Ha'azinu

  • Rav Ezra Bick

As we all know, Ha'azinu is "shira," a song. Unlike the other songs in the Torah, which fulfill a historical purpose - the Jews really did sing a song of rejoicing after the splitting of the sea, Ha'azinu is a "song on demand" - God told Moshe to compose the song. One simple question - why? Or, in other words, what is the meaning of a "song" in the context of Moshe's farewell speeches to the Jewish people?

 

A. Witnessing

First, we have to understand what is the basic theme of Ha'azinu. I think it is fair to say that the basic theme of "shirat ha-yam" (the song of the sea) is praise of God, as a response to the miracle. This is the standard meaning of shira, as a halakhic concept, in general - one utters shira after a great miracle of redemption (hallel). But clearly, Ha'azinu does not have that character, both by an even superficial internal text reading, and in the absence of a miracle to which the song is in response.

In fact, the Torah explicitly and repeatedly defines the nature of Ha'azinu.

"And I shall surely hide My face on that day, because of all the evil that (the people) have done, for they have turned to other gods. Therefore ("ve-ata"), write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Jews to place in their mouths, in order that THIS SONG BE A WITNESS FOR ME AGAINST THE JEWS" (31,18-19).

"And when many evils and troubles shall befall them, then THIS SONG SHALL ANSWER THEM AS A WITNESS, for it shall not be forgotten from their seed..." (31,21).

"Gather unto me all the elders of your tribes and your officers, and I shall speak in their ears these things, and I SHALL CALL THE HEAVENS AND EARTH AS WITNESSES AGAINST THEM; for I know that after my death you shall become corrupt, and leave the way which I have commanded you..." (31,28-29).

(Accordingly, the opening lines of Ha'azinu - "Listen heavens, and I shall speak; let the earth hear the words of my mouth" - are not merely a poetic opening, but represent the crux of the song - a calling of witnesses who will be able to testify when the time comes.)

The song is to be a future witness, connected to the evil deeds of future generations, and to the evil that will befall them as a result. We can now define our questions more exactly:

1. What is the purpose or need for a "witness?" To what does the song witness?

2. Why is it in the form of a song?

3. What is the difference between the prose "tokhecha" of Parashat Ki Tavo, which spells out exactly what will be the terrible consequences of not following the Torah, and the "shira" of Ha'azinu?

 

B. Song

What is the difference between a situation described in prose and one presented in song? Let us examine a very suggestive midrash.

Chizkiyahu should have said shira over the fall of Sancheriv, as is written, "But Chizkiyahu did not render according to the benefit he had received, for his heart has lifted up"(Divrei Ha-yamim II 32,25). We know Chizkiyahu was a righteous king, and yet it is written that his heart has lifted up (haughty)? It means his heart was haughty and did not say shira. Yeshayahu came to him and said: "Sing to God" (Yesh. 12,5). He answered: Why? [Yeshayahu answered]: "For He has done mighty things" (ibid.). [Chizkiyahu] said to him: This is already "known throughout the land" (ibid.). R. Levi said: Chizkiyahu said, Why should we say retell the greatness and miracles of God, when this is already well-known from one end of the world to the other. Has not the sun stood still in the center of the heaven, and God's miracles were seen from one of the world to the other. (Shir HaShirim Raba, 4, "Iti Mimlvanon," 3)

(The gemara in Sanhedrin 94a states that for this reason Chizkiyahu was not declared Mashiach).

Chizkiyahu, the personality whose heart is not able to say shira, does not see why the well-known historical facts of God's miracles need to be repeated every time God performs another one. In other words, shira does not carry any new information. Prose states the timeless truth. Shira expresses the truth of this particular second, the immediate reaction to the unique moment in history. To the prosaic eye, there is nothing essentially new in the downfall of Sancheriv that was not already demonstrated in the drowning of Par'o. To the shira personality, the defeat of Sancheriv requires an immediate reaction, for the truth of this moment is unique. Shira is spontaneous, prose is eternal.

The Tokhecha in Ki Tavo expressed the timeless truth of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. It was a BRIT - these are the conditions by which you are My people and I am your God. There is a law that decrees that if you abandon God, you will be punished, by sword, disease, and exile. To this, Ha'azinu has nothing to add.

Ha'azinu is shira, though a very unusual one. It is written not for the Jews of the desert generation. It is written for "when many evils and troubles shall befall them, THEN this song shall answer them as a witness" (31,21). Today, you read it and study it only so that it should be ready "in their mouths" (31,19), so that "it will not be forgotten from their seed" (31,21). At that future time, this song will suddenly become terribly relevant - it will then be the WITNESS who comes to testify. Ha'azinu is a case of prepared and studied spontaneity.

