Torah: Have, have-not, its your attitude that matters most


Deuteronomy 32:1–52

II Samuel 22:1–51

With the recent transition of the Diller Teen Fellows program to the Israel Center at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about leadership and looking at our future as well as our past leaders.

Moses is one of our greatest all-time role models. For four books of Torah out of five, he shares with us every aspect of his life. In this week’s parashah, Ha’azinu, we read one of two songs in the Torah attributed to him. Unlike the earlier “Shirat Hayam” (“Song of the Sea,” Exodus 15), a song of praise for the great miracle of redemption said after crossing the sea, this song, just before Moses’ death, is intended to remind and teach the people about  life.

Moses begins by calling upon the heavens and the earth to witness his warnings. Why heavens and earth? Perhaps because they were there before humans were created, and might be there after, so they are reliable witnesses. Heavens and earth also symbolize high and low, rich and poor, wise and unlearned, and all should pay attention to these words.

Moses opens with “Ha’azinu Hashamayim … vetishma ha’aretz … “Listen, oh heavens … and let the earth hear.” Moses uses both “listen” and “hear,” perhaps to teach us that when communicating, we need to distinguish among our audiences. The heaven, which is loftier and, according to some, closer to Moses, is commanded to listen; while the earth, softer and more vulnerable, is told it will hear what he says. Addressing them differently conveys respect for and understanding of the core qualities of each.

In our recent Diller retreat, we discussed one of the later verses: “Vayishman yeshurun vayiv’at,” “And Jeshurun [implying Israel] grew fat, and then, he kicked” (Deuteronomy 32:15).

Our specific context was a “privilege walk,” an indoor activity in which participants are asked about their lives based on a series of prompts: If your ancestors came to the United States by force, take one step back; If there were more than 50 books in your house growing up, take one step forward;  If your family automatically expected you to attend college, take one step forward; and so on. (You can Google the complete version under “privilege walk activity.”)

The goal is not to make anyone embarrassed, but to create awareness of the privileges in our lives that we often take for granted. Privilege tends to be invisible to those who are privileged.

This is exactly Moses’ warning. Most of us prefer to be blessed with affluence rather than poverty, even though in a way, being rich is just as much a trial as being poor. Both are defined largely not by what we have or have not, but by our attitude.

A familiar parable describes two students who tell their rabbi they want to learn how to live with adversity. He sends them to a destitute man who has been an orphan for most of his life, who lives in an uninsulated, falling-apart hut and who sleeps on the floor with almost nothing to eat. The students are shocked, and ask the man to teach them his secret of living with hardship. The man replies, surprised: “How would I know? Nothing bad ever happened to me!”

In this parashah, we’re asked  to find balance. As long as we view our resources as a gift to be shared, and our role as partners in Creation, we do not face the danger of being overly “fat” or of being spoiled and “kicking.”

Interesting, the word “ha’azinu,” which means “listen,” shares its root with ozen, which means “ear.” But it also shares its root with moznayim, or “scale,” the symbol of Libra, the astrological month that comes around this holiday season.

Jewish life always asks us  to find balance: between heavenly and earthly aspects of life, between wealth and poverty, between giving and getting. It is with this spirit that Moses delivers his song, and with this spirit that we start the new year. Shanah tovah and Shabbat shalom.

Michal Kohane
is the director of the Israel Center of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. She has served in leadership roles throughout Northern California and holds advanced degrees in studies of Israel, psychology and education. She can be reached at

Michal Kohane