The Uniqueness of the Song of Ha'azinu
A. "HE FOUND THEM IN A DESERT LAND"
The song of Ha'azinu is preceded by a detailed introduction at the end of parashat Vayelekh, arousing anticipation on the part of the reader of hearing this special song. We learn that even during the nation's most difficult times, this song "will not be forgotten from the mouths of their descendants" (31:21). It is particularly in light of this expectation that the song gives rise to several questions – regarding both that which it contains and that which it omits.
Let us begin with what it omits. After the opening verses, describing the contrast between God ("The Rock Whose work is perfect, for all His ways are just; a God of truth with no iniquity, He is righteous and upright") and Am Yisrael ("a perverse and crooked generation … a foolish and unwise people"), we find a description of the first encounter between them:
"Remember the days of old; consider the years of each generation. Ask you father and he will tell you; your elders – and they will say to you. When the Supreme God distributed inheritances to the nations, when He separated the sons of man, He placed boundaries of the nations according to the number of Bnei Yisrael. For God's portion is His nation; Yaakov is the lot of His inheritance. He found them in a desert land, and in the waste of howling wilderness. He led them around; He instructed them; He guarded them as the apple of His eye. As an eagle stirs up its nest, hovering over its young, spreading its wings, taking and carrying them upon its wings, so God alone led them; there was no foreign god with Him. He made them ride upon the high places of the earth, and they ate the produce of the fields. He fed them honey from the rock, and oil from the flint rock; butter of cattle and the milk of sheep, with fat of lambs and Bashan rams and goats, with the fat of kidneys of wheat, and you drank wine of the blood of grapes." (verses 7-14)
These verses point to three main lessons:
1. From the very beginning of mankind, when people separated into the different nations, a special land was set aside for God's nation, Am Yisrael.
2. The first encounter between God and Am Yisrael took place in the desert.
3. God guarded Am Yisrael in the desert and brought them to a fertile and blessed land.
The big surprise, of course, is the second point. The song introduces the history of Am Yisrael during the period of the desert. There is no mention of the forefathers, the covenant made with them, the subjugation in Egypt and the exodus leading up to the splitting of the Sea; not even the giving of the Torah is mentioned. Moreover, the first encounter is described with the words, "He FOUND them in a desert land" –creating the impression of an almost accidental meeting. This is an astounding account of events: was it not God Himself Who brought Bnei Yisrael to the desert? How can we say that He "found" them there?
B. "I WILL MAKE THE REMEMBRANCE OF THEM CEASE FROM MANKIND"
Later on in the song, we face another difficulty. The song describes how Am Yisrael repays God's goodness with evil: "Yeshurun grew fat and kicked. You have grown fat, you have grown thick, you are covered with fat. And they abandoned the God Who made them, and showed disrespect to the Rock of their salvation. They made Him jealous with strange gods, and made Him angry with abominations…" (15-16). This provokes God to great anger - "When God saw it, He abhorred them because of the provocations of His sons and daughters" (19), and He punishes Bnei Yisrael harshly: "I shall heap evils upon them, I will use all My arrows against them. They will be sucked empty by hunger and devoured with heat and with bitter destruction; I shall set the teeth of beasts upon them, with the sting of creatures that crawl in the dust. From outside the sword will destroy, and from inside – terror; both young man and virgin, both the infant and the elderly man" (23:25). There is nothing remarkable thus far, in comparison with the rebuke contained in chapter 28. The surprise comes afterwards: the song makes no mention of the possibility of exile. Instead, it presents an even more extreme scenario: the annihilation, God forbid, of Am Yisrael: "I said, I will scatter them into corners; I will make their memory cease from mankind!"
