Haazinu: The Muse of all Muses

At the root of the word “music” is the Greek word “muse”.  Music and poetry was understood by the ancient Greeks to be the inspiration that inspired all of human activity – the muse of all the muses.[1]  It is not surprising, then, that God’s final command to Moses is to write a song to inspire all future generations.  The song, known as Haazinu, is of such great import that Moses, on his last day on earth, meets with each tribe to teach it to them individually, and then again in general assembly (Nachmanides 31:24).  And if this wasn’t enough, Abrabanel explains that Moses and Joshua wrote copies of the song for all Israel in order that they, and all future generations, would learn it by heart.  To this end, Hassidim accepted the custom mentioned by Maimonides (Prayers 7:13) to say the song every day (Spiegel).

The great significance of Haazinu, notes the Midrash, is that it contains past, present and future.  “However”, writes Rabbi Tamir Granot, “even a superficial review of the text and the points that we have enumerated above demonstrate that some of the most fundamental elements of our historiosophy are missing.”  The points he enumerated can be paraphrased as follows:

  • History: The nation’s beginning, referred to in the verse, “He found him in a desert land, and in the waste, a howling wilderness” (32:10), ignores the patriarchs, the covenant, and the Exodus.  Why start history in the desert, after the Exodus?
  • Sin: For all the sins that the nation could have been guilty of, it is the sin of idolatry that is singled out as “rousing Him to jealousy” (32:16).  Why?
  • Punishment: While reference is made to the punishment meted out by the onslaughts of other nations, the punishment of exile, prominent in previous reproofs, is herein conspicuously absent.  Why?
  • Redemption: The ultimate redemption of the nation is not made contingent on the repentance of the nation but solely to fulfill God’s will.[2]  Why?
  • Fate: The future downfall of the nation is referred to as having already occurred: “Jeshurun [i.e., Israel] waxed fat and kicked…” (32:15).  How does such a fatalistic view of history accord with the Biblical belief in freewill: “choose life” (30:19)?

These issues, it should be noted, are not failings in the text but rather highlights that illuminate the “historiosophy” of Haazinu, that is, the philosophy of the song as communicated through the history of the world.

We begin our exposition of the song by noting that the text’s “past, present and future” is not comprehensive but selective, whittled down to be memorized and serve as an inspiration, a “witness” to the veracity of God’s purpose.  To this end, the song provides a concise review of Jewish history starting with the desert, “He found him in a desert land”.  The verse, however, does not suffice itself with their physical location, but adds their existential position: “in the waste, a howling wilderness.”  The slave nation, fresh out of Egypt, was lost in the desert, without direction or purpose, saved physically and spiritually but for the grace of God.

As such, though the covenant with the patriarchs is important, as is the redemption from Egypt – if we want to cut to the essential core of the relationship – it is that “finding” in the desert of meaninglessness to which the nation is forever indebted to God.  There He gave the people physical life; but more importantly, there He bequeathed the nation historic purpose.  And it is due to the abandonment of this inestimable gift that “He is roused to jealousy.”  For, though the verses speak of “strange gods” and “no-gods”, the sin is nothing other than abandoning God:

  • “And he forsook God who made him, and contemned the Rock of his salvation.” (32:15);
  • “Of the Rock that begot thee thou wast unmindful, and didst forget God that bore thee.” (32:18).

God “made”, “saved”, “begot” and “bore”, but the people “forsook, “contemned”, “were unmindful” and “forgot”.  In abandoning God, the One responsible for the very existence of the nation, no other sin need be mentioned, for indeed, this is the very definition of sin.  The people were beholden to God, yet they abandoned Him.  God, in kind, abandoned the people; not irrevocably, but as a method to arouse them to the realization that, just as they were lost in the howling waste of the desert when He “found” them, so would they be lost if they refused to “find” Him.  And hence, God simply says, “I will hide My face from them, I will see what their end shall be” (32:20).

This “simple” punishment, to which history is the witness, is the source of endless sorrows for the Jewish people.  And while the punishment of exile is not mentioned explicitly, there is really no need.  Haazinu, as concise history, articulates the horrifying consequences of the people’s defection: “the arrows”, “the sword” and the “bitter destruction” – exile is implicit.  And ultimately, exile is incidental; nothing more than the place where the people, lacking the thing they once had, would come to appreciate it and repent:

“And it shall come to pass, when all these things are come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you will call them to mind among all the nations, into which the Lord your God has driven you, and shall return to the Lord your God … that then the Lord thy God will turn thy captivity, and have compassion upon thee, and will return and gather thee from all the peoples” (30:1-3).

Now, while the exile was to serve as impetus to return to God, impetus to teshuva, Haazinu promises redemption without teshuva, solely to fulfill God’s will.  This dichotomy in the texts, I propose, reflects a dichotomy in the redemption.  That is, there are two phases to redemption: the first, the return to the land which is predicated on teshuva;[3] the second, the complete redemption when the nation is in the land which is independent of teshuva.[4]  The reason that the complete redemption is not contingent of teshuva is because the ultimate goal of creation will be achieved regardless of man.

This brings us fatalism; for whether exclaiming the unconditional redemption of Israel or excoriating their unavoidable fall, Haazinu is written in tones of fate.  And fate, as disclosed by God’s foreknowledge, raises the great conundrum pitting God’s foreknowledge against man’s freewill.  That is, if God knows everything before it happens, how can man be said to act freely?  While no small amount of ink has been spilled over this question, it is the concise affirmation of the Mishna that is most edifying: “All is foreseen, but freedom is given” (Avot 3:15).

The two notions of foreknowledge and freewill are not contradictory but are nevertheless humanly irreconcilable because, explains Rabbi Israel Lifshutz, man is a temporal being who cannot conceive of a Being outside time.  Haazinu, then, provides a glimpse from behind the curtain of time, a view of our world from the perspective of the unchanging “Rock” who declares “the end from the beginning” (Isaiah 46:10).   This glimpse is availed us, teaches Rav Zadok MiLublin, to strengthen our faith in God and motivate our fulfillment of His commandments; for, by seeing history unfold accordingly, the song stands as “witness” to the veracity of God’s word.  Furthermore, having seen the verses of suffering fulfilled, we can only look forward to seeing the verses of redemption fulfilled.

This song, then, as witness to a purposive creation assured to reach it its intended perfection, serves as inspiration to all of human activity in the name of the Creator and is, as such, the muse of all muses.


[1] The Greeks expressed this understanding through the myth of Apollo who, as patron god of music was the director of the nine Muses – goddesses that inspired essentially all of human creativity.

[2] The text of Haazinu explains that God will bring the redemption to deny the claim of the nations that it was their might that allowed them to prevail over Israel.  This, as noted by R. Granot, is a desecration of God’s name.  But in essence, God acts at this late stage in the game, to bring about His will – as will be explained.

[3] This reconciles the statement of R. Yehoshua (San. 97b-98a) who explains that the redemption is predicated upon teshuva.  See my “The Three Oaths of Jewish History” where I explain that the teshuva here is the very return to the land itself.

[4] This would explain why exile is not mentioned, because the song only speaks of the events in the land of Israel (See R. Samet).

About the Author
Rabbi Mois Navon, an engineer and rabbi, has modeled himself on the principle of "Torah U'Madda" based on the philosophy of R. Soloveitchik as articulated by R. Lamm: Torah, faith, religious learning on one side and Madda, science, worldly knowledge on the other, together offer us a more over-arching and truer vision than either one set alone. In this column Navon synthesizes Torah U'Madda to attain profound perspectives in the Parsha. His writings can be accessed at