As our nation’s greatest leader’s final day continues to wind down, our sedra opens with a Broadway-esque moment, as Moshe bursts into a long and powerful song. However, unlike impromptu solos in musicals, the Jewish leader lets his people know exactly what the significance of his song is:
וְעַתָּה, כִּתְבוּ לָכֶם אֶת-הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת, וְלַמְּדָהּ אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, שִׂימָהּ בְּפִיהֶם: לְמַעַן תִּהְיֶה-לִּי הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת, לְעֵד–בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. וְהָיָה כִּי-תִמְצֶאןָ אֹתוֹ רָעוֹת רַבּוֹת, וְצָרוֹת, וְעָנְתָה הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת לְפָנָיו לְעֵד, כִּי לֹא תִשָּׁכַח מִפִּי זַרְעוֹ: כִּי יָדַעְתִּי אֶת-יִצְרוֹ, אֲשֶׁר הוּא עֹשֶׂה הַיּוֹם, בְּטֶרֶם אֲבִיאֶנּוּ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי.
After warning the Jews of the price of sinning upon entering Eretz Yisrael after his death, G-d commands Moshe to write the the song of Ha’azinu for the Jewish People. He commands them to pass on the words of the song through the generations, so that when a time comes that Jews will begin to sin, they will sing the song and return from their evil ways.
With such a heavy introduction, one would expect a “mussar” song with lyrics warning against sinning, or stories about great people who conducted themselves properly; at the very least, a biblical version of the “if you do an aveirah…” song. However, the song speaks very little about our behavior- the focus is on someOne else entirely:
הַצּוּר תָּמִים פָּעֳלוֹ, כִּי כָל-דְּרָכָיו מִשְׁפָּט: אֵ-ל אֱמוּנָה וְאֵין עָוֶל, צַדִּיק וְיָשָׁר הוּא
The Rock, His work is perfect; for all His ways are justice; a G-d of faithfulness and without mistake, just and right is He. (לב:ד)
כִּי חֵלֶק ה’ עַמּוֹ: יַעֲקֹב, חֶבֶל נַחֲלָתוֹ. יִמְצָאֵהוּ בְּאֶרֶץ מִדְבָּר, וּבְתֹהוּ יְלֵל יְשִׁמֹן; יְסֹבְבֶנְהוּ, יְבוֹנְנֵהוּ– יִצְּרֶנְהוּ, כְּאִישׁוֹן עֵינוֹ
For Hashem’s portion is His people, Yaakov is the lot of His inheritance. He found him in a desert land, and in the waste, a howling wilderness; He compassed him about, He cared for him, He kept him as the apple of His eye. (לב:ט-י)
הֲלֹא-הוּא, כָּמֻס עִמָּדִי; חָתוּם, בְּאוֹצְרֹתָי
Is not this laid up in store with Me, sealed up in My treasures? (לב:לד)
כִּי-יָדִין ה’ עַמּוֹ, וְעַל-עֲבָדָיו יִתְנֶחָם: כִּי יִרְאֶה כִּי-אָזְלַת יָד, וְאֶפֶס עָצוּר וְעָזוּב
For Hashem will judge His people, and repent Himself for His servants; when He sees that their stay is gone, and there is none remaining, shut up or left at large. (לב:לו)
These are just a few of many of the highlights of Moshe’s song. Most of Shirat Ha’azinu discusses either G-d’s greatness or the importance of our relationship with Him. One could very well ask how this would help inspire a rebellious generation to stop their evil. Perhaps an inspiring song about teshuva, or a strongly worded threat would have been more effective? How does singing about Hashem’s greatness help, in the words of Moshe, “be a witness for the Jewish people when they sin?”
I believe that the answer to this question lies in the psychology of the sinner. How can any of us ever go against the Torah, when we know that Hashem is constantly watching us, and sinning would disappoint our G-d and undermine our creation? The answer is that we can’t, because the run-of-the-mill sinner doesn’t think about these things when he transgresses- he only thinks of himself. He thinks of why he wants to do this forbidden action now, of how much he wants to do it, and doesn’t usually spare any thoughts to the spiritual detriment he is doing to himself, and the damage he is doing to his relationship with G-d, until it is too late. When an entire generation sins, this effect is compounded, as there are no concerned friends, family members, or leaders, to intervene, as they are equally guilty.
