Parshat Ha’azinu: Singing the Song of Life
Rabbanit Neta Lederberg is Rosh Midreshet Lindenbaum-Matat, Carmiel
This week’s portion, Parshat Ha’azinu, is written for the most part in poetic verse. In fact, it is the last shirah [“song”] in the Torah. In the previous portion, Moshe takes leave of the People with words of encouragement before they embark on their conquest of the Land, and blesses Yehoshua with the words Chazak Ve’ematz – “Be strong and take courage” – upon the latter’s appointment as the leader designated conquer the Land.
Moshe then writes down all the words of the Torah – “And Moshe wrote this Law” – followed by the mitzvah of Hakhel – the compulsory assembling of every Israelite man, woman and child for the purpose of hearing the reading of the Torah by the king once every seven years.
The portion is “interrupted” by God’s words to Moshe: “And God spoke to Moshe” – a string of words so typical of the previous Torah Books, but absent from the Book of Devarim until this point.
Hashem then turns to Moshe and utters a description that is hardly encouraging: The People will turn astray and worship other gods, resulting in “And I will hide My face from them”. The verses go on to describe numerous hardships, exile, estrangement and catastrophe. This description is followed by a completely new Divine instruction to Moshe – “Now write down this song for you.”
In other words, God seemingly replaces Moshe’s Book of Law with a Book of Song, which can easily be remembered by heart and recited even during turbulent times. The two parts of our portion [which relate to the “two books” respectively] contain similar expressions which are easily comparable:
“And Moshe wrote this Law” (Devarim 31:9)
which corresponds to
“And Moshe wrote this song” (ibid. 31:22); “Take this Book of the Law, and put it by the side of the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there for a witness against thee” (ibid. 31:26)
which corresponds to
“…so that this Song may be a witness for Me against the Children of Israel” (ibid. 31:19).
It is very plausible that our portion of Ha’azinu is that very song which was written by Moshe in wake of the Divine instruction mentioned above: a Shirah that does not constitute the entire Torah, and is therefore more easily remembered, even during times of forgetfulness. How else are these poetic verses different, besides their being a type of song?
Does this Song convey identical messages to those expounded upon in the Covenant mentioned in Ki-Tavo and Nitzavim – namely, a life of curses as one option, a life of blessing as an alternative, and the call for repentance?
It seems to me that there is a difference between “the words of the Law” and “the words of the Song”. The difference is first and foremost a technical one. Poetic verse is eloquent and flowing; it uses allusions and is therefore succinct.
The Song of Ha’azinu begins by talking of Divine justice, then goes on to talk of God’s kindness to His people in the desert, followed by His future compassion towards them in the Promised Land. This, in turn, is followed by a description of the sins committed by the People and the ensuing Divine wrath. The Song ends with God’s sovereignty, and the punishment He will inflict upon those who have hurt Israel.
The song moves rapidly from one topic to the next, in such manner that we hardly notice the extreme transition from the initial punishment of the Children of Israel to the ultimate punishment of those who have hurt them.
One of the unique ideas expressed in this Song is the notion that the mitigation of Israel’s punishments stems from an extrinsic consideration; i.e., the manner in which such harsh punishment of God’s own People will be looked upon by the nations of the world. In fact, this consideration is so weighty, that it prevents Israel’s ultimate punishment from happening; instead, God focuses on healing and mending the terrible rift between Himself and His people. It follows then, that the “adversaries of God” are no longer the People of Israel, but rather the People’s own enemies which, in turn, become God’s adversaries – “For He does avenge the blood of His servants” (ibid. 32:43).
In other words, the nations from whose hands we will be saved, are the very same nations that will be punished for their actions against us.
What this boils down to is that while the portion of Nitzavim introduced the notion of Teshuva -Repentance – as a tool for rectifying the relationship between God and His people and mitigating the punishments mentioned in the Covenant of Ki-Tavo, the Song in our portion conveys the idea that the hardships will be made lighter not because of any apparent change in the People of Israel; in fact, the People are charged with no duty whatsoever. Rather, the wrath of the Lord against Israel will be alleviated as a result of the other nations’ response to the Chosen People’s supposed abandonment. This response induces God to save us and protect us, while punishing the other nations for their malicious actions against us.
In fact, our portion introduces a completely new concept: The Covenant between us and God is not contingent upon our actions, but upon God’s obligation to protect His people, no matter the circumstances. The Covenant of the Torah demands change, repentance and rectification; the Covenant of the Song demands nothing. Blessing shall ensue regardless of our actions; simply because we are the People of Israel.
This notion might give us insight into the well-known dispute between the Sages with regards to the Final Redemption, whether it is contingent on our repentance or not at all. Perhaps we can now conclude that it will come when it comes, regardless of anything. This should serve as a constant comfort to us because it allows us to sing the Song of Life and to celebrate life itself.