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Deuteronomy - DvarimHaazinumain posts

Haazinu: Where is my Name in the Torah?

A former disciple of the Ramban (Nachmanides) scoffed at the entire Torah because he did not find his name in the Torah portion of Ha’azinu. When his master showed him where his name actually was hidden, it aroused him to return to God.

The Torah portion of Ha’azinu is mostly in poetic form, composed and spoken by Moses before his passing. The contents of the poem, even without going very deeply, tell of the history of the Jewish people, from the beginning of time until the end of days. From “Remember the days of old”[1] all the way to the herald of the final redemption when “He will purify His land for the sake of His people.”[2] The sages state, “This poem is great for it includes the present, it includes the past, and it includes the future to come and it includes this world and it includes the World to Come.”[3] In the words of the Nachmanides, “it includes all the future that will be, even though it is short in words.”[4]

Thus, we find that the poem of Ha’azinu is all-inclusive, which explains why it specifically is the unique inheritance bequeathed to us by Moses on the day of his passing from this world. It also makes sense that there is a special directive to repeat it: “And now, write for you this poem and teach it to the Israelites, place it in their mouths so that this poem will act for me as a witness to the Israelites.”[5] It is recounted that the Maggid of Mezritch encouraged every Jew to commit the poem of Ha’azinu to memory.

The poem’s perspective is from above, from the point of how God views the world. From it, we learn that from God’s perspective, everything that happens is one epic narrative, with all the twists in the plot already revealed and known. All of man’s deeds and machinations are taken into account and they all play a role in the greater picture.

If all is already known, however, does this mean that all of us are nothing more than actors in a play, marionettes on a string with no real choice? Not at all. We all have free choice and hence, we are completely responsible for our deeds. Nonetheless, everything is known to God, and we all participate in His plans. This is the famous paradox of Foreknowledge and Free Will, which has occupied man for millennia. It remains a wondrous enigma: God has foreknowledge of everything, but we have been given the freedom to choose our actions and our path through life.

Nachmanides’ Disciple: Rabbi Avner

A fascinating story[6] that ties directly to the song of Haazinu is told about the great scholar Nachmanides, Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, or the Ramban:

The Ramban had a disciple, whose name was Reb Avner. He became a proselyte (a mumar, in Hebrew) and was a wealthy and powerful man. After many years, he called for his former teacher, the Ramban, to come before him on Yom Kippur. The Ramban indeed came before him and right in front of his rabbi, he killed a pig, cooked it, and ate it—all on the holy fast day.

After he ate, he asked the Ramban how many excommunications at the hands of Heaven he deserved for the transgressions that he had just committed. The Ramban said that he deserved four and Avner said five. Avner wanted to argue with his rabbi, but he saw that the Ramban was angry, and he was silenced, for he still had a small measure of respect and fear of his former teacher.

The Ramban asked Avner what caused him to convert and Avner replied that once he had heard the Ramban say that all the mitzvot, all the Torah’s commandments and that is in the world are alluded in the Torah portion of Ha’azinu. [Indeed, we saw a similar statement in the Ramban’s commentary quoted earlier.] Avner thought that this was ludicrous and therefore impossible. He lost faith in the Torah and ended up transformed into a different person.

Surprisingly, the Ramban stood his ground and said, “I still say that everything is included in Ha’azinu. To illustrate this, ask me to find whatever you like.”

“Then show me,” Avner said in surprise and with a great measure of doubt, “where my name is written in Ha’azinu.”

“As you wish,” said the Ramban and immediately went to a corner to pray. The verse from Haazinu that came into his mind was: “I said in My anger I will make destroy them, I will eliminate their memory from humanity” (אָמַרְתִּי אַפְאֵיהֶם אַשְׁבִּיתָה מֵּאֱנוֹשׁ זִכְרָם). The Ramban perceived that the third letter of each word spells out “R’ Avner” (ר אַבְנֵר), where the letter reish (ר) stands for Rabbi (רַבִּי), a title of scholarly honor indicating that its bearer is a teacher of Torah.

When Avner heard this miraculous finding, he fell on his face and asked his rabbi if there could be a remedy for all his transgressions.

“You heard the words of the verse,” the Ramban answered and left.

Avner immediately took a boat without a crew nor oars and went out to sea, to wherever the wind would take him. And he was never heard from again.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe related[7] that he first heard this story from his teacher in the cheider (elementary Torah school) when he taught them the Torah portion of Ha’azinu, to demonstrate the all-inclusiveness of this portion. The Rebbe then continued to specify:

In this story, we see something wondrous and frightening regarding the general matter of teshuvah (return to God)…. It is emphasized that the name of the Ramban’s disciple was Rabbi Avner (as is alluded to in the verse). This means that because he returned to God… by means of this, he attained the status and condition in which the Torah calls him Rabbi Avner…. In doing so, the story follows with the teaching of the sages regarding Rabbi Elazar Ben Dordaya [who was extremely sinful and ultimately did teshuva and cried so much that his soul departed while he was sobbing, and when Rebbe, Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi heard this], “Rebbe cried and said, there are some people who acquire their world [i.e., the meaning of their life] in a single hour, [for he was called Rabbi Elazar Ben Dordaya and merited to enter the World to Come].”

