Song of the Future or Song of the Present
Dedicated by Steven Weiner & Lisa Wise in tribute to
Mr. Yechiel Saiman of blessed memory.
His presence in our community was such a privilege and treat for us,
and he is very deeply missed.
We send our warmest wishes of comfort to his wife Chana
and to all of their children and grandchildren.
A. The Historical Timeframe
In our study of parashat Ki-Tavo, when examining the recitation over the bikkurim, we saw that the Torah requires that the bearer of fruit engage in an historical review, starting with the period of the forefathers and ending with the moment when the farmer himself stands in the Temple. In our study of parashat Nitzavim, we addressed the parasha of repentance and redemption, with its overview of Jewish history from the future period of exile until the people's ultimate redemption from exile and return to their land.
Parashat Ha'azinu likewise deals with Israel's past and future. What are the historical horizons encompassed in the song of Ha'azinu, as compared to those encompassed by the two previous parashot?
The Ramban (verse 40) believes that the brief song of Ha'azinu contains a comprehensive historical vision, encompassing the whole of Jewish history from the very beginning of the selection of Israel as "God's portion" up until the completion of the future redemption. Thus, both the period reviewed in the recitation over the bikkurim and that described in the parasha of repentance are included within it.
This explanation by the Ramban exerted a profound influence on all later Jewish commentators – up until those of modern times, all of whom quote him or repeat his ideas in their own words. In this study, we will reopen the question of the historical timeframe of the song.
B. Sin and Punishment
For lack of space, let us focus only on the crux of the song: the sin, the punishment and the deliverance. God gives Israel the land and provides them with all types of good therein (verses 13-14), but they forget Who provided all the good and worship foreign gods (verses 15-18). From verse 19 until verse 25 we find a description of God's anger towards His children and the punishment He brings upon them. The Ramban interprets with great precision this stage of the song: "[The Torah] describes His anger towards them, so much that He sends them WITHIN THEIR LAND [i.e. Israel] pestilence and hunger and wild beasts and destruction by the sword." This is a precise interpretation based both on what is NOT mentioned in these verses of punishment – there is no mention of exile! – and on what is explicitly stated (v. 22): "For a fire is kindled in My anger... and it shall consume THE EARTH AND ITS PRODUCE." This would indicate that the reference is to the same land to which the song previously referred in describing Israel's enjoyment of its produce.
In verses 26-27 we find the turning point: God reveals His exceedingly harsh plan regarding the punishment of Israel, which He cancels because of the erroneous future perception of this punishment in the eyes of their enemies.
"I said, 'I shall consume them, I will erase them from human memory' - were it not for the anger of the enemy, lest their adversaries misunderstand, lest they say, 'Our hand is high; it is not God Who has done all this.'"
What is the plan conceived by God that represents the climax of the punishment, and which is cancelled by God in view of what Israel's enemies will say? An exact answer depends to some extent on our interpretation of the difficult term "af'ehem" in verse 26. Biblical poetry often contains words that are rare and unfamiliar, or unusual grammatical forms of certain words that render their interpretation difficult. But at the same time it contains an internal commentary that accompanies such terms – a commentary that arises from the Torah's most typical artistic technique: parallelism. Therefore the great majority of the early commentators, despite their differing etymological analyses of the word "af'ehem," agree that the meaning is, "I shall consume them," or "almost consume them," on the basis of the parallel in the verse: "I shall erase them from human memory."
It is not only the parallel within the verse that teaches us that this is indeed the meaning of the word "af'ehem." We learn this likewise from the connection between verse 26 and verse 27 and their context: only the idea of punishment by annihilation of Israel arouses in the Torah the fear of "chilul Hashem" (desecration of God's name) to such a grave extent that God cancels it. This is indeed what occurred following the sin of the golden calf and also following the sin of the spies. What is unique here is that it is not Moshe who raises the possibility of chilul Hashem, but rather God Himself Who relinquishes the plan of annihilation for this reason.
