Parshat Haazinu: A Song of Exhilaration vs. a Song of Rebuke
Rabbi Yogev and Chana Cohen are former Straus-Amiel shlichim who served as Rabbi and Rabbanit of the Porat Yosef community in London
A quick examination of the entire Torah will reveal two significant portions of poetic Song that boast characteristics typical of this particular Torah genre: The Song of the Sea (Shirat HaYam) and the Song of Rebuke (Shirat Ha’azinu).
Our Sages teach us that Moshe’s Song of Rebuke is written in the Torah scroll in what is called ari’ach al gabei ari’ach (“tile upon tile”), which denotes a very particular graphic layout whereby the words are written in two straight columns, with each line written directly beneath the previous one (= =).
This graphic layout is different from the one used in the Song of the Sea – ari’ach al gabei levena (“tile upon brick”), whereby the words in each line are placed above the spaces below, thus creating a “brick alignment” (_-_-_-). The particular layout of these poetic Songs is also of Halachic significance, such that a Song portion that is written as a regular Torah portion and not in Song layout [as explicated above] renders the entire Torah Scroll inappropriate [pasul] for use (Yoreh De’a 3).
In light of the above, we must ask ourselves what each of the two poetic layouts signifies, and why different layouts were chosen for each of the Songs being discussed.
The Song of the Sea stemmed from the great exhilaration felt by of the People of Israel upon witnessing the great miracle that had transpired with the splitting of the sea. Only moments before, they had been certain that their freedom from slavery was short-lived but, behold – their enemies were suddenly drowning before their eyes in miraculous fashion! This sudden turn of events evoked a dramatic emotional transition – from a state of great despair and despondence to one of great joy and gratitude. This, in turn, leads the Israelites to sing a great Song of Love to their God for saving them.
In contrast, the song sung by Moshe in our portion of Ha’azinu is a Song of Rebuke intended to instill awe in the hearts of the listeners. Before leaving this world, Moshe Rabeinu wishes to reprimand them one more time lest they leave the ways of the Torah and go astray. In his song, Moshe wishes to convey an unequivocal message: The Torah is the only way of life for the People of Israel, and should they deviate from it – they are sure to bring destruction upon themselves!
It is not for no reason that the reading of the Torah portions in their prescribed order places the reading of Ha’azinu in close proximity to Yom Kippur; there is nothing like Moshe’s Song of Rebuke to rouse one to repentance.
As we have shown above, there is an essential difference between the two Songs. The Song of the Sea expresses Man’s emotions towards his Creator, and so the movement, as it were, is an upward one: from Earth to Heaven.
Moshe’s Song of Rebuke in Ha’azinu, on the other hand, arises from the prophet of God, who wishes to convey words of reproof and warning so that the People remember to adhere to the ways of the Lord. Hence, the movement in this Song is downward, from Heaven to Earth.
The profound connection between essence and appearance
On a deeper level, there must exist some sort of inherent connection between the content of the Biblical song and its graphic layout in the Torah scroll.
A Song which is arranged in the “tile upon tile” fashion, looks much like an erect building with clean straight lines. This particular visual display can be likened to the Divine Wisdom which requires of Man to tread with uprightness and integrity. Shirat Ha’azinu guides Man to attire himself with awe and dignity, and conduct himself in such manner that will reflect the purpose for which Man was created. The straight and neat graphic layout is there to remind us: the commandments of the Torah are absolute and unequivocal; follow them and do not deviate from them, neither to the right nor to the left.
As to the Song of the Sea, Shirat HaYam, one will easily notice that the words fill up the entire width of the Torah scroll [unlike the two narrow columns of Shirat Ha’azinu], and that this entire portion of song takes up significant space upon the parchment because of its unique layout – “tile upon brick”. What does this denote? That Man, by nature, tends to deviate from “all that is upright” and is not always “symmetrically aligned” in his conduct, oftentimes straying from the highroad. Man is no automaton, and, as such, absorbs reality, processes information and only then acts.