Man Plans

This story exemplifies the verse, “Many are the thoughts found in the heart of man, but it is God’s advice that will prevail.”[8] We could explain that it is the person who thinks and plans something and then ultimately God nullifies the person’s thoughts and works against those plans. On a deeper level, however, Rebbe Bunim of Peshischa explained that the thoughts of man remain intact, but nonetheless, it is God’s plan that will be realized by the deeds of man. In our story as well, Avner calls for the Ramban to come before him in the middle of Yom Kippur so he can taunt him. And his plan is realized. Nevertheless, it is specifically through his own machinations that Avner returns to God, reconnects, and is known as Rabbi Avner.

This is an example of how foreknowledge and choice work. We cannot say that Avner did not choose his own path. He transgressed of his own will and consciousness, completely on purpose. Perhaps what originally angered Avner was that the Ramban had said that everything is already written in Ha’azinu. Everything that is going to happen throughout the generations has already been written in the Torah. Avner could not tolerate this. “I will prove that I will do whatever I want, and as much as I want,” he tells himself. And when he actually does go completely overboard, he mockingly asks the Ramban “Is my story—the story that completely contradicts the Torah—also in Ha’azinu?” In other words, can the Torah include the story of the person who contradicts and rejects the Torah?

And the Ramban answers him that it is! No matter how far you have gone astray, you are written there, in the most horrifying verse that there is. The verse that described God’s thought: “I said in My anger I will make them as if they do not exist, I will eliminate their memory from humanity.” This secret was revealed to Avner specifically because he chose to descend to the lowly place that he reached. It was from there that he understood that even the most distant and lowest place he had reached is still within the realm of God’s foreknowledge.

Does this mean that it is too late for Avner and that he cannot return to God? After all, he is alluded to in the darkest of verses, a verse that says that nothing will remain of him. No! There is always teshuvah, but it is as difficult as the teshuvah performed by Rebbe Elazar Ben Dordaya, whose soul departed his body amidst sobbing. In the same manner, Rabbi Avner chooses to become naught and to fulfill the verse that says that his memory will be eliminated from humanity by his own doings, from a place of repentance. Rabbi Avner did not commit suicide, God forbid. He simply set sail for the unknown, to nothingness, where he disappeared. Rabbi Avner’s rectification is within the nothingness.

Mashiach Returns from the Sea

As a rule, we do not know what future events are written in Ha’azinu. God’s foreknowledge does not actually permeate mundane reality but remains a distant, encompassing light above. In Kabbalistic terminology, the foreknowledge is found in the primordial thought of Primordial Man, which on the one hand includes everything, until the lowest level of the World of Action, while on the other hand, Primordial Man contains no vessels, therefore the light of this foreknowledge cannot be revealed. If a person would know God’s plan for him, he would “ruin the game,” as it were, for the plot is predicated specifically on man’s choice.

Only Moses can know the allusions concealed in Ha’azinu without ruining the game, for Moses is the most loyal to God “in all My house.”[9] Moses’ knowledge is included in God’s knowledge (particularly just before his passing) without adding or subtracting anything to the plot, without disrupting the delicate, wondrous balance between foreknowledge and choice. In our story, Rabbi Avner’s actions created a situation in which the Ramban would also discover the allusion in Ha’azinu, without contradicting his choice.

In conclusion, a bit of gematria. The gematria of the letters of “R(abbi) Avner” (ר אַבְנֵר) is 453. This is also the numerical value of “a consummate tzaddik” (צַדִּיק גָּמוּר) as well as the value of “King Mashiach” (מֶלֶךְ הַמָּשִׁיחַ). Avner was transformed from a consummately evil person to a consummately righteous person. Perhaps he is even the King Mashiach, who will return in a boat to gather all the lost souls. For even a person who has purposely transgressed and has reached the lowest of the low, even a person who, according to the simple meaning of the verse should be eliminated from the world, can return to God and be renewed from nothingness.

 

[1]. Deuteronomy 32:7.

[2]. Deuteronomy 32:43.

[3]. Sifrei Ha’azinu 43.

[4]. Ramban on Deuteronomy 32:44.

[5]. Deuteronomy 31:19.

[6]. Seder Hadorot.

[7]. Farbrengen Haazinu 5742.

[8]. Proverbs 19:21.

[9]. Numbers 12:7.

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