“When Life Revolves Around G-d”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Haazinu, Moses continues his final dramatic message to the People of Israel. Beseeching the Jewish people to listen closely to his lesson and to heed his words, he urges them to learn from the past and to pay close attention to history. Moses declares (Deuteronomy 32:7) “Z’chor y’mot o’lam, bee’noo sh’not dor v’dor, sh’ahl ah’vee’chah v’ya’gayd’chah z’kay’neh’chah v’yom’roo lach.” Remember the days of yore, understand the years of generation after generation, ask your father and he will relate it to you, and your elders and they will tell you.

The biblical text continues (Deuteronomy 32:8-12):

When the Supreme One gave the nations their inheritance, He separated the children of man, He set the borders of the people according to the number of the Children of Israel. For G-d’s portion is His people, Jacob is the measure of His inheritance. He discovered him in a desert land, in desolation, a howling wilderness; He encircled him, He granted him discernment, He preserved him like the pupil of His eye. He was like an eagle arousing its nest, hovering over its young, spreading its wings and taking them, carrying them on its pinions. G-d alone guided them, and no other power was with them.

This beautiful, but cryptic, biblical poetry is interpreted most insightfully by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, the great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry). Hirsch notes that the operation of the entire world essentially centers around Israel. We who have been witnesses to the events of contemporary times particularly appreciate the centrality of the role that the Jewish people continue to play. Even though Jews constitute barely 1/5 of one percent of the world’s population, the contributions that our people have made to civilization are breathtaking. The central role that the state of Israel (population six million) plays in the world (population six billion) is radically out of proportion to its numbers.

Rabbi Hirsch argues further, saying that in ancient times even the allocation of the lands by G-d to the various nations of the world was done in a particular manner that was much different from the manner in which the land of Israel was given to the Jews. After the Great Flood, G-d placed various peoples on specific lands. These lands then influenced the resident peoples. Depending upon the nature of the land, the creatures that were found on the land and the neighboring peoples, the nations that settled the land were rendered either belligerent or meek, artistic or war-like, creative or slavish.

The Jewish people, on the other hand, were not given a land directly. Instead, the nation of Israel was created in the wilderness. G-d allowed the Israelites to take possession of the land of Israel only after the land of Israel had been fully cultivated and built-up by others, as if to say, “that which the soil of their land is to other nations, G-d is to Israel.” In fact, for millennia, Israel was destined to be a people without a land.

Other nations’ entire existence center around conquering land, adapting themselves to the land, altering the land by cultivation, and building the land into a home that serves as a location for their economic and social development. This attachment to the land accounts for the peoples’ spiritual, physical, moral, social and cultural personality, says Rabbi Hirsch. But Israel, Rabbi Hirsch notes, “is to bring its spiritual, moral and social customs as formed by G-d with [them] into the land.” The life of the people is fixed by G-d, not by the land. That is why the root figure of the nation is not Israel, but Jacob, who was a landless and homeless man.

It was in the wilderness that G-d founded His nation, in the desolate territory where there were no verdant meadows and no bustling towns. There, man was alone, alone with his inner self and only his G-d.

How striking is Rabbi Hirsch’s description of Israel the people, and how timely this message is at this time of Sukkot, the festival where Jews leave their homes to dwell in the “wilderness” in temporary huts. Exposing ourselves to the elements, we place ourselves once again into the loving hands of G-d, who will shape us with His ideas. Even though most Jews today have homes that are secure and beautiful, our real homes are where G-d established us, in the wilderness.

Unfortunately, having been witness over the past several months to how fragile life really is, we cannot but conclude that without G-d there is no true security. Tsunami waves have devastated a host of countries, 1,500 Israeli families were uprooted from Gush Katif in Gaza, the city of New Orleans was wiped out by flood, an entire region of Pakistan has been leveled by the most powerful earthquake in the history of independent Pakistan. How can we not but be awestruck when we read the verse in Psalms 127: “Im Hashem lo yiv’neh va’it, shav ahm’loo bo’nahv bo.” Unless G-d builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless G-d watches the city, in vain the watchmen guard it. It is as if the Al-mighty has given all of humankind a wake-up call.

The Jewish people are particularly fortunate to receive this wake-up call every single year at Sukkot time. Only after entering the sukkah, and absorbing its message of dependence upon G-d, can we truly appreciate the security that we are fortunate to have–and having G-d as our Watchman.

May you be blessed.

The Sukkot festival begins at sundown on Monday, October 17, 2005 and concludes Wednesday night, October 19, 2005. Happy Holidays.