This option is, admittedly, ultimately rejected, but not because of any future repentance on the part of Bnei Yisrael – nor even by virtue of the merit of the forefathers. Rather, it is rejected only because of the desecration of God's Name that it involves: "Were it not for the accumulated wrath of the enemies – lest their adversaries misunderstand, lest they say: Our hand is high; God has not done all of this" (27). From here proceeds the salvation of Bnei Yisrael, through punishment of their enemies: "I will make My arrows drunk with blood and My sword will devour flesh; with the blood of the slain and the captives, with the head of the wild bands of the enemy" (42). This process concludes with the promise: "Rejoice, O nations, with His nation, for He will avenge the blood of His servants and bring vengeance upon their adversaries. He will forgive His land, His people" (43). There is no description here in the style of the apocalyptic prophecies of the end of days; there is merely a return to the former state of affairs.
Summarizing the above, we may say that in this song, Am Yisrael has no special merit. There is no merit of the forefathers, no attention to the moral or religious level of Am Yisrael, nor any apparent reason for God's choice of them. On the other hand, the song raises the possibility of Am Yisrael's destruction in the wake of their sins, and this possibility is rejected only because of the consequent desecration of God's Name. Is this the impression that we should have of the song that is meant to accompany Am Yisrael throughout all generations?
C. "IS IT NOT HE, YOUR FATHER, WHO ACQUIRED YOU?"
It is specifically these questions that illuminate the essential significance of the song. If the song were to base the relations between God and Am Yisrael on the favorable aspects of the nation and their forefathers, then these relations would necessarily be characterized by some measure of conditionality. In other words, there would be reciprocal relationship between the existence of these positive aspects and the very connection between God and Am Yisrael. If these aspects were to disappear, the connection would be severed.
Instead, the song bases this connection on the lowest and most basic level of relation – a connection that has no logical or value-laden reason behind it. In our lives, we encounter this unconditional responsibility only in the context of the relationship between parents and children, and it is upon this relationship that the entire song rests: "There is no corruption with Him, HIS SONS are blemished; they are a perverse and crooked generation. Will you repay God thus… Is He not your Father Who acquired you, He made you and established you" (5-6); "When God saw it, He abhorred them because of the provocations of HIS SONS AND DAUGHTERS… He said, I shall hide My face from them, I shall see what their end will be, for they are a rebellious generation, CHILDREN with no faith" (19-20).
But beyond this, there is another factor, on an even more basic level. It is possible for parents to sever all connection with their children, and even to harm them; the song indeed expresses this feeling. But this scenario, the song promises, will not be realized – again, because of the consequent desecration of God's Name. This factor has nothing to do with the depth of the connection between God and Am Yisrael, and it has no parallel in the relations between parents and children. But it represents a most solid foundation for the eternal survival of the most basic level of the relationship between God and Israel. Of course, this is not the only level, but it exists – and it is exceedingly important that we know of its existence.
The existence of this level assumes added importance in the situation at which the entire song is aimed, as we read in the previous parasha:
"When I bring them to the land which I promised to their forefathers, flowing with milk and honey, and they eat and are satisfied and grow fat, then they will turn to other gods and serve them, and provoke Me and violate My covenant. And it shall be, when many evils and troubles befall them, then this song will answer before them as a witness, for it shall not be forgotten from the mouths of their descendants." (31:20-21)
The knowledge that even when Bnei Yisrael will have descended to the 49th level of impurity, they will still remain God's children – this will always remain in the collective subconscious of the nation, representing the basis for their future redemption.
It is for this reason that the song ignores the forefathers, who represent the nation's merits, and the covenant made at Mount Sinai, which represents their moral superiority to the surrounding nations. The song focuses on God's unexplained choice of Am Yisrael. For this reason, it adopts a certain perspective, according to which the connection began in the desert. This perspective does admittedly exacerbate the gravity of Bnei Yisrael's unfaithfulness towards God – Who showered them with kindness for no logical reason – and therefore it is specifically here that the possibility of their total annihilation is raised. There is no mention of exile, because exile is by definition a temporary situation for Bnei Yisrael, while the song addresses the option of complete severance. But even in such a situation, the song promises that ultimately God will "Atone for His land, His people."
