Engagement with the Vague

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Joshua Blau

The standard “shira” in Tanakh can be boiled down to praise of God, usually in the context of miracles and some kind of salvation. The shira of Haazinu, however, does not match this rubric. While God is praised at various points in the song, there are no miracles or salvations to speak of.  The Torah describes it as God’s “witness” that when in the future Bnei Yisrael inevitably fall from plenty to ruin, they will have brought this end on themselves as a result of turning away from Him.   Why is this a “shira” at all?

The structure of Haazinu is also challenging.  The song moves first through an introduction by Moshe, then praise of God, followed by criticism of Bnei Yisrael.  It then transitions to a historical survey that starts with the specialness of God’s people, moves again to praise of God, and then a satiation of the people that quickly grows sour and becomes idolatry.  Corruption is, of course, answered with abandonment and punishment, although in 32:27 we read a sense of reticence to punish the people as described because of external perception.  The next 11  verses—all the way through 38— are about punishment, but it is unclear who is being punished: Bnei Yisrael. or their enemies, or both in alternating currents. Some verses seem to point one way, some the other, but really just about all of them could be interpreted in the opposite manner if one were pressed.  Haazinu then returns to (self-)praise of God, and end off with vengeance exacted against our enemies for what they have done in punishing the Jews.  Why the long ambiguous section?  If the entire piece were removed, the song would apparently convey the same message.

Like a halakhic witness giving hatra’ah, the song gives warning and accuses, ideally to prevent the crime but with the lurking possibility, or in this case certainty, of punishment. A human, however, is not punished in a vacuum; the punishment is meant to in some way repair what was done. Sometimes this reparation takes the form of monetary recompense; other times it is a metaphysical construct we know as kapparah afforded the convicted. Whatever it may be, the punishment is not, or should not be, focused solely on the past, but also on the future. Punishment is aimed at restoration in order to effect a renewed status, to restore one to a position in which a choice may again be made. This is the tenet of teshuvah; that, confronted with the same circumstance, the right choice be made in the wrong’s stead, tying the final knot in the securing rope of personal redemption.

Ha’azinu thus should also function as a call to national teshuvah, as a reminder that not only is God always there—even if sometimes behind a screen—but so is our potential to return to Him. Much like the crying sounds of a shofar, the sound of the shira on our tongues should be an inspiration to climb from the inevitable abyss of abandonment of God and once again bask in His guardianship.

Yet, a witness who gives vague testimony would never make it through the routine checks of a Beit Din. A muffled shofar cannot achieve its function, halachically or otherwise. How can a shira with a central portion that is confusing accomplish its goal of not only conviction but inspiration towards teshuva? A reader might perhaps experience some depth of punishment and believe it was meant for our enemies. At best, these eleven verses are distractions from a message that is fairly clear from the remainder of Ha’azinu.

Chazal do not resolve the problem. While various Rishonim take sides,  a cursory read through Torah Temimah reveals naught but words and phrases taken completely out of context to teach halakhot, or else random drashot.

Perhaps Chazal’s lack of address actually hints at a resolution. It should be well known to the entire People of the Book that there is little to inspire investigation and discussion on par with lack of clarity. Almost the whole oral tradition is based on the tenet of vagueness. In some sense, “imperfections” such as these are the driving force behind the Jewish people’s continuation over the course of millennia of tribulations and exiles.

Ha’azinu, while outwardly a convicting witness, is also one that knows a way back to God. Encoded in these elusive verses is a calling to be curious and questioning, to engage with the text and the Torah that we were lovingly presented with. This is a crucial part of the song we are commanded to remember, what Rashi interprets to be the entire Torah, and in this sense is; the necessity of being an active participant in Torah. Random drashot and interpretive arguments are a perfect symbol of this crucial responsibility that Ha’azinu can only hint at. More than hints, and it would miss its own mark. It is our role to draw out meanings like this one. Passive memory is not enough when it comes to Ha’azinu; it must be on the tip of the tongue. This is what it takes to remain close to God, but more, what it takes to return.

Joshua Blau (SBM 2017) is a recent graduate of Yeshiva University, where he studied math and computer science. He lives with his wife, Hodaya, in Brookline, MA.

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