Ha'azinu is the second-last parsha in the Chumash, but it's the last one we read in full on Shabbat morning. Ha'azinu is a toughie. It consists almost completely of a long poem, a very special one. This is Moses' swan song. As he is about to die, Moses offers a poetic presentation of the history of the rocky relationship between Israel and its – our – God, and his perspective on the future. The poem is difficult because even if you know Hebrew, it is not easy to get at the exact sense of the words and verses. But we must not give up on our attempt to find important things here. Indeed, right after the poem, at the end of the parsha, Moses says this of the poem and of the whole Torah he has been teaching:
For it is not an empty thing for you, but it is your very life; through it you shall long endure on the land to which you are crossing over the Jordan to possess it. (Deuteronomy 32:47)
The Jerusalem Talmud has a sobering comment on this verse: "It [Torah] is not an empty thing. And if you find it empty, the emptiness is in you!" (This is like the literature professor who, responding to a student who said he didn't have a clue to what T.S. Eliot's poem "The Wasteland" meant, asked the student, "To what defect in your character do you attribute your inability to understand this poem?")
In any case, the Jerusalem Talmud's comment stands as a perpetual challenge to us. When we don't immediately understand something in our tradition we cannot facilely take ourselves off the hook by saying, "Well, this just makes no sense."
So with Ha'azinu our work is cut out for us. If we are serious about understanding this seminal poem we have to read it very closely, examine the imagery, get a sense of the structure. We'd have to see how it connects with some things prophets like Hosea, Jeremiah and Ezekiel said, and how it Hebraizes motifs from Canaanite poetry. Such matters are beyond the scope of this discussion, but there is the JPS Torah commentary, for starters, and other fine discussions readily available. Ha'azinu is a demanding text but a key one for understanding closure in the Chumash.
Ha'azinu functions like all the other major poems in the Chumash: It expands on what is told in the narrative, but it does so in verse. We have here a poetic projection of how God and Israel will treat each other in the future, after Moses will have passed on. It is not a pleasant vision, but it does offer ultimate hope. As they have in the past, the people will abandon God in their illusory sense of affluence and security, and God will "hide His face from them." Yet God will not utterly destroy them because God has a larger agenda with the nations of the world, who decry and deny the covenant between God and Israel. In redeeming Israel at the end of time, God will show the nations the falseness of their understanding of ultimate reality and will vindicate Israel as God's people. At the end of his comments on the song, the great medieval commentator Nachmanides (1195 - ca. 1270) writes:
This Song ... tells us clearly all that will happen to us. ... [It] is a clear promise of the future redemption. And so it is stated in the [Midrash] Sifre: "This song is great in that it contains the present, the past, and the future; it contains issues of this world and of the World to Come." ... And while it is small in size, nevertheless it contains many things. Were this song one of the writings of the astrologers which predicted future events, it would justifiably command our belief because all of its predictions have been fulfilled up until the present. Nothing has gone unfulfilled. We therefore should also believe and anticipate [the future fulfillment of this Song] with all our heart for these are the words of God as conveyed by His prophet [Moses], "the faithful one of His house."
Ha'azinu, then, presents us with the core ideas of biblical theology, the grand narrative of Judaism as a religion. For that reason it repays careful study and contemplation.
The last parsha in the Torah, Ve-zot Ha-Berachah, which details the death of Moses, never gets read in full on a Shabbat (though in some years the first verses are read on the previous Monday and Thursday). This is a shame because there are some really interesting issues in it and they never get discussed, like the fact that we never really get to finish the Torah. As soon as we reach the end, we roll right back to the beginning. Within the linear progression of Jewish history, from the imperfection of the present to the Redemption in the future, there is the recurring circularity of the weekly Torah cycle, which means that with each passing year we should be reading and understanding Torah on a deeper and deeper level.
Prepared by Rabbi James S. Diamond, Senior consultant to the Meyerhoff Center.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Ha'azinu at MyJewishLearning.com.