he could see the Promised Land but not enter it. The poetry uses beautiful metaphors to delineate the relationship of the people with God, the Torah/teachings that the people are to learn and use, and the inevitable problems brought about through human nature.

The second verse of the poem reads “let my instruction drop as rain, my words distill like dew; as droplets upon the lawn, hard rain upon shrubs.” We might not blink at such a sentence, but for people who have been travelling in the desert for forty years, such an abundance of water imagery must have been shocking! The Torah and teachings of Moses come from the sky, like water to a parched land, flowing in rivulets through dry washes, bringing verdant life wherever it can be successfully controlled, but alarming and overwhelming floods of destruction where it overflows uncontrollably.

These words mean a great deal to me as I write this, having lived for many years in New Orleans and North Carolina and bearing the brunt of hurricanes and tropical storms that overwhelmed the land’s ability to channel their water. Hurricane Florence has just made landfall at Wrightsville Beach in North Carolina, but with the topography of Carolina, the flooding could continue or worsen over the coming weeks as mountainous watersheds in the western part of the state send their floodwaters eastward, back towards the already battered coastal plain. My heart goes out to residents whose houses will be washed away, whose lives will be lost, or whose ancestral burial grounds will be inundated and wiped off the face of the earth.

The Torah Temimah (published in 1902) quotes the Sifre (Talmudic era collection of midrashim) in the name of Rabbi Simai, who understands the four clauses of our verse to correspond to the four different types of wind that come from the four cardinal directions, pressed into service by Moses’ poem:

The West Wind that always brings blessing;
The North Wind that distills the sky, making it shine with clarity;
The East Wind that brings storms to the world, chaotic like a billygoat;
The South Wind that brings gentle drizzle.

The specifics of each directional wind are, in a certain sense, unimportant, because the characteristics of each change depending on one’s location: if you are west of a desert, an eastern wind will portend something entirely different than for someone who lives west of a lake or a swamp, mountains, or a vast forest. More significant to me, today, is that residents of a certain locale can almost all tell you what a north wind or an east wind will bring, because while weather may not always be predictable in advance, it usually is understandable. The real difficulty comes when, due to the Coriolis effect brought about by the rotating earth, winds are deflected, causing cyclonic storms characterized by winds from every direction. In a hurricane or monsoon or tornado, all the normal rules people can tell you about wind are thrown out the window and the destruction that follows depends on minor variations in windspeed, the track of the storm, the shape of the land and other factors.

Unlike in the “Hunger Games,” weather phenomena are not intentionally thrown at specific people to boost television ratings by characters in a control room. We understand in advance how these things work, but their specific effects are impossible to predict. Who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water… But we learn on the High Holy Days that t’shuva, t’fila and tzedaka (repentance, prayer and charitability) can help us through, whatever the winds may blow our way. And the upcoming Sukkot holiday forces us — as we live outside in the lap of nature itself — that we are subject, more than we often acknowledge, to the vagaries of ruach metzuyah, any wind that finds its way into our fragile hut.

May this Shabbat and the coming holiday increase our awareness of and appreciation for the complexities arising in the world that surrounds us, and may we learn Torah appropriate to any exigency that might come our way. Ultimately, our lives and our world depend on it!

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