Elchanan Poupko

Ha’azinu: The Art of Farewell

Ship readying to sail. copyright free from

“Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of ending”, said the great American poet Henry Longfellow. Few words in human history are as powerful as Moses’s words of farewell in Parashat Ha’azinue. The song of Ha’azinu beautifully weaves the past, present, and future, positive, and negative of Jewish history and fate into a complex and multicolored material. And yet, and the end of the Parasha, that farewell, has the shockingly sharp taste of disappointment.

“And the Lord spoke to Moses on that very day, saying, Go up this Mount Avarim [to] Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, that is facing Jericho, and see the Land of Canaan, which I am giving to the children of Israel as a possession, And die on the mountain upon which you are climbing and be gathered to your people, just as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his people. Because you betrayed Me in the midst of the children of Israel at the waters of Merivath Kadesh, [in] the desert of Zin, [and] because you did not sanctify Me in the midst of the children of Israel.” (Deuteronomy chapter 32:48)


Why are we left off with Moses’s sin, and him being rejected from the land of Israel? The rabbis teach that all this took place on the last day of Moses’s life. Why is Moses leaving us with a note on him not being allowed into the promised land?

To make the matter worse, we must take into account why it was that Moses wanted to enter the land of Israel. The Rabbis teach:

“Rabbi Simlai expounded:  Why did Moses our teacher yearn to enter the land of Israel?  Did he want to eat of its fruits or satisfy himself from its bounty?  But thus spoke Moses, “Many precepts were commanded to Israel which can only be fulfilled in the land of Israel.  I wish to enter the land so that they may all be fulfilled by me.” (Sotah 14a)

Here is Moses, wanting to enter the land of Israel with the purist of intentions, and as part of his goodbye to the Jewish people he is given a teaser: you will be able to enter the land of Israel, but you will never be allowed into it. Why the teaser? Why is Moses shown the land of Israel without being granted the right to enter it? If indeed Moses was to be band from the land of Israel, why show it to him?

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105), the greatest medieval commentator from Troyes, France, explains the words but you will not come there saying:” But I know that the Land is dear to you. That is why I say to you,“Go up [the mountain] and see [it]!”

Even with this explanation, we are still left hanging. Why is this mentioned as part of Moses’s farewell and why is seeing the land helpful? If anything, Moses would be frustrated that he will not be able to go into the land he now got to see.

Once, when spending Shabbat with the great rabbi and Kabbalist, rabbi Refael Abuhatzeira I heard from him the following mystical explanation. Every person is blessed with two eyes, an ayin tova, a positive eye, and an ayin hara, a negative eye. When we see other people succeed and are happy, we are using our ayin tova. When we see others and wish them ill, we are using our ayin hara. We all have the responsibility to work on improving our ayin tova, making sure we see everything with a positive eye. We must make sure we are happy to see our friends succeed and with others only well. The Torah tells us(Bamidbar 24) that Bilam, was missing one eye “He took up his parable and said, “The word of Balaam the son of Beor and the word of the man with an open eye.” And Rashi (ibid) explains “His eye had been gouged out and its socket appeared open.

The word of Balaam the son of Beor and the word of the man with an open eye.

To understand this, we need to understand the relationship Moses had with the children of Israel. While there are few expressions of affection or time for much emotion in the relationship between Moses and Israel, Moses is described as the ultimate “faithful shepherd” Ro’eh Ne’eman, one whose actions, far more than his words, show unbridled love for the Jewish people. He now is going to say goodbye to those people, worrying for how they will fare in his absence.


I am reminded of the story of Todd Excell, who lost his life to cancer in 2001, when his daughter, Emily, was eight years old. Many years later, at her wedding, Emily got to hear the letter her father wrote for her, to be read on her wedding day. He wrote:

To my dearest daughter Emily.

You are my heart and soul and always will be.

I’m writing this letter for your wedding day to tell you how I will not be there in body but I will be there in spirit.

I remember when you were just starting to walk and what it would be to walk you down the aisle on your wedding day.

Walking is another passage to a new beginning. A wedding day is like a new beginning to a life with another person you love. You will never do anything alone….You have been my sunshine in my darkest days. I want you to have the best life and love that God can give you. I’m asking you and your husband to treat each other with love and respect. I hope that you have children to love and cherish as I have with you. ….I love you, Emily. I know I would love your new husband. I will always be there as you walk anywhere. To your new husband, I will be walking with you, too.

Welcome to the family, I love you.

Love, Dad.”

This is the feeling with which Moses is leaving the Jewish people. Rabbi Yisrael Adir, and young Israeli rabbi, explains: Moses is given an opportunity to see the land of Israel so he can die calmly, knowing exactly where is flock is going to. He gets to see the place they will be living once he is no longer with them. No, Moses will not be able to enter the land of Israel. Moses can be a bit more at peace seeing the beauty and spiritual power of the land which they are about to enter.

George Eliot wrote “only in the agony of parting do we look into the depths of love.” Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Moses. The repeated goodbyes, the care, love, and concern for the people he lead out of Egypt, are filled with love and concern, a love and concern that guide us to this very day.

Ktiva Ve’achatima Tova and Shabbat Shalom.

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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