Shirat Ha’azinu and Moshe’s Final Message

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Yakov Ellenbogen

There is a somewhat classic disagreement regarding Devarim 31:19. The verse reads

וְעַתָּה, כִּתְבוּ לָכֶם אֶת-הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת, וְלַמְּדָהּ אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, שִׂימָהּ בְּפִיהֶם:  לְמַעַן תִּהְיֶה-לִּי הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת, לְעֵד–בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

Now therefore write this song for you, and teach it the children of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for Me against the children of Israel.

Moshe was commanded to write a shira whose purpose is to constantly serve as a testimony for Bnei Yisrael. The identity of this shira, however is unclear. Some classical commentaries, such as Ralbag, figure that it refers to the Torah as a whole. However, Rashi on that pasuk comments that:

את השירה הזאת: האזינו השמים עד (לב, מג) וכפר אדמתו עמו

This shira: [From] Ha’azinu HaShamayim until V’Kiper Admato Amo (Devarim 32:1- 43)

For Rashi then, it is Parshat Ha’azinu (or more properly, Shirat Ha’azinu) which is meant to serve as an enduring testimony for Bnei Yisrael for all time. Given this, then, Rashi’s first comment in Parshat Ha’azinu, which frames the chapter, is slightly confusing.

האזינו השמים: …ולמה העיד בהם שמים וארץ, אמר משה אני בשר ודם למחר אני מת, אם יאמרו ישראל לא קבלנו עלינו הברית מי בא ומכחישם, לפיכך העיד בהם שמים וארץ, עדים שהן קיימים לעולם

Listen, O heavens:… Now why did [Moshe] call upon heaven and earth to be witnesses for Bnei Yisrael? Moses said: “I am flesh and blood. Tomorrow I will die. If Israel says, ‘We never accepted the covenant,’ who will come and refute them?” Therefore, he called upon heaven and earth as witnesses for Bnei Yisrael- witnesses that endure forever.

The exact wording, and in effect the undertone of Shirat Ha’azinu in Rashi’s eyes, is extremely personal. Instead of the universalism we may expect, due to its purpose as a lasting testimony which all generations of Jews are meant to connect with, the shira is Moshe’s swan song. Before his preordained death (which we are told about in Devarim 31:14), he has one more lesson for Bnei Yisrael. The “I” in the phrase “And I will speak” (ואדברה), is not transitive to all Jews. First and foremost, it refers to Moshe. In future recitations of Shirat Ha’azinu, Jews will not just be praying, but will be filling the shoes of Moshe, their leader on the edge of death before entering Israel, a perspective which seems difficult for each person to identify with, to say the least.

Perhaps this somewhat fatalistic undertone fits the general themes of Shirat Ha’azinu. After all, the Parsha presents a deterministic look forward, where Bnei Yisrael is fated to fail in their observance of God’s Law, and will be punished because of it. The fact that Rashi recalls Moshe’s inevitable demise just sets the stage for this deterministic outlook. By beginning with Moshe’s death, a paradigm of preordained punishment, we already sense this theme.

However, this is not Moshe’s last word on the matter. Despite the overall thrust of Ha’azinu, after his recitation of the shira, Moshe tells Bnei Yisrael

וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, שִׂימוּ לְבַבְכֶם, לְכָל-הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מֵעִיד בָּכֶם הַיּוֹם:  אֲשֶׁר תְּצַוֻּם, אֶת-בְּנֵיכֶם, לִשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת, אֶת-כָּל-דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת

כִּי לֹא-דָבָר רֵק הוּא, מִכֶּם–כִּי-הוּא, חַיֵּיכֶם; וּבַדָּבָר הַזֶּה, תַּאֲרִיכוּ יָמִים עַל-הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן שָׁמָּה, לְרִשְׁתָּהּ

He said to them: ‘Set your heart to all the words that I testify against you this day; that you may charge your children to observe to do all the words of this law.

For it is no vain thing for you; because it is your life, and through this thing you shall prolong your days upon the land, which you go over the Jordan to possess it.’

Moshe’s last word, then, is in tension to the determinism which was presented earlier. Instead of Bnei Yisrael being at the mercy of history, Moshe assures them that human action in the form of following the Law has an effect on history. The placement of this Parsha after Yom Kippur seems especially relevant. Many of the tefilot we say over Yom Kippur emphasize God’s control over our lives. However, at the same time, we encourage ourselves to change in the upcoming year for our own benefit. The dual philosophy of Ha’azinu appears, then, even when not reciting Shirat Ha’azinu.

Shabbat Shalom

Yakov Ellenbogen (SBM 2013, 2014, 2015), a native of Sharon, MA, is a Junior at Yeshiva University. He previously attended Yeshivat Petach Tikvah, Yeshivat Sha’alavim and Yeshivat Har Etzion.


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