The spaces created between the words in this particular graphic layout can be likened to Man’s personal prejudices when it comes to understanding God’s world. Between the written words there are spaces that can be filled by Man at will. It is true that the Torah is straight and truthful and must be followed; however, in all other areas Man is instructed to act in keeping with his own personal level of piety and his individual soul! The Song of the Sea was an outburst of the Israelites’ innermost emotions. They were not commanded to sing by any binding law or book; they simply had the spontaneous urge to sing in praise of their Creator.
The spontaneous outburst of song as a guiding principle to life
In light of the above we might venture to ask: Which Song is more significant? Moshe’s Song of Rebuke or the Song of the Sea? The song of reproof or the song of exhilaration?
From a very tender age, when praying the morning prayers, one comes across the Psalms of Praise which also include the Song of the Sea. The fact that we utter these verses of song every single day is meant to teach us that we much aspire to achieving piety and fear of Heaven in a way that is natural and spontaneous. Much like the Song of the Sea that burst forth from the pure and unaffected desire to give praise and thanks, rather than because of some sort of obligation. Our Sages teach us that sincere natural joy which expresses love of God transcends even Fear of Heaven and ethical conduct. The Rambam relates to this as follows:
“One who serves [God] out of love occupies himself in the Torah and the mitzvot and walks in the paths of wisdom for no ulterior motive: not because of fear that evil will occur, nor in order to acquire benefit. Rather, he does what is true because it is true, and ultimately, good will come because of it. This is a very high level which is not merited by every wise man…” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 10, 2)
Torat Eretz Yisrael
The lesson learned here can be a guiding star to shlichim working all over the world and engaging in kiruv and chizuk – bringing Jews closer to their Jewish roots.
Oftentimes, the cultural and spiritual differences that exist between the shlichim‘s personal background and that of the communities they serve are colossal on many levels. The shlichim‘s core values, priorities, customs are often very different from that of the local communities, so much so that the former are often looked upon as “new beings that they knew not, that came up of late, unknown to your fathers…”, as aptly expressed by a verse in our portion (Devarim 32:17).
Consequently, shlichim might err into thinking that they have come to turn everything around, make dramatic changes and rectify the situation, and the sooner the better! They might be led into thinking that it is their duty to “step into the shoes” of the great mussar leaders, the preachers and admonishers of yore, and rebuke their congregants time and time again by forcefully putting up spiritual fences and precautions and removing existing obstacles; or by holding great conventions to arouse the public to repentance and spiritual elevation; or by giving reproof as to the wanting spiritual state of the generation. Indeed, emissaries might mistakenly think that the more rebuke the better…
Unfortunately, the above is a pretty accurate description of what happens in some instances. Using the “mussar approach” is probably the easiest, much like writing words in two straight columns, as is the layout of Ha’azinu – so much easier than choosing a more complex alignment. Ponder this point for just a moment: Is it not easier to be in command of soldiers who march in two straight columns than to educate a heterogenous class?
Do not misunderstand this notion, however. The way of mussar and reproach is certainly a legitimate way of education, as the Torah itself tells us. However, as could be seen by our examination of the two Songs in question, the Song of the Sea is our ultimate objective – i.e., uttering a song of spontaneous love to the Almighty which expresses the fact that we have chosen to do so of our own free will.
Bouts of rebuke in our times might lead to some small achievements in the short term, but will not build up robust Jewish identity in the long term. It is the shlichim‘s duty to impart love of God, and arouse their congregants’ desire to continue the Jewish Story for generations to come, and not, God forfend, to cause people to sever this intergenerational chain. This can only be achieved through a Song-of-the-Sea-approach rather than through a Song of Rebuke.
May we merit to sing the Song of Life expressing our great love for God and our great joy for the beautiful world He has created for us.
The Porat Yosef community has Moroccan roots but is comprised of a great variety of families – ranging from Israelis who live in London to Jewish families who moved to London from Morocco. It was our role to rejuvenate the community by increasing the number of Torah-related and educational activities, and by offering guidance to both young and veteran families. Additionally, during our shlichut we headed the Halacha Kollel in the Heichal Leah congregation, founding an ordination track with the collaboration of the London Rabbinical Courts.