Parashat Ha’azinu, the next to last parsha in the Torah, fulfills God’s instruction for Moses to “write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel” (Deuteronomy 31:19). This reflects God’s concern that after Moses’ death the Israelites will worship other gods and as a result incur God’s punishment. After the poem, Ha’azinu ends with God’s instructions to Moses about his imminent death. Moses will see the Promised Land from Mount Nebo, but God will not permit him to set foot in it. The parsha reminds the Israelites that while human leaders are vital to their endeavour, they must prepare to be without the man who has guided them since they left Egypt; ultimately, it is only God and God’s instruction that endures.
Ha'azinu, is a majestic piece of poetry, overflowing with vibrant imagery and profound ideas. It tells the story of the Jewish people, from the distant past to the turbulent present and to the triumphant future. The poem traces the trajectory of God’s relationship with the Israelites, in good times and bad, and looks toward a future where Israel’s enemies will be vanquished.
The poem exhibits the core elements of biblical poetry, such as poetic parallelism, terseness, and various forms of repetition and patterning; in addition, one of its noteworthy features is its diverse metaphors for God.
Parallelism is the use of components in a sentence that are grammatically the same; or similar in their construction, sound, meaning, or meter. Parallelism examples are found in literary works as well as in ordinary conversations.
This method adds balance and rhythm to sentences, giving ideas a smoother flow and thus persuasiveness, because of the repetition it employs. For example, “Alice ran into the room, into the garden, and into our hearts.” We see the repetition of a phrase that not only gives the sentence a balance, but rhythm and flow as well. This repetition can also occur in similarly structured clauses, such as, “Whenever you need me, wherever you need me, I will be there for you.”
Hebrew poetry is very concise and compact, using few words in short lines. There are few conjunctions (‘and’, ‘but’, etc.), though translations into modern languages often add them to help clarity.
e.g. [Like] a gold ring in a pig’s snout [is] a beautiful woman who shows no discretion. (Proverbs 11:22)
Words are often dropped out of the second of a pair of lines, leaving the reader to infer them. This is called ellipsis (the verb is elide).
Example 1 – Amos 4:4
Bring your sacrifices every morning; [bring] your tithes every three years.
Repetition and Patterning
In Hebrew thought, there are a number of ways to express ideas that reinforce meaning and emphasize the importance of concepts. Unlike European languages, Hebrew contains no punctuation marks in the original language, so the language structure developed other ways to communicate such ideas.
One of the ways that the Hebrew writer could emphasize a certain attribute of God was by repeating it three times. As the Creation account comes to the apex of God’s creative work, the text emphasized the unique importance of created humanity. The term bara’, “to create”, always has only God as its subject. That is, it is only God that has the power to create without being dependent on pre-existing matter. Here the text describes the creation of man: “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:27). Notice the three-fold repetition of the word “create”. Moses, thus, emphasized that human beings are created by God and that they are created in His image, as well. These truths were his emphasis.
In the song of Ha’Azinu, repetition and patterning are exemplified by:
"Yeshurun grew fat and kicked. You have grown fat, you have grown thick, you are covered with fat.”
Metaphors for God
The poetic language of Ha’Azinu contains diverse and striking metaphors for God that invite us to think about the vastness of God’s roles in the universe. These images include depictions of God as a natural element (Rock), a bird (eagle), an avenging warrior, and a parent both loving and stern (explicitly a father and a mother who gives birth to and nurses her child, Israel).
The Ramban points out that the poem in Ha’Azinu is known as a shira, a song, because “the Jewish people always say it with singing and music. It is written as a song (in the Torah), because a song has breaks which indicate when one pauses in the melody.”
The Ramban refers to the Talmudic statement that the Levites in the Beit Ha-mikdash would sing part of Shirat Ha'azinu to accompany the musaf offering of Shabbat. The Seforno suggests that this division reflects the conceptual structure that underlies the song:
First (v. 1-6), the intent of God, the Blessed One, was to attain this purpose [recognition of God’s greatness and justice] through all of humanity ‘in days of old and the years of many generations.
Second (v. 7-12), when this did not succeed, God did great wonders with the Jewish people by elevating them to the heights (as He shall do again with the remnants of Israel at the end of days).
Third (v. 13-18), God gave them an appropriate place in which to serve Him in joy and goodness of heart, with an abundance of material blessings, but they rebelled and repaid evil for good.
