Parshat Haazinu (Deuteronomy 32:1-32:52)

Rabbi David Stav 

This coming Shabbat Shuva, we will read Parshat Haazinu – or, to be precise, Shirat Haazinu (Song of Haazinu). God tells Moshe that this song has a vital role in shaping Jewish consciousness – which all of Moshe’s previous admonitions of Israel had not managed to do – and that this poem would stand by the nation at times of crisis.

In fact, when the Temple existed, the song of Haazinu would be divided into seven portions, one for each day of the week. Every day, the appropriate excerpt would be read. As it happens, they viewed this song as a warning beacon that should capture the attention of all.

Although the Torah refers to Haazinu as a “song” [Deut. 31:19-20], it strikes us as unusual. Indeed, we don’t encounter anything like it elsewhere in the Torah: it is arranged like stacked tiles, or stacked bricks, written in a set format for each line: one cluster of words, a space, and another cluster of words.

The language of Haazinu is rather archaic as well, far removed from today’s Hebrew diction. Almost every expression demands a concerted linguistic and exegetical effort in order to understand the text. Yet even after stripping away the outer husk and pondering the essence of the verses, we remain dumbstruck.

After all, how can one consider a series of prophetic passages and an admonition to be poetry? In the Torah, poetry expresses our joy at having experienced something positive. For instance, in Shirat Hayam (Song at the Sea), the song the children of Israel sang at the banks of the Reed Sea, the nation sang along with Moshe in gratitude for the splitting of the sea, the Jews’ salvation from their Egyptian pursuers, and so on.

Similarly, in the Song of the Well (Num. 21:17-20], the people thank Hashem for the springs that accompany them throughout their desert wanderings.

The narrative in the Song of Haazinu, containing some of that sentiment, relates how Hashem accompanied the people, protecting and defending them “like an eagle hovering over its young”, and brought them to the beautiful and goodly Land of Israel.

However, the song continues: the nation abandoned its god, “became fat and rebelled”, neglected its Jewish values and emulated Canaanite culture, ultimately entering into conflict with all of the nations of the world, ending with the destruction of Israelite kingdom and the people’s exile from its land, making the Jews like a rug upon which all other nations would trample.

The description is harrowing: “I will use my arrows on them… From outside, the sword will bereave, and terror from within.” The most horrific verse of all says that at a certain point in time, Hashem will consider eradicating the nation: “I said that I would make an end of them, eradicate their remembrance from mankind.”

Living only several generations after the Holocaust, we can’t help but tremble at such rhetoric. It would seem that Hashem wanted to wipe us out, “to erase us from human memory”, or in other words, to erase Israel’s name from the Earth, just as the Germans had done not long ago, and just as the Iranians are planning to do now.

The text abounds in descriptions that criticize a people which, despite the tragedies it experiences, never stops to try to understand the spiritual iniquities that led to the tragedies that befell us.

But our original question resurfaces: why is this poetry? Where is the poetry? What are we so happy about? After all, it deeply saddens and frustrates anyone reading it, so why call it poetry?

A hint is contained in a verse at the end of the song: “Sing out praise, O you nations, for His people! For He will avenge the blood of His servants, inflict revenge upon His adversaries, and appease His land [and] His people” [Deut. 32:43].

The Torah does not tell us what will produce a change in Hashem’s conduct, or why the same God who sought our destruction only several verses earlier would suddenly embark on a vengeful campaign against the nations of Israel for what they did to Israel. Not a word about a global repentance movement, and certainly no mention of repentance within the Jewish nation, a quest to discover its roots, or anything of the like.

To answer our question, we note that for no obvious reason, deep within all the shells that encase us daily, and regardless of our deeds, the connection between the Jewish people and its God is unbreakable. Even after having abandoned Him, after which He wanted to punish us and distance Himself from us, we discover that we are bound by inseverable bonds, not necessarily because we are the best or because we are His nation.

This poem resembles a son who, after having fought with his father countless times, leaves his father’s house in a rage. The father then dispossesses his son from all his assets, in life and in death. But a moment before it’s too late, they make up, having understood that there is no other way. They are a family.

Indeed, this is poetry. Poetry is knowing that even after all has failed, we still have Someone on Whom to rely and to Whom we can return.

[Translated from the Hebrew by Ilan Yavor]
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