Haazinu
Shabbat Shuvah
 
 
THE LAST COMMANDMENT
Loss of the Land
The very last of the 613 commandments in the Torah is alluded to in this week’s parsha, which the Talmud states is the Biblical source for the commandment to bless G‑d before studying Torah.
“When I call out the name of G‑d; ascribe greatness to our G‑d.”
Rashi explains that these words were spoken by Moses to introduce the Song of Ha’azinu. Since he would be imparting words of Torah, Moses therefore stated: “I will call out the name of G‑d,” meaning that he will first recite a blessing, which the Jewish people were expected to affirm by saying Amen.
The fact that it is the last commandment of the Torah underscores its importance as recognized by the Talmudic principle that the end encapsulates all of that which preceded it.
Our Sages highlight the importance of this Mitzvah in an even more dramatic way:
The Talmud (Nedarim 81a) discusses how the Sages and the prophets were mystified as to the cause of the loss of the Land at the end of the First Temple Era, until G‑d revealed the reason: “It is because they had forsaken my Torah that I have placed before them.” (Jeremiah 9:12)” Says Rabbi Yehudah, in the name of Rav: “[It means] they did not recite the blessing on the Torah first.”
Commentators explain that their failure to recite the blessing before learning Torah signaled that although they studied Torah they did not cherish it.
On a deeper level, their reluctance to recite the blessing arose from their failure to see the Torah as anything more than brilliant wisdom. Despite the obvious Divine imprimatur written all over it, the role that G‑d plays as the Giver of the Torah eluded them. To regard Torah as anything less than G‑d’s infinite wisdom is a gross devaluation of its Divine worth.  It would be akin to one who believes he has extracted a book’s full depth of meaning when he has read only its table of contents.
Blessing the Torah First
An interesting question arises at this point.  According to the analysis above, their sin was that they did not recite the blessing at all. Yet in discussing the people’s failure to observe this commandment, the Talmud stresses that they did not recite the blessing first. Why is reciting the blessing first such a significant factor in the study of Torah?
A contemporary work, Minchas Asher, answers by prefacing the analysis of the Chinuch (a Medieval work devoted to listing and explaining the 613 commandments) concerning the order of the blessing. The Chinuch contrasts two Biblical blessings, the blessings after eating a meal (Birchas Hamazon) and the blessing before learning Torah (Birchas HaTorah). Chinuch asks, why is it that the blessing for food is recited after the meal; whereas the blessing for the Torah is recited before learning?
Chinuch’s explains that when we engage in a mundane behavior such as eating, we cannot be expected to express gratitude to G‑d until we actually enjoy the food. Learning Torah, by contrast, is an intellectual exercise, and our intellect is capable of appreciating future benefits. 
Bridges and Sandwiches
One may apply this teaching to our current condition.
We are situated between the last moments of Galus-exile and the beginning of the Final Redemption. Because we are the “bridge” generation, we may experience conflicting and often diametrically opposing emotions. On the one hand, we can view the unfolding of events through the shaded glasses of Galus which make everything seem dark and dreary. On the other hand, we can see the dawning rays of the future’s period of light on the horizon. We may be unable to stop vacillating between these modes of vision from one moment to the next. One moment we feel depressed and the next moment exhilarated.
The reason for our ambivalence derives from our generation being sandwiched between Galus and Redemption.
To better understand this paradoxical dynamic, we need to go back in history and see how it played out the first time we found ourselves in this type of situation.
Our Talmudic Sages inform us that on the Rosh Hashanah before the exodus from Egypt, the Jews had already been freed from slavery by means of the Ten Plagues even though they were still in Egypt.
Rosh Hashanah may thus be viewed as marking their entry into a period of limbo. They were not slaves but they were also not free. Until they crossed the Red Sea and were finally rid of the Egyptian threat, their situation was still precarious, sandwiched in between the Egyptian pursuers and total freedom. 