Fourth (v. 19-26), because of the magnitude of their sins, they fell into the net of the wicked and were deserving of complete destruction, were it not for the desecration of God’s honour, which prevented it.
Fifth (v. 27-35), He informs us the reason through which they will be redeemed at the end of days.
Finally (v. 36-43), he describes the manner of the Jewish people’s redemption, and the revenge that God will exact against the oppressors of His people. These are the various parts of Ha'azinu mentioned by the Sages in Rosh Ha-shana.
After a series of threatened curses and punishments against the Jewish people for their disobedience and infidelity, Moshe proclaims:
I thought I would make an end of them ("af'aihem");
I would make their memory cease from among men;
Were it not that I dreaded the enemy’s provocation,
Lest their adversaries should misdeem,
Lest they should say, "Our hand is exalted,
And it was not God who has wrought all this." (33:26-27)
Until this point, the threat of retribution that awaited the rebellious people had progressively increased in severity. Now, the possibility of total destruction is suggested, only to be repudiated. God refuses to contemplate such a possibility. This becomes a turning point in the song, for now Moshe proceeds to explain what prevents the nation from meeting its deserved fate.
In this passage, it is the second word, "af'aihem" that presents the most difficulty to the commentators. Questions arise both as to identification of the root word of "af'aihem" and the appropriate tense based on the verse's context. Here are Rashi's observations on the text:
One may explain af'aihem to mean "I would make them as pe'ah," as the grain left in the corner of the field, to cast them away from me, to be at the mercy of all [just as the pe'ah has no owner, as it can be eaten by all] …
Onkelos, however, based himself on the Talmud, which divided the word in three: amarti af, ayei hem? "I said in my anger (af), 'I will make them as though they are not,' so that those who behold them will ask, 'Where are they (ayei hem)'"? (Rashi, 33:26)
Rashi suggests that the root of the word af'aihem comes from one of two sources: pe'ah, the unguarded corner of the field that is open to all, or af – anger. He rejects the first explanation, as the implication is that God wishes to make a present of the Jewish people to the nations. However, the interpretation of Onkelos provided several grammatical difficulties, including the shift from past to future tense in the verse. As such, it appears that Rashi views his first suggestion as the correct interpretation on the simple level.
Ibn Ezra rejects Rashi's interpretation that God intended to scatter the Jewish people to the ends of the earth, for that would have implied that they would have continued to exist, which does not fit the context of the verse ("I would make their memory cease from among men"). However, he acknowledges the grammatical and contextual difficulties of the other interpretations:
Some say it is three words. The truth is that is has no precedent in scripture. It means, "I will destroy them," which parallels the subsequent "I will make their memory cease to exist" … i.e., all of them will die. If the meaning is as the grammarians suggest, "to scatter them to all the corners of the earth" (pe'ah), this does not suit the verse's context. Others suggests, “I will destroy them in my wrath."
Later commentators, however, see even in this verse a sign of God’s everlasting kindness. The Ramban maintains that the correct interpretation of the verse is like the interpretation that Ibn Ezra rejected, "I will scatter them upon the corners of the earth;" he explains that despite all their provocations, the Jewish people will not be destroyed for the sake of God's great name:
When all [the other nations] sinned of their own free will and denied Him, only this one nation remained for His name. He publicized the signs and wonders through them, for He is the God of gods and Lord of lords. By this, He became known to all of the nations. Now, if God were to retract his covenant and destroy the memory (of the Jewish people), the nations would forget His signs and his deeds … and there would not remain any among them who would know His Creator, but only those who provoke Him. Therefore, it was appropriate for Him at Creation to establish for Himself a nation for all time, for they are His servants who stood with Him while in exile, like servants, bearing the troubles and servitude.
Abarbanel explains the word af'aihem in the exact opposite manner, but he explains the underlying meaning in a similar manner to the Ramban. According to his approach, this word refers to a decree that all of the Jewish people will congregate in one area of the world, so that their enemies will be able to destroy them in one attack, so that no memory will remain of them. In His mercy, however, God scattered the Jews among the different nations:
Some have suggested that the text implies that God thought to scatter them to the corners, and I say the opposite. God intended to destroy them in one corner, in order to cause their memory to cease from humanity, as in the case of the ten tribes whom were exiled by Assyria … when Israel is concentrated in one spot, the enemy can easily destroy them, as Haman [tried to do] when the Jews were in Persia. But when they are scattered in many kingdoms, they always have a place to flee. This is the interpretation of the Sages to Shoftim 5:11 – God showed kindness to Israel by dispersing them among the nations. The Trojans, thought they were a mighty nation, were totally destroyed by the Greeks because they were cornered in one spot. But the Jewish people, no matter how decimated, have always managed to survive and find refuge. The king of England wiped out the Jews in his kingdom, and in our time, the king of France. Had the Jews been cornered in one place, not one would have survived. But the Almighty promised us, "And yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, neither will I abhor them to destroy them completely"” (Vayikra 26:44). Dispersion was thus a great kindness, ensuring our survival and deliverance.