Notice that though Ha'azinu, like the rest of Sefer Devarim, is a speech of Moshe, here there is an explicit indication that it is composed by God and not by Moshe himself. True, it does not say, "Vayedaber HaShem el Moshe leimor." Moshe says to the Leviim that "I will call the heaven and the earth to testify" (31,28). The shira itself is in first person, at least at the beginning - "Listen heavens and I will speak." But this is preceded by the a command of God to Moshe: "God said to Moshe, you shall rest with your fathers, and this people shall rise and whore after the foreign gods of the land.... Now write THIS SONG for yourselves and teach it to the Jews to place in their mouths, so that this song be a witness for Me against the Jews" (31, 16-19). This is immediately followed by the statement that "Moshe wrote THIS SONG ON THAT DAY, and taught it to the Jews" (31,22). The song - THIS SONG - is something already existing in some sense when God speaks to Moshe.

Had Moshe composed the song, it would have been the song of THAT DAY. The song of sea was song "THEN" (AZ yashir Moshe). Ha'azinu is the song of some future moment. God then has to write it and it is taught to the Jews, so that when it will suddenly reach its magical moment, its one second of destiny, it will spring forth to testify AT THAT MOMENT. It is a song that exists in prophecy from ancient times, but whose moment of life is in the future.

What then is the meaning of that special song, that testimony, at that moment? If we examine the content of Ha'azinu, it is not different in outline than the Tokhecha. It says that you abandoned God, so you were punished. If I were Chizkiyahu, I would say that there is nothing new here. The difference is not in the dry content, but in something else. What is that something else?

 

C. Witness

In God's introduction to the need for the shira in last week's parasha, we find the following verses (Notice the specific time references - THAT DAY! - the brit of Ki Tavo, you will remember, was contracted on THIS DAY, a phrase repeated over and over again in Ki Tavo, Nitzavim, and Vayelekh):

God said to Moshe, you shall rest with your fathers, and this people shall rise and whore after the foreign gods of the land to where he is coming in its midst, and he will abandon me and transgress the covenant which I made with him.

And My anger shall burn ON THAT DAY, and I shall abandon them, and shall hide MY face from them, and they shall be devoured, and many evils and troubles will find them; And he will say on THAT DAY: it is because my God is not in my midst that these evils have found me.

And I will hide My face on THATDAY, because of all the evil that he have done, for he has turned to other gods.

Therefore (Ve-ata), write this song for yourselves... as a witness against the Jews. (31,16-19)

Why does God say that the Jews will state that "because God is not in my midst that all these evils have found me?" Off hand, this sounds like an expression of repentance. The people recognize that their troubles are because of their poor relationship with God. But if so, the verse is out of place. In context, the verses describe the sin and the consequence, continuing on with "I will hide my face." There is no hint of repentance anywhere in these sections. The summary verse of what the Jews have done is that they "turned to other gods."

I would like to suggest that the verse does not express repentance but blame - it is true, the people say, that we have problems, but that is God's fault, it is because HE HAS ABANDONED US. This statement is an accusation, against God. In response, God brings witnesses, the song, the heavens and earth, to rebut the accusation - your troubles are because YOU have abandoned God.

Objectively and outwardly, there is not much difference between God abandoning the Jews and the Jews abandoning God, other than the question of who did what first. We all know that in questions like this it is more a matter of interpretation than bald facts. The song is designed to teach enlightenment rather than facts, to lead to true understanding rather than a broader knowledge.

 

D. The Contents of Ha'azinu

This explains the most obvious difference between the Ha'azinu and the tokhecha. Ha'azinu is based on experience (future experience, for the most part, in relation to the Jews of the desert), rather than theory or rational explanation. There is a difference between comprehending (and believing) facts that are explained to us, and the understanding that comes from personal experience. Ha'azinu contains primarily a recapitulation of Jewish experience and history - "Remember the days of old, understand the years of generations" (32,7). In Ki Tavo, the theory of the covenant is laid out and the Jews say Amen - they accept it in their heads. But God says, and Moshe repeats, that He knows that after Moshe's death they will be corrupted. Only after the entire cycle of mutual abandonment will they be able to truly understand, from within their own long personal experience, the truth of the eternal theory of Ki Tavo. That is when the song will spring to life. The song appeals not to the intellect, but to the heart - "Do you do this to God, you foolish people and not wise, is He not your father who fashioned you, He made you and established you" (32,6). The song is meant not to make you feel obligated, but to feel BAD, to feel foolish, like one feels when one wakes up and realizes that he has wasted his life, and all the things that seemed important were foolish and worthless.

There is, in Vayelekh and Ha'azinu, a feeling that we can only describe as a sense of frustration. God knows that the Jews will be corrupted - and it is as though there is nothing He can do about it now. He has explained all He can, executed the brit, warned them, shown them. But God knows that experience is larger and deeper than explanation. The shira waits, waits for a time when it will be right, not because there is some new idea there that the Jews were not intellectually ready for, but because while ideas are eternal and unchanging, the depth dimension of truth is part of time and experience. Only when the fullness of despair and life are reached in their cycle will the song become a witness rather than a prophecy.

 

E. Abandonment and Presence

There is one further aspect of a song. If I claim or explain that God is present in the Jewish people, my claim does not change the facts. The Jews said - God has abandoned us. God answers, in Vayelekh, that He has (indeed) hidden His face (31,19). Is that confirmation or rebuttal of the people's claim?