Perhaps an even more apt comparison to our situation is the forty years spent wandering through the desert before the Jews finally entered the Land of Israel. On the one hand, commentators point to the “slave mentality” that plagued the liberated Jews, which is seen as the cause of their frequent rebellions. On the other hand, this “desert generation” has been characterized by our Sages as a “generation of knowledge,” raised as they were on heavenly food, Manna. This made them eminently qualified to receive the Torah. Indeed, even their sin of not wanting to enter the Promised Land is attributed to their superior spiritual status. They did not want to engage in the many mundane activities that would have become necessary for them to settle in the Land of Israel.
Which was it? Were they rebellious slaves or liberated spiritual beings?
The answer is that they were both. Those who live in a “sandwich” period can and do alternate from one extreme mindset to another. In addition, there are those who are more prone to the slave mindset and those who are more spiritually sensitive and in whom the Redemption dynamic resonates. 
How to Open Ourselves to Redemption?
How do we suppress the interference of the Galus mindset and enable ourselves to be open to the Redemption mindset? The answer is through the study of Torah. Torah is untainted by Galus because it is the source of freedom.
Moses asked G‑d how it would be possible for the Jews to be liberated from Egypt; what merit did they have? G‑d responded by referring to the future giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
Commentators ask how it was that an event that had yet to occur gave the Jews an anticipatory merit for their liberation? 
One way to answer this question is that Moses was concerned that after being liberated what guarantee was there that they would not revert to their original slave mentality with all the attendant spiritual failures.
G‑d’s response was that their receiving the Torah at Sinai will instill in them a new mindset of freedom.
Our Sages in Ethics of the Fathers state clearly: “There is no free person other than one who studies Torah.”
A Glitch
There can, however, be a glitch in this process. One can study Torah with Galus tainted eyes. What guarantee is there that we will not tamper with the liberating force of Torah?
The answer is: the blessings we recite before learning Torah, in which we invoke the Divine origin and nature of the Torah, compel us to see the Torah from G‑d’s perspective.
When the Jewish community at the end of the First Temple Era failed to recite that blessing, they lost the redemptive power of Torah and were rendered vulnerable to the hostile forces of Galus.
We can now understand the emphasis on their failure to recite the blessing first. Had they recited the blessing after the study it would have shown that they considered Torah study as no more than a delectable intellectual exercise, akin to eating a gourmet meal. The whole idea of reciting the blessing before commencing the study of Torah is to underscore that Torah study is, first and foremost, a G‑dly exercise and that we must never impute our own human logic to the Divine character of Torah.
Lesson for Our Time
The lesson for our time is obvious. In order to empower ourselves to absorb the Redemptive energies that are in the air in this transitional period, we must study Torah. The most potent form of Torah study in this regard is the study of the sections of the Torah which deal explicitly with the subject of Redemption. However, when will this Torah study enjoy the greatest success? When we prefaceTorah study with the blessings on the Torah. That is when we consciously make an effort to see the Torah from G‑d’s vantage point, putting aside our own preconceived ideas and open ourselves to radically new ways of seeing the world. 
There is another point to be made here. Recalling the Chinuch’s analysis of the difference between when we say a blessing before an act and when we say it afterwards, we may take the above one step further.
If we view the Redemption strictly as a physical benefit, it is hard to imagine our Animal Souls being able to get excited about a utopia that has yet to materialize. It is akin to our need to say the Grace after Meals after the meal, because our bodies and Animal Souls cannot appreciate the good in a meal that has yet to be consumed.
If, however, we focus on the Redemption as primarily working a spiritual change, we can thank G‑d for it even before it happens. The spiritual side of our personality does not need to experience the source of delight in order to appreciate its value, as the Chinuch stated.
When we study Torah with the proper introduction we condition ourselves to see the spiritual side of things. This helps us engender a sense of joy so that, together with the blessing on the Torah before we learn, we will also now sing praises to G‑d for our future, but imminent, Redemption.
By the same token, we do not need to wait for the New Year to sing praise to G‑d for all the good that we will enjoy in the future. We can be confident that G‑d will inscribe and seal all of the Jewish people, indeed, the entire world, for a good and sweet year, and most importantly, a year of the true and complete Redemption!