I spent about six hours yesterday helping my brother clean his apartment. He’s in the process of moving to Colorado, and needed help clearing out years of accumulated house goods in order to be able to move with as little as possible. As we were cleaning, we put on a CD by our favorite band, The Eels. They’re a strange alternative rock band and few of their songs are what you might call upbeat. This particular album we put on while cleaning, their first ever produced, is not as dark as their second, which happened to be our introduction to the band. Still, though, it is called “Beautiful Freak,” so it’s clearly not exactly standard love songs.
Our mom worries about our shared penchant for sad songs, or at least songs she frets will foster sadness in us or distort our views of life. Life, she says, is full of sadness and happiness. There are weird moments, and beautiful moments, and bittersweet moments, and our choices of art and entertainment should reflect that.
This week’s Torah portion is a song or at least poem (we’ve long since lost the tune), that encompasses all of that. It starts out powerful and pleasing declaring both the heavens and the earth should listen to this awesome song about to come forth. “My lesson will drip like rain, my word will flow like dew, like storm winds on vegetation, and like raindrops on grass” (32:2)– such imagery and mastery commanded with those words!
And then it gets dark. Actually, most of the parasha is pretty dark. G-d, through Moses’s voice, scolds the Israelites for all the ingratitude they showed and the faith they didn’t show while traveling through the wilderness. Verse five states that destruction is not of G-d, but man. Humans alone cause corruption and blemish upon the earth. Verses seven through thirteen get bittersweet as G-d recounts all the greatness bestowed upon our ancestors, things they should have been more grateful for.
But then it gets harsh again, which is still beautiful in its way, since it’s written poetically and the meanness of it is fully justified. The Israelites were totally ungrateful and did have a complete lack of faith. Whenever I have a meaningful connection with a stranger or am fortunate enough to catch a special moment in nature, I think, “Baruch HaShem, thank G-d for small miracles.” The Israelites that left Egypt, on the other hand, saw the Red Sea miraculously part, and still complained that they had been lead out of slavery only to die far worse deaths in the desert. When G-d tries to speak to the directly, they are too intimidated by Divine power and beg Moses to go talk to G-d on their behalf, and yet weeks later they are skeptical of G-d’s complete sovereignty and they built the golden calf.
So, in this poem, G-d is sternly explaining to the next generation of Israelites why their parents wandered for 40 years and will not be allowed into the Holy Land. It is a warning for the new generation, explaining to them that it is not too late, that G-d will always protect those that keep the Mitzvot in their hearts and teach the commandments on to their children.
“It is not an empty thing” (32:47), these sad songs which our parents could not understand. My brother and I found beauty, a way to grieve when we needed it, warnings, and life lessons from our songs, just as Jews have been gleaning from this song from the Torah for thousands of years. Sometimes our parents just can’t see the lessons the way we do; each generation has its own songs to teach it. But if we choose wisely, and listen with the right mentality, they should all give each of us basically the same lessons to live our lives well.
May each of us find the right song to help us remember to open our ears not only to the lyrics but also to G-d and to each other. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.