We can only add the historical note that Abarbanel himself would be forced to flee Spain, where he wrote these words, and find safety in Italy (most of those Jews who survived the Spanish Expulsion made their way to the Ottoman Empire, where the sultan welcomed their talents and abilities).
Seforno interprets the word as similar to pe’ah, a corner; however, he understands it to refer to the remnant after the total destruction, not the part of the nation that will perish:
"Af'aihem" – I will leave a corner of them, and utterly consume the rest. This I will do at the End of Days, since I have not yet achieved their perfection, neither at the giving of the Torah, nor in the land of Israel, nor in exile, as it states, "In Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be a remnant, as God has said, and in the remainder whom God will designate." (Commentary to 33:26)
Seforno clearly understands that the End of Days will unleash destruction on world Jewry that will utterly consume the Jewish people, wherever they may be located. However, those Jews who live in the Land of Israel at that time will be spared. Let us hope that whatever suffering we have seen has already fulfilled these prophetic sections of Ha'azinu, and may we be privileged to see the fulfillment of its final verses:
Sing aloud, O ye nations, of His people; for He avenges the blood of His servants, and renders vengeance to His adversaries, and makes expiation for the land of His people. (32:43)
Moses Our Super Hero
It seems an appropriate time, just before his death, for us to look deeply into the character of Moses and examine why he is considered the greatest hero the Jewish people has ever known.
Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks describes him as “ the leader, the liberator, the lawgiver, the man who brought a group of slaves to freedom, turned a fractious collection of individuals into a nation, and so transformed them that they became the people of eternity.
It was Moses who mediated with God, performed signs and wonders, gave the people its laws, fought with them when they sinned, fought for them when praying for Divine forgiveness, gave his life to them and had his heart broken by them when they repeatedly failed to live up to his great expectations.”
I’d like to share with you some of the teachings of Rabbi Sacks about Moses:
“For Maimonides, Moses was radically different from all other prophets in four ways. First, others received their prophecies in dreams or visions, while Moses received his when awake. Second, to the others God spoke in parables obliquely, but to Moses He spoke directly and lucidly. Third, the other prophets were terrified when God appeared to them but of Moses it says, “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Ex. 33:11). Fourth, other prophets needed to undergo lengthy preparations to hear the Divine word; Moses spoke to God whenever he wanted or needed to. He was “always prepared, like one of the ministering angels” (Laws of the Foundations of Torah 7:6).”
“Yet what is so moving about the portrayal of Moses in the Torah is that he appears before us as quintessentially human. No religion has more deeply and systemically insisted on the absolute otherness of God and Man, Heaven and Earth, the infinite and the finite. Other cultures have blurred the boundary, making some human beings seem godlike, perfect, infallible. There is such a tendency – marginal to be sure, but never entirely absent – within Jewish life itself: to see sages as saints, great scholars as angels, to gloss over their doubts and shortcomings and turn them into superhuman emblems of perfection. Tanakh, however, is greater than that. It tells us that God, who is never less than God, never asks us to be more than simply human.”
“Moses is a human being. We see him despair and want to die. We see him lose his temper. We see him on the brink of losing his faith in the people he has been called on to lead. We see him beg to be allowed to cross the Jordan and enter the land he has spent his life as a leader travelling toward. Moses is the hero of those who wrestle with the world as it is and with people as they are, knowing that “It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to stand aside from it.”
“The Torah insists that “to this day no one knows where his grave is” (Deut. 34:6), to avoid his grave being made a place of pilgrimage or worship. It is all too easy to turn human beings, after their death, into saints and demigods. That is precisely what the Torah opposes. “Every human being” writes Maimonides in his Laws of Repentance (5:2), “can be as righteous as Moses or as wicked as Jeroboam.”
“Moses does not exist in Judaism as an object of worship but as a role model for each of us to aspire to. He is the eternal symbol of a human being made great by what he strove for, not by what he actually achieved. The titles conferred by him in the Torah, “the man Moses,” “God’s servant,” “a man of God,” are all the more impressive for their modesty. Moses continues to inspire.”
