Haazinu: Crooked, Twisted, Bent, and Wet

Early on in Torah portion Haazinu, God is declared “the Rock!” and described smoothly as steadfast or faithful, never false or without corruption, upright, of perfect deeds and just ways. The next verse stumbles along, with Moses hurling accusations at the People to suggest a generation — maybe “unworthy children,” maybe “non-children” — of characteristics contrasting with God’s (Deut 32:4-5).

Does this reflect failings actually exhibited by the People, or by us? Or does this represent a final failure, by Moses, to understand and accept how many humans and God relate?

Please see aside on generation of this post and experiment for the new year.

Moses and Fluidity

The accusations Moses hurls at the People (Deut 32:5) use words related to “bending,” “braiding,” or “twisting,” all having some association with moisture:

  • Jastrow’s Dictionary does not define ikesh — a word that appears 11 times in the Bible but only this once in the Torah — instead pointing to the noun, akosh “[crooked, crafty], a thing believed to prevent (or absorb) rain.” Haazinu opens with rain and showers and dew and droplets (Deut 31:1-4), so it is interesting to consider how ikesh might be related to the absorbing (or not) of moisture.
  • F’taltol is a hapax legomenon [appears nowhere else in the Bible], understood as related to the root pey-tav-lamed, to twist or braid. Fatil is a twisted cord, border, or edge (of cloth or vessel), and f’tilah is a twisted thread or wick. (Another association with moisture, and with sex, as in the Talmudic prohibition against “two wicks in one lamp” [adultery], Gittin 58b).
  • In the accusation, “shichet lo,” the verb form “shichet” is defined in Jastrow as “to pervert, ruin, or do harm.” The root is shin-chet-tav: “to be low, bent.” The first place that we find this root in Torah is in the very damp story of Noah — where it appears repeatedly. (More below.)

The roots of two of his accusations suggest that Moses dislikes and fears what is not straight and apparently unchanging. But does that mean we must? or that God does?

Does being “ikesh” mean that the People are somehow unable to accept discourse that comes down as the rain? Or might it mean that the People absorb and process Torah in way that Moses does not get?

Does the “uftaltol” part of the apparent insult mean that the People are “twisted” in the sense of perverse, unaccepting of Torah? Or might it mean that the generation angering Moses is braiding up insights and then bringing their light forth in a way that is foreign to him?

After all, Moses has had trouble before with rocks and water, the People and God. (See Exodus 17 and Numbers 20). And Miriam, who is associated with water and with teaching women Torah (sometimes understood as “oral Torah” or “white space”), is gone now; perhaps, without his sister’s help, Moses is even less able to navigate the fluidity — in Torah, in the People, or in God.

But, as we recite in Hallel, during Sukkot and other holidays —

Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord,
at the presence of the God of Jacob,

who turned the rock into a pool of water,
the flinty rock into a fountain
— Psalms 114-7-8, New JPS via Sefaria

Rocks are less solid and unchanging than we sometimes think. And “the Rock” may be more fluid or more complex than Moses sometimes thinks…. although even Moses tells us that the Rock both begets and births.

And, what about that “shicheit lo,” usually translated as something to do with ruin, and God’s regret?

Who Ruined What?

The root shin-chet-tav appears many times in the Noah story. Here are a few instances:

And the earth was corrupt [v’tishachet] before God, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt [nishchatah]; for all flesh had corrupted [hishchit] their way upon the earth. And God said unto Noah: ‘The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them [mashchitam] with the earth.

— Genesis 6:11-13 Old JPS via Mechon Mamre

Everett Fox’s translation emphasizes the root linkage with the compound expressions “brought-to-ruin” and “bring-ruin,” for what the people did and what God does, respectively. That still doesn’t explain what, exactly, is this ruin or how it arose. And the text doesn’t give us much.

Toward the end of the first Torah portion — which comes soon after Haazinu, as we cycle ’round again — we learn the following:

  • men were multiplying on the earth and had daughters (Gen 6:1);
  • bnei-elohim [sons of God, “divine beings”] took daughters of men who were pleasing to them (Gen 6:2);
  • God limited the lifespan of humans to 120 years (Gen 6:3);
  • “It was then, and later too, that the Nephilim [sometimes: giants] appeared on earth—when the divine beings cohabited with the daughters of men, who bore them offspring. They were the heroes of old, the men of renown” (Gen 6:4, New JPS via Sefaria).

That’s all we get before the declaration that people are a hopeless mess that God-YHVH regrets creating and plans to blot out:

YHVH saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. And YHVH regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened. YHVH said, “I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created—men together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them. But Noah found favor with YHVH….he was blameless [tamim] in his age.

–Genesis 6:5-8, New JPS via Sefaria

Given the sparse background that opens Chapter 6, many commentators across centuries assume the corruption God sees is related to all that multiplying — usually identifying some behavior labeled as sexual perversion or permissiveness among humans. Somehow, commentary usually blames those “taken,” rather than the takers, and it often ignores the role played by “sons of God” entirely.

