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by Jacob Solomon

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 'Write this song and teach it to the Israelites… so that song will be a witness for me within the Israelites' (31:19).


This song, which G-d commanded Moses to teach to the Israelites, is the main part of Parashat Ha-azinu (Rashi ad loc). It called a song because it is written in the form of poetic verse (Ramban), as are the Songs of Moses (Exodus 15), Deborah (Judges 5) and David (Samuel II 22). The main content of the song is a warning to the Israelites of the consequences of their future 'straying from the path that I have commanded them' (31:29). This is put into the context of the Israelites' exalted mission to all nations - 'G-d's portion is His People' (32:9), and the assurance that despite all the punishments for their wrong-doings, the Israelites will survive as a people and their oppressors will ultimately be avenged in the Final Judgement.

Amongst the many questions on this difficult passage are the following:

1. The other Songs mentioned above are songs of praise and joy. This Song reveals prolonged suffering before the Final Reckoning. How can the same word - 'shira' (song), apply here?

2. Ha-azinu is written in the Sifrei Hakodesh as two separate columns - as two pillars, one opposite the other. The Songs of Moses, Deborah, and David are written differently: on alternate lines - ariach u-leveina - rather like alternate bonding in bricklaying. Why is this song written differently from the other three?

3. Moses was about to die - would this be an occasion for song?

4. When Jacob died, Rashi (on Genesis 49:1) quotes the Midrash in saying that he wished to communicate to his children the grim events of the future, but he was not allowed to. Moses also saw those future disasters, and unlike Jacob, he was commanded to refer to them in his final speech. Why was Jacob unable to communicate something of the dark future to his sons? After all, to go no further, Reuben, Shimon, and Levi had sinned in their lives - to the degree of being sharply rebuked by their father on his deathbed.

In discussing these issues one comes to a deeper understanding of the use of the word shira - song - in the Bible.

Many people recall the following. They underwent a special very deep experience - be it an intensely happy or intensely sad event - and they got a sudden insight where they saw everything in their lives in a completely different light. Things that previously seemed irrelevant or inexplicable became instantly very important.

This idea may be exemplified by the case of the Red Sea. The Mechilta teaches that even a simple maidservant perceived a higher degree of revelation than that of the Prophet Ezekiel, whose dramatic personal experience of G-d forms the opening chapter of his book. The Midrash Tanchuma writes that because they believed in G-d and in Moses His servant (Exodus 14:31), the Creation became one harmonious whole in their minds. They understood where the slavery and Pharaoh's relentless pursuit fitted in to a much greater, positive picture. As the Or Hachayim explains, thus inspired, this whole new level of realization, harmony and closeness to G-d was expressed in the medium of human song.

The Songs of Deborah and David may be explained similarly. In the former, a few Israelite tribes broke loose from, and defeated, their technologically sophisticated Canaanite overlords (Judges 4:3). In the latter, David endured repeated attempts to destroy him - from both Saul and his own later enemies. In both cases their miraculous deliverance at the Hand of the Almighty - against all odds - gave then a new insight into the purpose of their existences and roles, and they likewise expressed their new insight in the form of song. In short, all three songs discussed had a common factor. It was as though those involved had had a trip to G-d and the effect and reactions to that trip were spontaneously and naturally expressed and preserved in song.

R. Gedaliah Schorr, in his work Or Gedalyahu explains that the force that created the song of Ha-azinu was essentially of the same nature. In this song, the Israelites were shown how all parts of the Creation respond harmoniously to both the sins and the good deeds of the Israelites. It was this special insight that Moses received just before his death, by Divine Inspiration. Until he died, most of Moses' teachings were of a particularist nature - concerned with spiritually improving the Israelites, and guiding them to their destiny. Just before his death Moses saw the Israelites in a new, much larger universalist picture - namely that the destiny of all nations would finally be within His master plan for the Israelites. This would involve much hardship for the Israelites as a punishment for their disloyalty to their Creator. He would use the nations as His agents to punish them. However, those nations were to exceed their roles and not merely punish the Israelites (and later, the Jews), but take advantage of their temporarily being denied His help by wiping out much of the Israelites using unwarranted harshness - achzariut. When the final judgement would take place, the nations concerned would receive due retribution, and through the Israelites, the rest of the humanity would come to see His justice: He is a G-d of faith and without iniquity. Righteous and fair is He (32:4).

The two pillars of Ha-azinu thus represent the periods that the Israelites would transgress the Mitzvot and become collectively weak. They would not have the 'bonding as a wall, built by the brick bonding arrangement'. They would lose G-d's spiritual protection, undergoing what was warned: I shall surely hide My face from them (31:18). They would be ultimately separated into two communities. In Biblical times these were Israel and Judah, after the First Destruction, Babylon and Israel; many generations later, Ashkenazim and Sephardim. The other three songs, by contrast, dealt with spiritual growth - the very quality that bonds the Israelites to the Almighty, and promotes unity and harmony, rather than weakness, division, and partial destruction.

This discussion also explains why Jacob could not reveal the Ultimate to his sons. He did have prophecy, but unlike Moses at the end of his life, his prophecy did not extend to viewing the incredible sufferings to be undergone by the Israelites into the context of a much wider and more positive picture.

Written by Jacob Solomon, (e-mail le-ilui nishmat his Mother, Harabanit Devorah Solomon ztl. who ascended to the Yeshiva Shel Maalah on Shabbat Ki Tavo two years ago.



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