Parshat Haazinu

Parashat Haazinu is one of the shortest parshiyot in the Torah, yet it one of the most important. Several times the importance of Haazinu is mentioned in the preceding parsha of Vayelech. The pasuk says “So now write this song for yourselves and teach it to the Children of Isreal’ place it in their mouth” (31:19). This language of placing in their mouth is very unsual and indicative of the importance of Haazinu. “Moses wrote this song on that day” (31:22) is interpreted to be the shirah of Haazinu and again its importance. Near the end of Parahsat Haazinu right after the portion written in poetic verse the Torah says “Moses came and spoke all the words of this song in the ears of the people he and Hoshea son of Nun.” Although we often quote the Gemarrah that says there are 10 “shira” in Tanach, there is no other Shir that has so much emphasis on the importance of learning and remembering this Shira. In this review I would like to explore some of the language used in Haazinu and compare it to other places in Tanach. In addition, in some ways Haazinu has parallels to the Tochechah; why is this called shira when many of the pesukim describe the ingratitude of Bnai Yisreal and the punishment they will receive?

The famous first pasuk of Haazinu starts with” Give ear O heavens and I will speak; and may the earth hear the words of my mouth” (32:1). The Sifri notes that the word Haazinu, listen, means the listener is nearby while the term Shma, hear, means a listener who is far away. The phraseology here is the opposite of that used by Yishayuhu 1:2 where he says “Hear heavens listen earth.” According to this explanation, Moshe was closer to shemayim so he used Haazinu for shemayim, but since Yishayuhu was closer to the earth he reversed the wording. What is the significance of this Sifrei? Do we learn anything by saying Moshe was at a higher level than Yishayahu?

Rav Moshe Feinstein has 2 different insights into this comment. He says Chazal is referring to the different approaches that can be taken to guide people towards Teshuva and spiritual growth. The first is to emphasize the potential greatness of man and the spiritual heights that one can achieve through Avodat Hashem. The alternative is to emphasize the lowliness and emptiness of a life that has only material concerns and lacks a spiritual focus. The first approach is more likely to be successful when addressing an audience that is already on a higher spiritual level. They need to be reminded that they can achieve more and need to strive for spiritual perfection. For the more general audience the second approach may be far more effective. Achieving spiritual heights may seem too far and too abstract to effect meaningful change. Warning that excess focus on the mundane is harmful and the need to infuse life with basic spiritual content and meaning is more likely to lead to success. According to this approach, the focus is not on the leaders but rather the audience. Moshe was addressing an audience that had always lived a supernatural existence. They could understand the potential for spiritual greatness but not so readily understand the dangers of material pursuits. Yishayahu howver was speaking to a very different audience plagued by greed and corruption. Therefore he emphasized the more “earthly” messages. As in any areas of education the message has to be tailored to the audience. However, Haazinu is read around the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah to remind us that no matter where we are, we need to strive to a higher heavenly level.

It is interesting to note that at the end of the Shira the pasuk says “He and Hoshea son of Nun.” This may hint at the type of leadership transition that was happening as Bnei Yisrael entered the land. Moshe was a supernatural leader for supernatural people. However; for people who were going to start a physical existence e.g. no more Manna, there was a need for a more physically grounded leader. The song of Haazinu serves as a bridge between the worlds and as a reminder that history is not something from the past, but is very much the present and the future.

R’ Moshe Feinstein also had another approach. He said “Heavens” refers to the nation’s leaders while “earth” refers to the common man. In Moshe’s time, the leaders were righteous, so he focused on them to inspire their leadership abilities and lead the people. However, in the time of Yishayahu the message could not go to the corrupt leaders but rather directly to the average person.
There are simalrities between Haazinu and the Tochechah. In Parshat Bechukosai it says, “Five of you will pursue a hundred and a hundred of you will pursue ten thousand” (26:8). In Haazinu it refers to what will happen when we have sinned: “For how could one pursue a thousand….”(32:30). What is there to sing about?

Ramban explains that this song contains within it a synopsis of all of Jewish history. It describes creation, the rise of Bnai Yisrael, and its fall. Most importantly though it promises retribution to our enemies in the final verse of the song “He will appease His land and His people”. The Tochecha describes what will happen at some points. Shirat Haazinu promises us that there will definitely be a redemption and that Hashem is always present even if He is not manifest to us. There is also the concept of historical continuity. We need to learn from the past and be cautious of new things that do not add value. The pasuk says, “Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past”. Torah is eternal and does not lose its value with time. Remembering our history will improve our present and guarantee the future.

There is a machloket between Rabbi Yehuda and RabbI Nechemyah as to whether the foolishness of the people described in the last section of Haazinu is Bnai Yisreal or the other nations of the world. In Pasuk Chaf Zayin it says “Were it not that the anger of the enemy was pent up lest his tormentors misinterpret lest they say ‘Our hand was raised in triumph. And not the L-rd hath wrought all this.’” The question is whether this description of our enemies means the next pesukim apply to our enemies or is this a brief digression and the remainder discusses Bnei Yisrael. Professor Nechama Leibowitz sides with Rabbi Nechemyah that the last portion of this song is directed at the enemies of Hashem. It is the downfall of our enemies and promised redemption that makes Haazinu a song.
This issue perhaps prompted the Netziv to advance a very different approach to the nature and purpose of what is being witnessed in the famous first Pasuk: “The song serves as a witness to the fact that in spite of how they angered Him, they are nevertheless with G-d, and He looks after them and He will eventually redeem them” (Ha’amek Davar 31:21). The song does not testify to the causal relationship between sin and calamity; after all, the Netziv writes this is a known fact. Rather the poem attests to Bnei Yisrael’s eternal survival, to the eventual salvation that will follow their pain, and anguish. When calamity strikes, Benei Yisrael will consult the shira not for the purpose of understanding its cause (as Ibn Ezra writes), but rather to learn of its ultimate outcome. This is a song of hope rather than admonition, of comfort rather than of censure. Shirat Ha’azinu is thus the poem about providence, the testament to G-d’s everlasting involvement in world affairs. It bears witness to G-d’s guarantee that He never leaves. This is what Ramban means when he says that all of Jewish history is captured here. There is complete continuity between heaven, earth and Bnei Yisrael. Regardless of what we see in the past or present the downfall of our enemies and the survival of Bnei Yisrael is guaranteed. This is the essence of Shira- there is complete harmony in the world with Hashems’s guidance even if we may not see it. May we all be zocheh to see the unity of the world expressed in Haazinu in our time.

Student Studying in MMY