“On 3 April 1968, Martin Luther King delivered a sermon in a church in Memphis, Tennessee. At the end of his address, he turned to the last day of Moses’ life, when the man who had led his people to freedom was taken by God to a mountain-top from which he could see in the distance the land he was not destined to enter. That, said King, was how he felt that night:
I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”
“That night was the last of his life. The next day he was assassinated. At the end, the still young Christian preacher – he was not yet forty – who had led the civil rights movement in the United States, identified not with a Christian figure but with Moses.”
“In the end the power of Moses’ story is precisely that it affirms our mortality. There are many explanations of why Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. I have argued that it was simply because “each generation has its leaders” (Avodah Zarah 5a) and the person who has the ability to lead a people out of slavery is not necessarily the one who has the requisite skills to lead the next generation into its own and very different challenges. There is no one ideal form of leadership that is right for all times and situations.”
"Franz Kafka gave voice to a different and no less compelling truth:
He is on the track of Canaan all his life; it is incredible that he should see the land only when on the verge of death. This dying vision of it can only be intended to illustrate how incomplete a moment is human life; incomplete because a life like this could last forever and still be nothing but a moment. Moses fails to enter Canaan not because his life was too short but because it is a human life."
“What then does the story of Moses tell us? That it is right to fight for justice even against regimes that seem indestructible. That God is with us when we take our stand against oppression. That we must have faith in those we lead, and when we cease to have faith in them we can no longer lead them. That change, though slow, is real, and that people are transformed by high ideals even though it may take centuries.”
“In one of its most powerful statements about Moses, the Torah states that he was “one hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were undimmed and his strength unabated” (34:8). I used to think that these were merely two sequential phrases, until I realised that the first was the explanation for the second. Why was Moses’ strength unabated? Because his eyes were undimmed – because he never lost the ideals of his youth. Though he sometimes lost faith in himself and his ability to lead, he never lost faith in the cause: in God, service, freedom, the right, the good and the holy. His words at the end of his life were as impassioned as they had been at the beginning.”
“That is Moses, the man who refused to “go gently into that dark night”, the eternal symbol of how a human being, without ever ceasing to be human, can become a giant of the moral life. That is the greatness and the humility of aspiring to be “a servant of God.”
(by Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, Moses The Man Ha’azinu 5778))
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."
This is a timely message for us as we are situated in the days between Rosh Hashona and Yom Kippur. On Monday we will be fully prepared for The Almighty’s Judgement.
“On Rosh Hashanah we’ll be inscribed and on Yom Kippur we’ll be sealed – how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by upheaval, who by plague, who by strangling, and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity avert the evil Decree!”
It seems so harsh and so frightening. I’m sure we’ve all questioned its validity. We have all seen people continuing to live and prosper despite avoiding repentance, prayer and charity. And we have all seen people die who took seriously and to heart repentance, prayer and charity.
Perhaps it makes more sense to us personally if we look at it as a metaphor. The Talmud tells us that “Evil people while they’re living are called ‘dead’; righteous people while they’re dead are called ‘living.'” (Brachos 18A-B) Why?
Perhaps because when you are a bad person you cut yourself off from the Almighty Who is the source of goodness and of ALL life. When you are righteous, however, you embody Godliness and are bound to God in this world and the next.
So that provides one interpretation of “who will live and who will die” in a way that doesn’t offend good people who suffer, but this leads to another question. If “life” and “death” are not literal in this prayer, then why does it go on to say all the (seemingly) literal ways you could die in the year to come?
Here’s a thought: in a society that talks about basically EVERYTHING, the one thing that most people still get an uneasy about is discussing death. It is one of the only taboo subjects left.
But it’s in those moments of discomfort that things can get real. It’s when we’re honest with ourselves about how uncertain our existence is and the myriad ways it could all end that we can resolve to live a life which is connected to the Source of All Life. Maybe that’s why the machzor goes through so much pain-staking detail. Not because it’s promising us that we can avoid these catastrophes, but rather because it’s reminding us that they will surely come. It is that feeling of vulnerability that can prompt us to turn to repentance, prayer, and charity so that we can transform ourselves into the Godly individuals we are each capable of becoming. It is then, that the evil decree (of being cut off from the Source of Life) can be averted.
May we all be inscribed in the book of life and may The Almighty be present in our lives every day.