Shabbat-Table Talks: Ha'azinu


By: Rabbi Ralph Tawil <>


Value: Taking Responsibility for your shortcomings or mistakes. (Not “passing the buck.”) Facing up to our shortcomings is an important value because it helps us improve. One common way out of this very difficult task is to blame someone or something else. When we run out of things and people to blame we sometimes blame God Himself. Let us think about ways to impress this value upon our children and upon us.


Context: Our perasha, Ha`azinu, contains a song that Moshe wrote at God’s request. God wanted Moshe to write his ideas in the form of a poem because it would be easier to remember. God wanted Bne Yisrael to remember the very important message of the poem, namely that they are responsible for their own dire situation. Israel would like to blame their difficulties on God. Moshe wants them to know that God is not to blame - they are.


Text: Deuteronomy 32:4-6

The Rock! His deeds are perfect, Yea, all His ways are just; A faithful God, never false, True and upright is He.


“Corruption is His, not His children’s defect.”


A base and perverse generation. Do you thus requite the Lord, O dull and witless people? Is not he the father who created you? Fashioned you and made endure?


Analysis:  The only consensus about this verse is that it is difficult to understand. The above translation reflects the approach of Shadal (Shmuel David Luzzato, 18th century Italian Bible commentator). He explains:

After [Moshe] had claimed that God is perfect in his deeds, Moshe mentioned Israel’s claim in difficult times. They deny God’s perfection and say that the defect is not in them but in Him. …After all, they are his children and He should save them. The fact that He does not save them leads them to leave His service. Moshe repudiates them saying, [they are] a base and perverse generation. Can you requite thus to God and think those things about Him, making Him the cause of your troubles, when He, in fact, was the cause of all your prosperity? The words, “Corruption is His, not His children’s defect,” are not Moshe’s words, but [Moshe quoting] the people’s claim….

In short, according to Shadal, Israel will react to the troubles by blaming God, and not themselves. In effect “passing the buck,” by denying their own responsibility for the troubles that they face.


Discussion: Why do you think that Israel does not say, “we are to blame for our troubles?” (Answer: saying that is very difficult. It means admitting mistake and puts the burden upon you to change. It is much easier to give an excuse and put the blame on someone else.)


Can you think of any other biblical figures that did the same thing, passing the responsibility for their mistakes on someone else?


(A classic example is the first man, Adam and his wife Hava. When God asked Adam if he had eaten from the tree, Adam answered, “the woman You put at my side—she gave me of the tree, and I ate” (Genesis 3:12). In this sentence, the man simultaneously passes the blame to both his wife and to God! The woman, likewise passed the blame to the serpent.

Another example is King Shaul. When the prophet Shemuel reprimanded King Shaul for sparing the sheep of Amaleq, Shaul blamed the people. To which Shemuel responded, "You may look small to yourself, but you are the head of the tribes of Israel. The Lord anointed you king over Israel…" 1 Samuel 15:17)


Why would people prefer to make an excuse and put the blame on someone else? (It absolves them of responsibility. They do not suffer the painful thought that their shortcoming led to their situation.)


Why is this not good? (It doesn’t allow for real improvement. It leaves one almost powerless. The real source of the problem is not identified, so that it will not ever be rectified.)


What should be our response? (To see how any of our actions might have led to the situation and to accept upon ourselves to correct ourselves and improve the situation. In short, to take responsibility for our decisions and not “pass the buck.”)


President Harry Truman had a sign on his desk that read “The buck stops here.” What do you think he meant by that sign and why did he, the president, have it on his desk?


The following might be helpful (it is certainly interesting):

The sign "The Buck Stops Here" that was on President Truman's desk in his White House office was made in the Federal Reformatory at El Reno, Oklahoma. Fred M. Canfil, then United States Marshal for the Western District of Missouri and a friend of Mr. Truman, saw a similar sign while visiting the Reformatory and asked the Warden if a sign like it could be made for President Truman. The sign was made and mailed to President on October 2, 1945. Approximately 2-1/2" x 13" in size and mounted on walnut base, the painted glass sign has the words "I'm From Missouri" on the reverse side. It appeared at different times on his desk until late in his administration.

The saying "the buck stops here" derives from the slang expression "pass the buck" which means passing the responsibility on to someone else. The latter expression is said to have originated with the game of poker, in which a marker or counter, frequently in frontier days a knife with a buckhorn handle, was used to indicate the person whose turn it was to deal. If the player did not wish to deal, he could pass the responsibility by passing the "buck," as the counter came to be called, to the next player.*

On more than one occasion, President Truman referred to the desk sign in public statements. For example, in an address at the National War College on December 19, 1952 Mr. Truman said, "You know, it's easy for the Monday morning quarterback to say what the coach should have done, after the game is over. But when the decision is up before you -- and on my desk I have a motto which says 'The Buck Stops Here' -- the decision has to be made." In his farewell address to the American people given in January 1953, President Truman referred to this concept very specifically in asserting that, "The President--whoever he is--has to decide. He can't pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That's his job.

The sign has been displayed at the Library since 1957.

*Mitford M. Mathews, ed., A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1951), I, pages 198-199.


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