Ha'azinu has one element, at the end of the shira, that is lacking in the tokhecha. It is a kind of consolation, but differs from the consolation that appears, for instance, at the end of the tokhecha of Bechukotai. God says, in effect, that the enemies of the Jews will be punished, and He will avenge His people. Since Ha'azinu does not contain the promise of repentance, there can be no promise of redemption. That is not the point, and would only conflict with the purpose of eliciting understanding of the terrible waste and destruction of history. The shira has the ability to demonstrate that God IS close to the Jews, even when they sinned - not by denying the facts that He has left them to their enemies, but by showing, by eliciting the feeling, that His presence exists even in such times.

How can one pursue a thousand, and two put ten thousand to flight, if not that their Rock has sold them, and God given them over.... By Me is found vengeance and payment, for when their legs will fail, for the day of their grief is near, and the future comes quickly. For when God shall judge His people, and repent Himself for His servants, when he sees that the hand is helpless, and there is none shut up or left.... Rejoice nations with His people, for He will avenge the blood of His servants, and return vengeance to His oppressors, and will render atonement to His land, His people. (32,30-43).

In a seamless, almost indistinguishable manner, the song moves from punishment to atonement. Indeed, the commentators are unclear where the switch begins - see Rashi 32,35 and 43. There is no break in this case - it is not, as in Bechukotai, that AFTER the punishment there will come repentance, you will change your ways and God will then remember you. Here, from within the punishment itself arises the feelings of vengeance and identification with HIS people. As an eternal idea, punishment and return, abandonment and presence, are two different ideas. As part of the song, they are both parts of one complex relationship between God and His people. The very recitation of the song AT THAT TIME produces the presence of God - not merely testifies to it, but because the song IS the response of the moment, it becomes part of the experience.

This is part of the meaning of the term "hester panim" - God's hiding His face - which is God's answer to the accusation that He has abandoned His people. Practically, it is the same as abandonment - but it hints at presence as well. God is near, close, so close that in order to express His anger He has to cover His face. Were He really far away, detached from the people who were once His, He would not have to do that. But in fact, the "abandonment" is deliberate and measured. The result is, that the very acts called forth by the abandonment - that a thousand flee one enemy - elicit a contrary response from the God of Israel, one of anger at the enemy. The song tries to express God's emotions, as it were, a complex and contradictory love and anger at the Jews. If only they could understand! How is it that they do not understand! But you - enemies who kill - what part do you have in the relationship of God and His people?

In this sense, the shira is a witness and answer to the complaint that the bad things happen because God is not with us. God answers - or rather, will answer THEN, when you will be able to truly understand it - that He is with us, even as He has abandoned us, for He has hidden His face. The difference is experiential, not intellectual; in other words, it is a difference of shira, not prose.

"See (not know, but see) now (now, after all has happened) that I, I am He (not a statement with much intellectual content, is it?), and there is no other god with Me; I shall kill and give life, I crush and I shall heal, and there is none who can deliver from My hand" (32,39).

 

F. Moshe and God

It is interesting to consider the relationship between Moshe and God concerning the shira. The shira is, as we claimed, a future truth. It can only come from God, and not from within the experience of the desert generation themselves. But God tells Moshe to recite it and teach it to the Jews, and Moshe does so in his own name, in first . Moshe is he who calls the heavens and the earth to testify. The frustration of God expressed in 31,16 - "God said to Moshe, you shall rest with your fathers, and this people shall rise and whore after the foreign gods of the land" - is mirrored by Moshe when he speaks to the Leviim - "For I know that after my death you will surely be corrupted, and leave the way that I have commanded you" (31,29).

The explanation is simple. Sefer Devarim is Moshe trying to ensure that the Torah which HE HAS taught the Jews will succeed. Throughout the sefer, Moshe speaks of what "I" have taught you. The frustration with the fact that no amount of TEACHING can fully guarantee true understanding is a challenge to the meaning of Moshe's life and mission. The shira, then, is the finishing touch on God's Torah and Moshe's life-mission - beyond the intellectual eternal teaching of the Torah, there is an element of life-experience, of Jewish history, that must be learnt through disaster and triumph, through tears and even suffering. This is at once not part of the Torah and the culmination of it. The Torah itself, in prophecy sets down the basis for this shira, this song of life, and in the same way that God finishes His Torah by including this part, so too Moshe concludes his mission, his "failed" mission (for he knows that after his death, it will "all fall apart" - you will surely be corrupted), with the future success, with the groundwork, in prophecy, of what cannot be included as such in the present, but waits, in trust with the heaven and the earth, for its proper moment of truth.

Le-shana tova teikhateivu veteichateimu

 

Further study

1. Why is the command of Moshe's death attached to Ha'azinu and not to Ve-zot HaBerakha?

2. Why does God, in this context, repeat to Moshe the reason why he will not enter the land - 32,51? Based on today's shiur, can we understand better the specific connection between Moshe's failure at Mei Meriva and the consequence of not entering the land?