D. "GOD DID NOT MEAN TO WIPE OUT THE NAME OF ISRAEL"
There are a few places in Tanakh where we find the application of the idea of parashat Ha'azinu. The books of the Prophets are filled with scenarios of sin-punishment-redemption. Usually (especially in Sefer Shoftim), the redemption follows repentance, as a continuation of the scenario of repentance described in parashat Vayelekh. However, towards the end of the First Commonwealth, Am Yisrael require other means of salvation. During the time of Yehoachaz ben Yehu, king of Israel, who performed evil in God's eyes, the annihilation of the tribes of Israel was prevented only by virtue of the merits of the forefathers. This is in line with the rebuke in Sefer Vayikra. "Chazael, the king of Aram, oppressed Israel all the days of Yehoachaz. God granted them grace and had mercy upon them and turned towards them BECAUSE OF HIS COVENANT WITH AVRAHAM, YITZCHAK AND YAAKOV, and would not countenance their destruction, nor has He cast them from before Him until now" (II Melakhim 113:22-23).
However, it appears that at this stage, "the merit of the forefathers ran out." In the next chapter, concerning Yerav'am ben Yoash, king of Israel, the omission of the merit of the forefathers is blatantly obvious. Instead, there is a tone that connects us directly with the song of Ha'azinu: "He restored the border of Israel from the entrance to Chamat to the sea of the Arava… For God saw the very bitter affliction of Israel; there was no one shut up nor anyone left free, nor anyone to help Israel. For God had not meant to wipe out the name of Israel from beneath the heavens, and so He saved them by the hand of Yerav'am ben Yoash" (II Melakhim 14:25-27). These expressions are both thematically and linguistically reminiscent of the words of the song: "For God will judge His people and He will repent for His servants when He sees that their power is gone, and there is no-one shut up or left free" (36). The episode of Yerav'am ben Yoash proves the existence of a special level in the relationship between God and Israel, based upon which God will save His people even when they have no merit making them worthy of this salvation.
In the prophecies of Yechezkel, this aspect of the God-Israel relationship is especially pronounced. On several occasions, Yechezkel claims that Am Yisrael has exceeded the evil of the surrounding nations in their behavior: "Because you have been more troublesome than the nations that are around you – you have not walked in My statutes, nor have you performed My judgments, nor have you even acted in accordance with the judgments of the nations that are around you…" (5:7); "As I live, says the Lord God, even Sedom, your sister – she and her daughters – have not acted as you have, you and your daughters" (16:48). In the same chapter, Yechezkel even describes Am Yisrael as a foundling orphan, ignoring – like our parasha – the existence of the forefathers.
Specifically for this reason, Yechezkel emphasizes that the future redemption will likewise arise not necessarily by virtue of repentance, but rather because of the element of parashat Ha'azinu – to avoid a desecration of God's Name: "Therefore say to the house of Israel, So says the Lord God: IT IS NOT FOR YOUR SAKES THAT I DO THIS, O HOUSE OF ISRAEL, BUT RATHER FOR MY HOLY NAME WHICH YOU HAVE PROFANED AMONG THE NATIONS where you have come. Ad I shall sanctify My great Name which was profanes among the nations, which you profaned among them, and the nations shall know that I am God – so says the Lord God - when I am sanctified through you before their eyes" (36:22-23).
E. FOR THE SAKE OF HEAVEN
Parashat Ha'azinu is read on the Shabbat preceding Yom Kippur. One of the most surprising descriptions related to this day is to be found in the famous Mishna in Massekhet Ta'anit (26b): "Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: There were no happier days for Israel than the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, when the maidens of Jerusalem would go out with white clothes… and dance in the vineyards, and what would they say? 'Young man! Lift your eyes and see whom you choose for yourself….'" The baraita there (31a) explains in greater detail what the young women would say: "The Rabbis taught: The beautiful ones among them would say, 'Take note of beauty, for a woman is meant to be beautiful. ' Those with aristocratic lineage would say, 'Take note of the family, for a woman is meant to bear children.' The homely among them would say, 'Take whom you will, for the sake of heaven.'"