The plan for the (complete or almost complete) destruction of Israel is not realized, and here the song begins to turn in the opposite direction: to the detriment of Israel's enemies, and to Israel's salvation from them. The commentators who focus on the literal meaning of the text have generally agreed with the opinion of R. Nechemia in the Sifri, that verses 28-35 deal with the enemies, and not with Israel. And in verse 36 we already find Israel's salvation:
"For God will judge His nation and comfort Himself for His servants, when He sees that their power is gone, and there is none, closed or abandoned."
The exegetical process thus far leads us to the following important question: In the series of punishments described in verses 19-25 there was no mention made of exile! This being so, just as the punishments described in these verses take place in Eretz Yisrael, so Israel's deliverance and redemption from their enemies must take place there. This does not fit in with the numerous warnings in the Torah that Israel's sins in their land will eventually lead to exile. Can it be, therefore, that the song of Ha'azinu ignores the most terrible of punishments?
In the verses of punishment (e.g. 27, 29, 30) the Torah speaks of the victory of Israel's enemies IN WAR. The enemies do not understand their great victory over Israel as a punishment that the God of Israel brings upon His sinning nation. Therefore we read in verse 26 that God does not wish to give Israel entirely into the hands of their enemies - to the extent of their memory being erased – IN WAR (i.e., their annihilation by the enemy), for the enemy will interpret this as their own victory ("our hand is high").
But Israel in exile does not wage war against the enemies! This being so, these words uttered by the enemy are inappropriate to the exile situation. Thus, this too shows that Israel is dwelling in the land, engaged in a constant war against its enemies. God gives Israel into the hands of the enemies, but only up to a certain limit: God is not prepared to grant the enemies a victory on a scale that would make Israel's existence as a nation cease.
C. Vengeance Against Enemies
The section of the song of Ha'azinu dealing with Israel's salvation lacks almost all the elements described in the parasha of repentance and redemption in Nitzavim (30:1-10):
1. As the Ramban himself notes: "This song contains no precondition of repentance [for redemption to occur]."
2. The song makes no mention of the ingathering of the exiles. This is no wonder, since – as discussed above - the description of the punishments that will visit Israel does not refer to exile.
3. The song fails to mention Israel's flourishing in the land in any sphere whatsoever.
4. The last part of the song lacks almost any reference to Israel at all. The only verse that speaks of a change in Israel's situation is verse 36: "For God will judge His nation, and He will comfort Himself for his servants, When He sees that their power is gone, and there is none, closed or abandoned." It is difficult to define this as a reference to "redemption." The verse is talking about an end to Israel's distress and their deliverance from the enemy's hand, out of the greatness of the distress in which they find themselves.
If this last part of the song seems so wholly lacking in the components of redemption, what causes the Ramban and other commentators perceive in it a description of redemption? Only one idea: the revenge against Israel's enemies. The "reckoning" with the enemies is of a clearly warlike nature. Thus, the description of the revenge on Israel's enemies also indicates that the reference is not to nations among which Israel was exiled, but rather to those who waged war against Israel and killed many of them in war. It is against them that God will wage a war of revenge in order to avenge the blood of His nation and to atone for the land upon which so much blood was spilled.
Thus it arises that not only that which the song omits to mention, but also that which it contains – the heavy attention to Israel's enemies and the revenge against them – demonstrates that the song deals NOT WITH EXILE AND REDEMPTION, but rather with ISRAEL'S WARS AGAINST THEIR ENEMIES WHILE THEY ARE LIVING IN THE LAND. Let us then return to the question we posed at the beginning: what is the historical scope of the song of Ha'azinu?
D. Punishment and Deliverance in the Land
To respond succinctly: On its literal level, the song of Ha'azinu is meant to serve as A TESTIMONY AND WARNING TO ISRAEL REGARDING THE EVENTS THAT WILL TAKE PLACE IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING THEIR ENTRY INTO THE LAND, and during the many generations of their habitation there. All that time, exile is still a distant threat, so far from realization that even its shadow was nowhere to be seen on the horizon.
In this respect, Ha'azinu is different from the blessings and curses – "the words of the covenant" – conveyed at Sinai (parashat Bechukkotai) and on the plains of Mo'av (parashot Ki-Tavo-Nitzavim). The testimony of the great covenants sealed with Israel on those occasions went so far as to include the destruction, the exile and the eventual redemption. They therefore anticipate the entire broad, distant cycle of history, the grave climax of which – the destruction and exile – is actually irrelevant to the generation entering the land and those immediately following them.