When nearly every Jew in the world is straying, and everyone is so engulfed in these transgressions that there is little hope for salvation, enter Shirat Ha’azinu, to remind us what the number one priority in life is- to be a servant of Hashem, to remember that the life goal of each and every one of us is to perpetuate His name in the world. If we are ever in doubt how to accomplish this, the beginning of Moshe’s song gives us explicit instructions:
זְכֹר יְמוֹת עוֹלָם, בִּינוּ שְׁנוֹת דֹּר-וָדֹר; שְׁאַל אָבִיךָ וְיַגֵּדְךָ, זְקֵנֶיךָ וְיֹאמְרוּ לָךְ.
Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations; ask your father, and he will tell you; your elders, and they will speak to you. (לב:ז)
In a time of rampant sin, the only solution is to look back to previous generations, decades, even centuries before our people began to stray, and to follow their examples.
So, we see that Shirat Ha’azinu, the euphonious elixir to domestic dissonance, is less a gentle reminder of how to behave and more a stronger nudge to remind us of the meaning of life. A Jew is an Oved Hashem by definition, and no matter how he labels himself, this does not change at all.
In our days, when diverging leadership has led to an inordinately divided nations, and each of us are forced to use all of our energy trying to figure out how to label ourselves, this is an important lesson to take to heart. Instead of spending our time trying to figure out what separates different self-defined sects of Judaism, and trying to displace ourselves from others (“I’m more Open Orthodox than him… I’m less Modern Yeshivaish than her.”), we must remember what we have in common and constantly focus on our main goal, which is serving Hashem in the best way that we can. As long as we live our lives with this endgame, whether we call ourselves Modern Orthodox, Dati Le’umi, Hareidi, Chasidish, etc, then we have fulfilled the goal of Shirat Ha’azinu. We can feel good knowing we have escaped the danger of a completely evil generation and that each and every one of us serves as a paradigm for success if future Jews lose their way.
This important lesson of Shirat Ha’azinu can also address a question which has recently gone viral in the religious communities of America; is Modern Orthodoxy dying? With rates of assimilation above 70%, and many institutions failing to keep youth comitted to Judaism at the same time as other, more sucessful ones, push a very right-wing agenda, American Modern Orthodox Judaism is rapidly polarizing and this question is becoming more and more relevant with each passing year.
Based on this message of Shirat Ha’azinu, it is clear that Moshe Rabeinu’s answer to whether or not Modern Orthodoxy is dying is “who cares?!” As long as Jews in the United States realize that their highest priority is serving G-d, and they use this motivation to make all of their decisions and let it guide them in life, then it does not matter what they call themselves- they will continue and prosper.
However, once the leaders of a sect of Judaism begin to make decisions, especially religious ones, from a more selfish, humanistic perspective, and the masses adopt this mindset, then even before assimilation reaches high marks, and even before religious institutions start to fail- that group’s religiosity has already died. Time will only tell whether the Modern Orthodox Jews of America and their leadership fall into this category or not, but it is important food for thought for each and every one of us, especially now in Tekufat Tishrei, to re-examine our values and decide where our priorities are. If our primary goal in life is to serve Hashem and glorify His name, to be an Or Lagoyim, then we can take pride in our mission, and feel good when we hear Moshe’s abundant praise of G-d on Shabbat morning. But, if we have let other, less holy motivations, guide our decisions, especially religious ones, then we should take strength from Shirat Ha’azinu and follow Moshe’s advice of ” זְכֹר יְמוֹת עוֹלָם, בִּינוּ שְׁנוֹת דֹּר-וָדֹר; שְׁאַל אָבִיךָ וְיַגֵּדְךָ, זְקֵנֶיךָ וְיֹאמְרוּ לָךְ.”
We should look back at previous generations, take strength from the amazing stories of the impressive efforts they took to serve Hashem properly,and use this direction to diverge from a generation trending away from serving G-d. Whether in the time of the Holocaust and other churbanot, when strife and suffering forced our forebears to focus on Hashem, or even earlier to biblical times, when they did this of their own free will, there is no end to the important lessons we can learn, and this intervention is crucial in returning to proper Judaism. If we can appreciate G-d’s greatness, remember our place in the world, and truly take to heart our mission in life, then even the most hardened sinner can return from his evil ways, back to true avodat Hashem, an especially important message less than three days after the spiritual cleansing of Yom Kippur. May we all merit to serve Hashem in this ideal way, with this proper mindset. Shabbat Shalom.