“The Final Song”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Haazinu, contains the final song which Moshe sings before his death. This is the song to which Moshe alluded in last week’s parasha (Deut. 31:19) when he said: V’ata kitvu la’chem et ha’shira ha’zot, v’lamdah et Bnai Yisrael, simah b’phee’hem, l’ma’an ti’yeh lee ha’shira ha’zot l’eyd biv’nai Yisrael. “So now, write this song for yourselves, and teach it to the children of Israel, place it in their mouth, so that this song shall be for me a witness against the children of Israel.”

Dr. Yisrael Eldad, who passed away in Israel several years ago, wrote one of the truly outstanding and unique contemporary commentaries on the Torah. The commentary, written in complex, but beautiful poetic style, is entitled Heg’yonot Mikrah, “Meditations on the Bible,” but unfortunately is not available in translation. Dr. Eldad points out that two great poems bracket the 40 difficult years in the wilderness. The wanderings begin with Az Yashir, the song sung at the splitting of the sea, and conclude with Haazinu, the song recited at the close of Moshe’s life. At the shores of the Red Sea (or Sea Of Reeds), the children of Israel nearly sink in dread fear of the pursuing Egyptian forces and, in an instantaneous transformation, are raised by great victory as the waves burst forth and cover the depths. A great song issues forth, every nuance of which is uplifting. Wonders and miracles are commonplace, as the people sing: Mee ka’mocha, “Who is like Thee Lord among the mighty?”

In contrast, the final song, Haazinu, reflects the vicissitudes of the present and future destiny of Israel, the ups and downs, the rises and the declines. It is not a testimony to the past, but rather a warning for the present and the future. The song at the sea was dramatic, sung by Moshe and Miriam. So exhilarating was it that the Israelite women were physically moved to dance. The setting for Haazinu, on the other hand, is restrained and dour. The song is addressed not to joyous and ecstatic liberated slaves, but to a different community, to those born in freedom. Haazinu is not a song which the people need to sing (Shira), but a message that the people need to hear and understand (that’s what the word Haazinu means), so that it may be effectively transmitted to future generations.

And what a message! While at the sea, the physical existence of Israel was assured, but it is now, at the end of forty years in the wilderness, necessary for Moshe to assure the people’s spiritual future. The message is one of warning, of instruction, of hope. G-d’s love and care of Israel needs to be reaffirmed. The people need to know that, despite their rebellious nature, G-d will never abandon His people.

Z’chor y’mot olam, “Remember the days of yore,” says Moshe. Study Jewish history, he tells the people! The past is truly vital for Israel; there’s much to be learned from previous generations. Much pain and suffering can be avoided if only the future is approached with the wisdom of the past before our eyes.

We Jews, who flourish in the final months of the 20th century, are a study in contrasts. 60 years ago, a madman arose determined to end the glorious history of our people, and came very close to succeeding. And yet three score years later, the Jewish people are experiencing one of the greatest “Golden Ages” in Jewish history. We’ve overcome Hitler’s threat, we have a homeland–a flourishing and remarkable State of Israel. Torah study is at an all-time high, even when contrasted with other erudite periods of Jewish history. We live in probably the most secure and financially successful period in all Jewish history.

Therefore, it particularly behooves us today to carefully heed the words of Haazinu. While Moshe’s message was originally addressed to the ancient Hebrews, Moshe is talking to us as well. It is a message that is directed to contemporary Jews, whether committed or marginal. Listen to the prophetic words of Moshe (Chapt. 32:15): V’yishman Yeshurun va’yiv’at. Yeshurun is a flattering appellation for Israel, derived from the Hebrew word Ya’shar meaning straight, upright. The People of Israel, who never deviate from the straight path of its calling, have become fat and have forsaken G-d, their creator–they regard Him as worthless!

The 19th century German Jewish commentator, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, pulls no punches when he talks of the Jewish people’s shortcomings. While it is true, says Hirsch, that the highest degree of morality should be entirely compatible with the greatest measure of material happiness, with Israel it is often not the case. In fact, says Hirsch, this song, Haazinu, contains the quintessence of all subsequent Jewish history. “As a rule,” writes Hirsch, “the Jewish people have proven itself splendid during periods of suffering. But, it has rarely been able to endure good fortune… [Israel has often] failed to utilize its abundance and surplus for increased spiritual and moral performance… Its moral progress did not keep abreast of its material prosperity. It did not understand how to remain in control of its riches and its prosperity…Instead, it allowed itself to be overwhelmed by wealth and prosperity, and it allowed its better spiritual, moral self to be drowned in them.”

We often look upon the rich and super rich with envy. Wealth has, for many, become the single most significant factor for determining leadership in the Jewish community. Yet, wealth is as great a challenge to happiness as is poverty. In fact, I often feel that it is an even greater challenge to happiness than poverty.

And so, during these awe-inspiring days that precede Rosh Hashana, let us listen closely to the words of Haazinu. Let us incline our ears so that G-d’s teaching may penetrate us like rain, and G-d’s promise flow gently to us like the dew.

May we all be written and inscribed in the Book of Life for health and happiness in the year 5760.

May you be blessed.