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Listen, Heavens, and I will speak,
And may the Earth hear the words of my mouth.
May my teachings drop as rain,
May my words flow as dew.
Like storm winds upon vegetation,
Like raindrops on blades of grass (22:1-2).
These words open the Song of which Moses spoke in the previous chapter. Here, Moses carried out his stated intention of calling Heaven and Earth to act as witnesses to the disasters that will descend on the Israelites when they ‘do what is evil in the eyes of G-d to anger Him’ (31:29).
Why may be learnt from yet another series of warnings to the Israelites? Would not too many words of caution undermine the previous ones, yielding ‘diminishing returns’? And what is special about their essence being repeated in poetic form? Could not the Heavens and Earth have been called to witness the previous admonitions, which were related in prose form?
The above point of ‘the essence of the prose is repeated in poetic form’ has three notable exceptions. The warnings against the possibilities of economic prosperity leading to sin, the dire Divine punishments, and the Final Redemption are all substantially found in earlier sections of this Book. However, the Song does introduce three new ideas towards the end, as below.
Common to them all is that they focus on the nations that hound Israel. Firstly, they will wrongly attribute their success to their own idols and skills at warfare - instead of recognizing that G-d was showing his displeasure to the sinning Israelites by temporarily withdrawing His protection from His people. Secondly, those nations will ultimately suffer Divine justice for the terrible injuries they inflicted on the Israelite nation. Thirdly, when the Final Redemption does come, the nations of the world will recognize the Israelites’ greatness and praise them as G-d’s people. The world will see that they are restored to their glory, and that their enemies are punished for what they did to them.
This brings us therefore to the additional question of – why do the poetic, but not the earlier prose warnings focus on the other nations in the ways described above?
As a response to these issues – at the outset – it must be noted that Haazinu is a poem. Moses was instructed to write out that Song, teach it to the Israelites and ‘put it their mouths’ (31:19) – make it part of their understanding and instant oral recall – they should know it by heart. (In addition, it may be suggested that as a Song, it was originally set to music). Poetry has special characteristics of its own, as elaborated below.
As an eleven-year old schoolboy, I had to learn poetry and lyrical works off by heart. Amongst the items were Shakespeare’s poetical reconstructions of Richard II’s decanting on the splendors of England’s isolation from the rest of the world as an island, and of Henry V’s morale booster to his leading soldiers when about to face the French at the Battle of Agincourt. They sounded nice, but they meant little at the time. I recited them to my advantage in talent competitions, and they proved useful tools for convincing people that I was a lot more educated than I really was. But nevertheless, those essentially poetical items stick in my own mind in a way that prose does not. A speech – however good – will be only remembered for its general impression and message, apart from perhaps one or two extremely memorable and powerful phrases. A good poem – especially if it is lyrical and even more if actually set to music – presents ideas in a much more memorable and quotable package. And one appreciates its meaning far more when reviewing the same words off by heart as a more educated and experienced adult.
Thus poetry is memorable. It is also a form of art – containing images and metaphors that may be appreciated at different levels. Its full impact seldom strikes when reading it for the first time, but tends to grow on the person with constant recall and review, and as he or she matures in intellect and experience.
This idea is contained in the opening words of this Parasha.
The Sforno writes broadly on those lines when he explains the words, ‘May my teachings drop as rain, may my words flow as dew. Like storm winds upon vegetation, like raindrops on blades of grass’. To learned people who can absorb much knowledge, the Torah’s wisdom is like pelting, penetrating rain, and like powerful storm winds – high input to high capacity students. To others who can only understand smaller bits and pieces of its vastness, the Torah is like dew and gentle raindrops, even small amounts of which do much good. In addition, Ibn Ezra explains these words as meaning that Moses wanted the Song to penetrate the Israelite nation, and make it fruitful like productive rain and dew.
In addition, a careful look at the above quotation brings out the importance of poetry as an educational tool:
1. May my teachings drop as rain: teachings are the deeper lessons that can be learnt from the poem. Rain, unlike dew, drops and penetrates soil and the underlying groundwater systems – undergoing natural biochemical purification in the process. Similarly, the lessons and values brought from the poem – when understood properly – should ideally filter into the mind of each Israelite, becoming mentally digested by each person in such a manner suited to his basic personality. And as the penetration of rainwater chemically changes the composition of the insoluble calcium carbonate of the limestone (Israel’s most common rock) into more soluble sodium bicarbonate, so the Song should – over a period – soften the minds of the Israelites, making them more receptive to the teachings of the Torah.
2. May my words flow as dew: dew, unlike rain, does not fall, but forms towards early morning as temperatures fall, promoting condensation of the air’s water vapor. It evaporates quickly as temperatures rise during the early morning. Dew ‘flows’ in so far as it does not stay on the ground for a long time. Moses, in effect, is saying that Song is of value even to the less receptive. The influence of the song may appear to be only momentary – like dew. But, implies Moses, even if learning the song had only a momentary effect when it was first memorized, it is still of value. It will have a greater impact later on… as is frequently the case with learning poetry…
3. Like storm winds upon vegetation, like raindrops on blades of grass: vegetation is a whole system, a blade of grass is tiny part of a system. The Song will strongly affect (storm winds) some people to the very core of their entire systems (vegetation) – it will give them an entire philosophy of life, causing him to make the Torah teachings the very core of his being. Others will be momentarily moved (raindrops) and it will only have a minor impact of a small part (blade of grass) of their lifestyle, but again – it will have a greater impact later on… as is frequently the case with learning poetry.
Thus the reason that the Song brings Deuteronomy to its near conclusion is that – by merit of its poetic and lyrical form - it consolidates the values contained in its main body of that Book. Once memorized – and Moses was commanded by G-d to do this by ‘putting it into their mouths’ – that consolidation got to the core of the more receptive personality, and initially affected others more superficially. But the very use of the tool of poetry ensures that the contents stay in the mind of the learner so that when he comes across the same thing again as a more mature and learned person, it will make a greater impact on him by dint of his earlier less meaningful encounter with it.
And the impacts of poetry and good music penetrate very slowly… if it is of real quality, we do not generally grasp its images, metaphors, and deeper reading on a first exposure – even if committed to memory. They take time to penetrate the person… History and current affairs of the Jewish People are like poetry in that sense… it takes a long time until the real meaning of pagans’ successes, and sufferings of the Israelites appear in their true light… [bear in mind that no nation which persecuted the Israelites, and later the Jews, prospered in the long term].
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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