The Jerusalem Post

Parashat Ha’azinu: The power of ‘tzur’/flint

 METAPHOR FOR God: Miorcani flint from the Moldavian Plateau.  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
METAPHOR FOR God: Miorcani flint from the Moldavian Plateau.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

It is not surprising that flint became a metaphor for God, as flint is strong, flint instruments provided protection, and they were part of food preparation and the making of clothing.

This week’s parsha, Ha’azinu, is an interesting bridge. It is the first weekly Torah reading for this calendar year, but at the same time it’s the penultimate weekly Torah reading for the full annual cycle. The last parsha, V’Zot Haberachah, will not be read until Simhat Torah in two weeks.

Last week’s parsha, Vayelech, and this week’s parsha are the only two parshiot that each are a complete chapter of the Torah. Last week, Moses was told to “write down this song/poem”(Deuteronomy 31:22). That song/poem is the entirety of this week’s parsha and is visually very easy to locate, as it is written in two columns.

The composition begins with the force of the first notes of a Beethoven symphony:

The importance of flint in the Torah

Torah scroll (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Torah scroll (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“Listen, you heavens, and I will speak;

hear, you earth, the words of my mouth.

Let my teaching fall like rain

and my words descend like dew,

like showers on new grass,


like abundant rain on tender plants. 

I will proclaim the name of the Lord.

Oh, praise the greatness of our God!” 

(Deuteronomy 32:1- 3)

Suddenly in the next sentence, it introduces a new note – the word tzur, which will appear eight more times in its score. Tzur is often translated as “rock,” but the more accurate translation is “flint,” and that is significant. Flint was the essential stone used for tool-making thousands of years ago, thus a critical and a central component for certain cultures. It was used to produce knives, spears, scrapers, awls, hand axes, and the like. Flint, while hard, can be chipped to make very sharp instruments. The Torah echoes this when we read about this incident concerning Zipporah, the wife of Moses:

“Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin” (Exodus 4:25).

This circumcision scene reminds us how razor-sharp flint implements could be. At the same time, its mention as a part of a covenant ceremony connects flint to God. As we will see below, the word “tzur/flint” is used in this week’s parsha as a metaphor for God. 

Dr. Carolyn Anne Graves-Brown points out, “The fact that flint, in Egypt, is very similar to the understanding of flint in other cultures (the celestial, storm gods, fire, snakes, etc.) suggests that this is probably a result of the physicality of flint and its working, which is largely unchanging across cultures.” 

It is not surprising that flint became a metaphor for God, as flint is strong, flint instruments provided protection, and they were part of food preparation and the making of clothing, As we read in this week’s parsha:

“The Rock/Flint – whose deeds are perfect,

Yea, all God’s ways are just;

A faithful God, never false,

True and upright indeed.


So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked –

You grew fat and gross and coarse –

They forsook the God who made them

And spurned the Rock/Flint of their support.


You neglected the Rock/Flint who begot you,

Forgot the God who labored to bring you forth.


“How could one have routed a thousand,

Or two put ten thousand to flight,

Unless their Rock/Flint had sold them,

The Lord had given them up?”


For their rock/flint is not like our Rock/Flint,

In our enemies’ own estimation.


[God] will say: Where are their gods,

The rock/flint in whom they sought refuge…”


In this poem, there is also one non-Godly use of the word “flint”:

“[God] set them atop the highlands,

To feast on the yield of the earth;

Nursing them with honey from the crag,

And oil from the flinty rock…”


The use of flint as a metaphor for God also made its way into Jewish liturgy and culture. Within Psalm 19, which is found in the siddur, we read:

“May the words of my mouth

and the prayer of my heart

be acceptable to You,

O Lord, my rock/flint and my redeemer.”

(Psalm 19:15)

“Rock/Flint of Israel! Arise to the help of Israel” is recited before the Amidah section of the morning prayers. And last week, we read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah in the Haftarah:

“There is no holy one like the Lord, truly, there is none beside You; there is no rock/flint like our God” (1 Samuel 2:2).

In addition, the 13th-century song “Maoz Tzur,” or “Rock/Flint of Ages,” is a staple of Hanukkah.

One can argue that its most important usage as a metaphor occurred 75 years ago. In April 1948, the British Parliament, earlier than anticipated, decided to end the British Mandate. In response, David Ben-Gurion created The National Committee of 37 individuals representing the broad political Zionist spectrum, including the Revisionists, who had opposed the UN Partition Plan the previous November. 

The first drafts of the Israeli Declaration of Independence were written, at the request of Ben-Gurion, by Mordechai Beham, a lawyer, and his friend Conservative Rabbi Harry Solomon Davidovitz. As pointed out in a Shlomo Maital podcast The Israel Story, those drafts were “based on the American texts [the US Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution] and were full of religious prose... [and] was written in English and only later translated into Hebrew!”

It was the religious speech that caused problems; certain factions wanted it in, and others did not. Eventually, any references to God were removed, but that did not resolve the issue. At one point, with time running out before May 14, Ben-Gurion said, “Gentlemen, each one of us believes in Tzur Israel – the Rock of Israel – as he understands it. For you, [haredi Jerusalemite] Rabbi [Yehuda Leib] Maimon, Tzur Israel is the God of Israel. And for you, [secular kibbutznik] Mr. [Aharon] Zisling, it is the might of our people. Please, let’s get on with it.”

With that, the Israeli Declaration of Independence closes:

“With trust in the Tzur Israel/Rock [Flint] of Israel, we set our hand to this Declaration, at this Session of the Provisional State Council, in the city of Tel Aviv, on this Sabbath eve, the fifth of Iyar 5708, the fourteenth day of May 1948.”

While it is easy to see this as both sides making a concession, what Ben-Gurion achieved was something more creative, important, and inclusive. A concession by nature is when two sides in a dispute concede something. By placing the phrase “Tzur Israel” in the text of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, Ben-Gurion allowed different Zionist parties to embrace the text without having to yield to their deep convictions. 

Seventy-five years of divisions within Israel have only sharpened, particularly over the role of religion and the democratic nature of the Jewish state. The recent 13-hour Supreme Court hearing on judicial reform has in many ways brought some of those issues to a head. As the justices work on their ruling, Ben-Gurion and his use of Tzur Israel is a model worth considering. ■

The writer is a Reconstructionist rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont. He teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura and at Bennington College.