At one point in Devarim (4:25-27), in a clear parallel to the covenant at the end of the Chumash, we are told:
"When you will bear children and grandchildren and you WILL HAVE LIVED LONG in the land, and you shall be corrupt and shall make a carved idol... I call the heaven and the earth to testify against you today that you will quickly perish completely from upon the land... and God will scatter you among the nations..."
It is stated explicitly here that the threat of exile pertains to a time when Israel will have "lived long in the land" – they will have been settled there for many generations. But the degeneration and the sin of idolatry threaten Israel from the very beginning of their stay in the land. How will God choose to deal with the rebellious nation during these first generations in the land? It is this that Ha'azinu comes to clarify. In this respect, Ha'azinu complements the testimony of the covenant made on the plains of Mo'av, and only by looking at both sources together do we attain a comprehensive picture of what lies in store for Jewish history from the time of the entry into the land, via the period of ongoing degeneration during their habitation there – punctuated from time to time by deliverance – until the destruction and exile, and the redemption.
What characterizes the life of Am Yisrael in their land, as described in Tanakh, starting from the period of the judges? The historical pattern that repeats itself over and over during the period of the judges, and also appears later during the first commonwealth, is that a strong enemy rises against Israel and oppresses them cruelly, until at some point there is deliverance and the enemy is overpowered. This historical rhythm is generally described as arising from Israel's sins in turning to idolatry. As a punishment, God gives them into the hand of the enemy, but ultimately God relents, in the face of superficial repentance on the part of Israel aimed at facilitating their deliverance, but which does not last long. At times God delivers them even though they do not engage in repentance, but rather because His mercy is aroused at the plight of His people who have reached such degradation.
This national degeneration, starting shortly after the conquest of the land – as early as the period of the judges – and continuing throughout most of the generations that lived in the land (with the exception of the period of David and Shlomo), stands in sharp contrast to the awesome events surrounding the exodus from Egypt, the miracles of the desert and the success in the conquest of the land. What causes this degeneration? Why do Israel fall after they have settled in the land? It is this question that Ha'azinu comes to answer, warning Israel that if they serve idols in their land the descent will follow soon after, and they will be given into the hands of their enemies.
But Ha'azinu also answers a different question, the corollary: If Israel indeed engage in idolatry and consequently are punished with harsh measures, why does God not carry the judgment to its full extent? Why does He save them time after time from their enemies, even transferring the punishment onto those same enemies? The song provides a dual answer to this: firstly, the enemies of Israel are ultimately also the enemies of God. They themselves are idolaters and deserve punishment for their actions. They attribute their victories over Israel to their own power and strength, not realizing that they are God's messengers, sent to punish Israel who have sinned. Secondly, despite all God's anger against His people, He nevertheless regrets the evil that has befallen them when He sees their helplessness and their lowly degradation – "There is none, closed or abandoned" (verse 36).
Thus we find, in light of the above, that Ha'azinu is not a review of a single historical process at all; rather, it sketches the outline of a historical reality that repeats itself over and over during many generations, with slight changes in tone and in emphasis.
This perception of Ha'azinu is based on what we have discovered during the course of this study, and explains these findings quite simply: the lack of mention of exile in the list of punishments arises from the fact that the historical boundaries of the song cover specifically the period of Israel's national existence within their land, during those generations when exile was still a far-off threat. Likewise the song fails to describe their future redemption, but rather indicates their (temporary) deliverance from their enemies, because their lowly state arouses God's mercy and, more importantly, because of the sins of their enemies, who are also the enemies of God, and the need to exact revenge for their actions. Hence the warlike nature of the song, which deals mainly with the relations between Israel (dwelling in the land) and the surrounding nations – relations characterized by ongoing war.
