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Parashat Ha’azinu

September 8, 2010

By Michael Kasper

How do we make sense of God as elegant, majestic, and breathtaking in one moment and vindictive, jealous, and consumed in the next?  Is there a force more cunning than God shows himself to be in this week’s parashah?

There are only two places in all of Torah where Moses recites or sings extensive poetry – Shirat ha-Yam (Song of the Sea) and Ha’azinu (Give Ear) which is also known as Shirat Moshe (Song of Moses).  And since the Hebrew word for song or poem is the same, shir, it is as if a heavenly light is particularly shown to direct our attention and focus our minds.  We are left to imagine the voice of Moses, its timbre, timing, resonance, and feeling.  And we are left to speculate what state of emotion he could possibly have been in as he brings a “…Discourse come down as rain, My speech distill as dew…” to the excited and wary Israelites (vs. 2).

Robert Frost (as quoted by Dan Vogel, Jewish Bible Quarterly 31:4, 2003) once said that:

“A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom…it begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down…and ends in a clarification of life…in a momentary stay against confusion.”

And, Haim Nahman Bialik (as quoted in Joel Stern’s recent article in Kolot: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism p. 13) said, in 1915:

“Every day, consciously and unconsciously, human beings scatter heaps of words to the wind; few men indeed know or reflect on what these words were like in the days when they were at the height of their power.  Some words were like the high mountains of the lord, others were a great abyss.  So, for example, it was with the first man, when, taken aback by the sound of the thunder, overcome by amazement and terror stricken, he  fell on his face before the divinity.  Then a kind of savage sound burst spontaneously from his lips – let us assume, in imitation of nature – resembling a beast’s roar.  A sound closer to the r…r to be found in the words for thunder in many languages.”

These two poets are in a love affair not only with words themselves but with their not-words, the resonances of sounds uttered by humans in service of the divine.  Moses was in exactly that position when he was instructed to write down this final poem he sang to the Israelites (Deut. 31:19).  What could he have felt knowing he was never to enter the land; what would he have felt knowing his punishment was tied to the behavior of the flock he had shepherded for so many years; what could he have felt having grown old in a desert of grousing and longing?  Ha’azinu is a poem of great sweetness and crushing tokhahot (punishments or chastisements) sung by a man selected for unimaginable resources and depths.  “The instruction was God’s; the artistry was Moses'” (Dan Vogel, ibid).  Who better to craft a language which would convey the message of the creator than Moses?  Who better than Moses to find words worthy of God’s love, fealty, anguish, absolute intolerance, and parental ambivalence?

The Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe) follow an arc immutable and natural to all of life. There is a beginning, middle, and end.  Selihot begins an arc which flows outward toward Rosh HaShanah and, eventually, Yom Kippur: penitence, petition, and decree.  This year Shirat Moshe is chanted on Shabbat Shuvah, that penultimate Shabbat which augurs Yom Kippur.  In the way that every generation experiences itself as an end but which is only another generation’s beginning, the arc completes its seasonal work only to find new life in the season to come.  The arc becomes a circle and during this time of reflection and return can it be anything but perfect that we pray for the ability to forgive even before we must bear the unforgiving reproach entwined in Moshe Rabeinu’s poem?  Can this holy season require more as we pray and look inward for that place in us that a full heart can find rest in?

Our world is flowing over in drought, flood, war, and hate: the disease of conflict.  Can we imagine Moses’ words falling on us, as they must have felt to those assembled by Canaan’s door, as disasters of nature or the basest of human emotion?  It is my great hope that we have all prayed and sung for the ability to tip our ears heavenward to all the corners of that vast place so that we can hear the most quiet angel.

Shirat Moshe challenges each of us, individually and as part of a greater Klal Yisrael, to internalize and heed the wisdom of Frost and Bialik.  To absorb not only the threat of God’s ultimatum but to experience it as the ancients might have – with terror, perhaps; contrition, possibly and with an awe and reverence for human words cried out as the manifestation of the unknowable.  All this sung by an old man whose gifts were no protection against the ultimate.  The Poem of Moses clarifies life, in no uncertain terms and, just maybe, allows for, in Frost’s words above, “a momentary stay against confusion.”

Michael Kasper is a cantorial student at The Academy for Jewish Religion. He serves Congregation Sons of Israel, Nyack, NY as its cantor.