Parshat Haazinu (Deuteronomy 32:1 – 32:52)
Many call this week’s portion, “Shirat Haazinu” (the “Song of Haazinu”) for three reasons. The first and most obvious reason is that the Torah itself calls these verses “shira” (song), as we find in Hashem’s instruction to Moshe in the previous portion: “And now, write for yourselves this song.” (Devarim / Deuteronomy 31:19)
The second reason relates to the appearance of the text. The verses in our Parasha are written as poetry, with a poetic meter, instead of the ongoing prose style we find in most other parts of the Torah.
The last and most important reason concerns the content of the verses. Haazinu does not contain any historical accounts or reprimands of the Jewish People. Rather, it focuses on the past, the present and the future of the Jewish People, and uses unique words to do so.
Poetry is there to bear first-hand witness to a nation’s past, to remind us of the benevolence that Hashem bestowed upon us, and to warn us what will happen should we choose to stray off the golden path. Sadly, these prophecies have come true, and the consequences have been severe. However, Parshat Haazinu is also filled with hope for the future, expressed in the verses that foretell the nation’s redemption in the End of Days.
One particularly relevant verse stands out:
“Remember the world’s days of old, reflect upon the years of generations. Ask your father, and he will tell you; your elders, and they will inform you.” (ibid. 32:7)
This supplication, which Moshe directs towards the nation, seems to ask us to include general history as a core subject in high school, yeshiva, and university curricula. In other words, we should be studying the history of the entire world, not just that of the Jewish People. After all, we are told to “remember the world’s days of old”. Why should we study world history? The verse mentions the need to remember and understand – “reflect upon the years of generations”.
However, any cynic among us would be justified to ask whether history always repeats itself in the same way. Wouldn’t it be pathetic to prepare for the wars of the future by merely understanding the battles of yesteryear? What about all of the subsequent technological advances, and all of the other disparities between armies and cultures? What would we gain from studying the past?
We could understand the importance of comprehending history and historical memory on several levels. We could try to learn from the behavior of other nations that are under pressure, and try to define codes of behavior that mankind would embrace in similar situations in the future. It is safe to assume that scholars of history will benefit from their studies, but we can’t simply bank on their insights and use them to predict the future. Therefore, this type of study is, by its very nature, one that produces limited benefits.
Seemingly, studying and delving into the past is important primarily because it contributes to our understanding that the deeds of our forefathers are shaping our Jewish and human identities today. In other words, many people can ask themselves, “What can I learn from the Holocaust?”, but each person may reach a different conclusions, and in some cases, conclusions that are diametrically opposed.
Some might say that we should only rely on our military might, while others might suggest that our people should be dispersed to the four corners of the world, and so on. The conclusions will generally be derived from the opinions and beliefs that preceded the events themselves. Historical facts usually serve to reinforce our preconceived notions.
There is unanimity on one issue, though. The Holocaust clearly has an effect on us and shapes our dialog. We could not examine the heated public debate on the Iranian nuclear issue, for example, without taking into consideration the way the Holocaust affects this dialog. Even without knowing a thing about the nature of the threat and how likely it is to materialize, we all know that a nation that has faced so many trials and tribulations, including attempts at annihilation, since its exile in Egypt and until most recently the Holocaust, has the will to survive hard-coded into its DNA, along with sensors to warn us of any impending danger.
We can assume that a leader with historical awareness would act differently from one who is unaffected by history. Most probably, we are all praying that our leaders will indeed know “the world’s days of old”, and through this understanding, make the right decisions for the sake our future in the Land of Israel.