From Rav Yaakov Medan I learned that perhaps we should regard this description as a metaphor for the Kohen Gadol, who enters the Holy of Holies in WHITE clothes, to atone for Bnei Yisrael. When the nation walks in God's ways – as described in parashat Vayelekh – the Kohen Gadol bases his supplication on the "beauty" of their behavior. When their actions fall short of providing a solid basis, the Kohen Gadol turns to their "family lineage," basing his supplication on the merit of the forefathers. And when the nation has no good deeds to show for itself and the merit of the forefathers is used up, the Kohen Gadol can only ask that God forgive Bnei Yisrael "for the sake of heaven": "For My holy Name which you have profaned among the nations." "Were it not for the accumulated wrath of the enemies – lest their adversaries misunderstand, lest they say: Our hand is high; GOD HAS NOT DONE ALL OF THIS." And because of this – "He shall forgive His land, His people."
Translated by Kaeren Fish
 It is reasonable to assume that the encounter that is described does indeed refer to the Revelation at Sinai, but there is no mention of the giving of the Torah or the transmission of any substantial message.
 The commentators address this difficulty, even if not explicitly, and they raise various possible ways of understanding the expression "yimtzaehu" ("He found them"). Onkelos explains, "HE FULFILLED THEIR NEEDS in the desert land;" Rashbam similarly explains, "[The meaning is like,] 'He found for them' (Bamidbar 11:22) – God was there for them; God fulfilled their needs." Rashi writes: "He FOUND HIS FAITHFUL in the desert land, for they accepted upon themselves His Torah and His kingship and His yoke – which Esav and Yishmael did not do." These explanations are difficult to reconcile with the literal text. Ibn Ezra indeed explains the expression in accordance with its literal meaning: "'He found them' – for it was in the desert that the Holy Presence entered among them; also, because they were like a person lost in the desert, where no one passes – as it is written, 'in the chaos of the desert.'" According to his first option, the special connection between Am Yisrael and God was indeed formed in the desert.
 This possibility arises in the previous parasha: "You will return to the Lord your God and listen to His voice, according to all that I command you this day – you and your children – with all your heart and with all your soul. Then the Lord God will return your captivity and have mercy upon you, and gather you once again from all the nations where the Lord your God scattered you" (30:2-3). (Admittedly, the sin referred to there is exile.)
 This possibility arises from the section of rebuke in Vayikra 26 (verse 42): "I will remember My covenant with Yaakov, and My covenant with Yitzhak, and even My covenant with Avraham will I remember, and I will remember the land."
 We read in the introduction to the Revelation at Sinai: "And now, if you will listen to My voice and observe My covenant and be for Me a chosen nation from among all the nations, for all the earth is Mine, then you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Shemot 19:5-6).
 According to the opinion of Shmuel (Shabbat 55a): "When did the merit of the forefathers run out?... Shmuel says: In the days of Chazael, as it is written, 'Chazael, the king of Aram, oppressed Israel all the days of Yehoachaz,' and it is written, 'God showed them grace and had mercy upon them and turned towards them for the sake of His covenant with Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov, and He would not countenance their destruction, nor has He cast them from before Him UNTIL NOW.'" As Rashi explains there: "But from now [i.e., that time] onwards He would [be prepared to] cast them, without consideration for the covenant with the forefathers."
 The chapter opens with a description of Am Yisrael: "Your nativity and birth was from the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Emorite and your mother a Hittite. And at your birth, on the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed in water to clean you; you were not salted, nor covered in swaddling… and I passed over you and saw you wallowing in your blood, and I said to you: 'By your blood shall you live,' and I said to you: 'By your blood shall you live.'" This description has many similarities to the song of Ha'azinu, especially the expression, "He found them in a desert land." Indeed, the severity of the rebuke in this chapter is equal in its power to the severity of the song. This comparison allows us to interpret God's "paternal" relationship towards Am Yisrael in the song, too, as an adoption.