Proof of this perception of Ha'azinu is also to be found in the prose introduction to the song in Vayelekh. In God's words to Moshe and Moshe's words to Israel, we are told explicitly to which historical circumstances the testimony of the song is directed (31:16-21):
"And God said to Moshe: Behold, you are to sleep with your fathers. And this people will rise up and will go astray after the gods of the strangers of the land in which they will be among them, and they will abandon Me and violate My covenant which I have made with them. And My anger will burn against them on that day, and I will abandon them and I will hide My face from them, and they will be devoured, and many evils and troubles will befall them... And now, write for you this song... in order that this song may be for Me a witness against Bnei Yisrael. For when I have brought them into the land which I promised to their fathers, flowing with milk and honey, and they shall have eaten and been satiated and grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, and provoke Me, and violate My covenant. And it will be when many evils and troubles have befallen them, then this song will answer before them as a witness..."
And later on Moshe declares (31:27-29):
"For I know your rebellion and your stiff neck: While I am still alive with you, you have been rebellious against God, and so likewise after my death... For I know after my death you will become corrupt and turn away from the way... and evil will befall you at the end of days for you will do evil in the eyes of God, to anger Him with the deeds of your hands."
These verses repeatedly emphasize that the reference is to an historical process that is not far off, and which will commence immediately after Moshe's death. Close examination reveals clear linguistic and thematic connections between this introduction and the song itself. The song contains nothing more than what we are told in the introduction, except that it is expressed with poetic force that makes a lasting impression: "that it not be forgotten from the mouths of their descendants."
E. References to Ha'azinu Later in Tanakh
There are many links between Ha'azinu and the other sources in Tanakh which show that the song is truly one of rebuke and testimony for Israel while they dwell in the land:
1) There are several places in Sefer Shoftim where the thematic connection – and at times even the linguistic connection – to the song of Ha'azinu is unmistakable. See, for example, 2:8-18 and 10:6-17.
2) The description of the growing suffering of Israel at the hands of the Arameans during the period of the royalty, and God's salvation of Israel from them, also echo the words of Ha'azinu (Melakhim II 13:22-23):
"And Chazael king of Aram oppressed Israel all the days of Yehoachaz. And God was kind to [Israel] and had mercy on them, and turned towards them for the sake of His covenant... AND WOULD NOT DESTROY THEM; and to this day He has not cast them off from before Him."
3) In the days of Yeravam ben Yoash, Israel expanded even though it was said of this king that he did evil in God's eyes. His military victories are therefore surprising, but the answer is provided (Melakhim II 14:25-27) with the aid of the language and logic of Ha'azinu:
"He returned the border of Israel from the entrance to Chamat back to the sea of the Arava... for God saw the plight of Israel, that it was very bitter – that there was none closed and none abandoned and none to help Israel. And God had not said that He would erase the name of Israel from beneath the heavens."
4) Echoes of Ha'azinu are also to be heard in the rebukes of the prophets (e.g. Yishayahu chapter 1: "Hear, O heavens, and listen, O land... I have raised children and reared them, and they have rebelled against Me...").
F. Comtemporary Relevance
What caused the Ramban, and other commentators both preceding and following him, to make an effort to find in Ha'azinu what appears, according to a literal understanding of the text, to be lacking – Israel's exile and their future redemption? The special status of the song in the Torah caused it to be perceived, in exile, as the climax of the "words of the covenant" of the previous parashot. These commentators never entertained the possibility that this lofty song had nothing to do with their situation in their long exile. Therefore it was interpreted as an advance warning of this exile, and the revenge against the enemies of Israel, addressed at such length in the song, was understood in relation to the nations among whom Israel dwelled in their exile. Hence the assumption that the song contains a promise of redemption from exile - a promise having no connection with repentance.
The interpretation that we have suggested for the song – that it should be seen as referring specifically to those generations of Israel's history when they dwelled in their land – makes it seem meaningless for those generations who lived in exile, suffered its yoke and prayed for redemption from it. It was the attempt to have the song apply to their generation, and to those that followed, that caused these commentators to interpret it in the way that they did.
Some seven hundred years after the Ramban and fifty years after the birth of the State of Israel, it appears that the literal understanding of the text – as suggested in this study – is the more relevant one for our generation.
(Translated by Kaeren Fish)