…This blaming the victim dynamic requires heavy-duty attention beyond the scope of this post. For the present: If anyone knows helpful commentary that takes a different perspective on “ruin” and how it came to be, please advise….

Complication and Regret

Meanwhile, the text itself moves on quite quickly from whatever was going on between divine beings and humans, and it leaves a lot of mystery around why God so thoroughly regrets humanity. The overall impression is that it’s just complicated. Tamim can be “perfect, without blemish,” but also carries connotations of “innocent” or “simple.” And Noah’s name is related to comfort. So, maybe the Flood is God’s choosing simplicity over complications, comfort over unending struggle and sorrow.

…There are days when many of us have similar impulses, I think: This whole thing is a permanently entangled, irredeemable mess! This cannot go on. There must be a simpler way — can we just start over?

However imperfect, even human, this impulse may seem, God has already shown a tendency to “regret” ([yinachem], Gen 6:6-7) and will do so again. Just a few examples:

  • I Sam 15:11, 35 (regrets making Saul King);
  • Jer 26:19 (regrets Hezekiah’s impending doom);
  • Ps 106:45 (regrets distress of backsliding People); and
  • Jonah 3:10, 4:2 (regrets anger against Nineveh).

Although the same (“regret”) verb is not used, God soon has a change of heart about the impulse that led to the Flood: The story closes with a promise of never again and a rainbow (Gen 9:11-16); this is followed by God deliberately scattering people when they became of “one language” (Gen 11).

In closing out the Flood episode, God unilaterally declares a covenant with survivors and their descendants. Covenants are announced with individuals and families — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as well as promises to Hagar, Ishmael, and Esau. But only with the Exodus story do the People, apparently willingly, enter into collective Covenant with God (Ex 19:8, 24:3)….Even with the Covenant in place, as Moses relates, things remain, or return to being, complicated: In anger, God hides, or turns away, from “children without loyalty,” and seems to threaten them with everything BUT flood (Deut 32:19-20).

In particular, God appears vexed by the people’s predilection for havleihem [“futilities,” puffs of vapor — as in “all is futility” in Ecclesiastes] (Deut 32:21). Maybe, just maybe, the tendency to twisting and bending, which Moses abhors, actually allows for absorbing and wicking of moisture over the long haul. Perhaps crookedness, contrary to Moses’ perception, is part of how we survive, retain, and share essential aspects of Torah and divinity.

What God has twisted,” addendum from the intermediate days of Sukkot.



Deuteronomy 32:4-5

Hebrew characters and transliteration for Deut 32:4-5 in graphic above; more on these verses at Sefaria.

Everett Fox translation (Schocken, 1995):

4) The Rock, whole-and-perfect are his deeds,
for all his ways are just.
A God steadfast, (with) no corruption,
equitable and upright is he.
5) His children have wrought-ruin toward him — a defect in them,
a generation crooked and twisted!

NOTE: An extremely difficult verse that has been much debated. The solution here is based on Dillmann, quoted by Driver. An emendation cited by Tigay yields “his non-children violated their loyalty.”

Robert Alter translation (Norton, 2004):

4) The Rock, His acts are perfect
for all His ways are justice
A steadfast God without wrong,
true and right is He
5) Did He act ruinously? No, his sons’ the fault–
A perverse and twisted brood

NOTE: The Hebrew syntax here is impacted and hence the meaning obscure. This translation — like all others, only a guess at the sense of the original — follows the sequence of Hebrew words fairly literally.

The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (URJ Press, 2008, modified “new JPS”):

4) The Rock! — whose deeds are perfect,
Yea, all God’s ways are just;
A faithful God, never false,
True and upright indeed
5) *Unworthy children —
That crooked, perverse generation–
Their baseness has played God false [* Meaning of Heb. uncertain]

NOTE: Various proposals have been suggested for reconstructing this obscure verse, which literally reads: “He has dealt corruptly with him; not his children their blemish.” (For proposed solutions, see Jeffrey Tigay, Deuteronomy, 1996, p.301). The language in this verse reviles Israel by describing the people as having the opposite qualities as their God.

RETURN

Deuteronomy 32:18: The Rock

Many commentators link 32:18 —

You neglected the Rock that begot you,
Forgot the God who brought you forth.

JPS translation via Sefaria

— with Isaiah 51:1-2:

…Look to the rock you were hewn from,
To the quarry you were dug from.

Look back to Abraham your father
And to Sarah who brought you forth….

— JPS translation; more at Sefaria

Avivah Zornberg has taught at length about the relationship of these two passages, which treat God and Sarah as both feminine and masculine, piercer and pierced, one who begets and births. See “Cries and Whispers: The Death of Sarah” IN Beginning Anew: A Woman’s Companion to the High Holidays. Gail Twersky Reimer and Judith A. Kates, editors. Simon and Schuster, 1997. See also “Haazinu: Language and Translation.”

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