In this week's Parsha, as the book of Devarim comes to an end, Moses gives his farewell speech/song to the nation of Israel, known as Shirat Ha’azinu (שירת האזינו). In the song, he goes over the history of the Jewish people’s relationship with G-d and warns them about all the horrible things that will happen to them if they abandon G-d.
After the golden calf, and with the foreseen possibility of the Israelites adopting the indigenous gods in the land of Canaan, this is sorely needed. At that moment in time, people were very susceptible to replacing G-d with false deities, which among other things, made G-d quite jealous as expressed in the text. A large section of the Shirat Ha’azinu is a quote from G-d, explaining how beneficial it is to have G-d on one’s side and what G-d will do to enemies of the Jewish people. Here is an extract:
“I will intoxicate My arrows with blood, and My sword will consume flesh, from the blood of the slain and the captives, from the first breach of the enemy.”
This is very violent in nature. G-d uses violence on many occasions in the Torah: the plagues, Sodom and Gamorrah, Nadav and Avihu, just to name a few. Why does G-d get so violent? Why is G-d so mean? Where does this cruelty come from?
A central element in Ha'azinu is a collection of different metaphorical and symbolic ways of looking at G-d. It should be easier to understand G-d’s violence and the reason for it through the lens of those metaphors. The most prominent of them is G-d as the rock (“mighty rock” in some translations), which means different things in different contexts. For one, G-d is a rock in the sense of being immovable and upright, specifically as the central foundation of the universe. This rock is the source of righteousness and as such uses violence not with cruelty, but in the enforcement of justice and truth.
Additionally, G-d is a rock as a strong protector of G-d’s people as portrayed in Psalms: “O Lord, my rock and my fortress and my rescuer [...]” (Psalm 18:3). Protection is one of the primary motivations for G-d’s violence. As Rock, this is for the Jewish people as a whole in the military sense of protection. In the poem, G-d is also an eagle looking after the chicks. In this case, G-d offers a different sort of protection, a more personal and primal one. Just as a wild mother eagle is willing to go to great lengths to protect her babies, G-d does the same, with the same brutal passion.
G-d is also a father and a laboring mother in Ha'azinu, which offers an explanation for G-d’s disciplinary actions. As a parent loves their child and disciplines them (hopefully not through violence) as a way of forming them and showing them care, G-d too disciplines the people of Israel (not always through violence) to keep them on the right path.
The question remains as to why G-d chooses violence in so many cases. Whether it be for justice, discipline, protection or some other justified end, why violence? At the start of Shirat Ha’azinu, Moses says G-d is perfect, a fundamental Jewish belief, which means that G-d is always right, even in violence, and what seems like ruthlessness and cruelty. In the same speech, G-d’s wrath is mentioned in a plethora of colorful ways. For the modern Jew, a perfect G-d being vengeful, jealous and angry is a contradictory idea, however, in the context of biblical times, it was likely not. What looks to us like unnecessary meanness was in fact what the people at the time needed. It was the way to bring a very imperfect people closer to righteousness and justice, and the only way they would have listened. Going back to the golden calf, it is important we not forget that it came as the people awaited a promised message from G-d. Even that hope, even with them having just been liberated, it still was not enough. G-d's harsh methods were a premeditated and calculated way of reaching a nation in need of guidance and help at the time. So, why does G-d use violence? Because with us, at least historically, it is what works.
Samuel Mishkin, BBYO Uruguay
Read commentary on this week's Parsha from BBYO teens around the world.
All views expressed on content written for The Shofar represent the opinions and thoughts of the individual authors. The author biography represents the author at the time in which they were in BBYO.
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