Parashat Ha’azinu: The Mystery in Moshe’s Song

“The Rock!—His deeds are perfect, all His ways are just; A faithful God, never false/ True and upright is He” (Devarim 32:4).

Throughout the Book of Devarim Moshe has given rebuke, encouragement, further elucidation, and even prophecy about the future of Am Yisrael. But on his last day, he offers something new: poetry. 

The messages in the poem of Haazinu are not new; we have revisited them many times. God redeemed the nation from Egypt, and now they will successfully conquer the Land of Israel. But soon after, they will fall prey to idol worship and other forbidden behavior. They will then endure horrible tragedy and exile. But then God will remember His nation, and they will eventually return home.

It’s an important message, but it’s all been said before. If Moshe has made clear these messages throughout, why does he repeat them again on his last day?

 The answer is poetry. Moshe is not retelling the story; he is offering an altogether different medium for the message. The 20th Century British physicist Paul Dirac said, “In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it’s the exact opposite.”

In other words, poetry allows the listener to experience the subject’s beauty and relevance anew. 

“May my lessons come down as the rain/ My speech distills as the dew/ Like showers on young growth/ Like droplets on the grass” (Devarim 32:2).

The nation has been listening to Moshe for 40 years, yet the rich imagery of his words being compared to rain and dew, giving life and sustenance, may never have entered their minds. Moshe has told them (and will tell them again at the end of the parsha) that the Torah is that which will offer them life, but these images touch us in a different part of our being.

Yet poetry does more than bring wonder to the mundane.  It also allows the listener to approach the mysteries of life. Though the story that Moshe tells in his song is one that we’ve heard before, there are so many questions still left unanswered.

If God is giving the land to the nation, then why must they be exiled if they don’t follow the Torah? Why spread them out to all the corners of the world only to bring them miraculously back home? Why give them the land altogether if they will eventually act the same as the nations who are currently in the land?

There is so much mystery in our story. And through the vehicle of poetry Moshe wants to create a space for appreciating that mystery, not necessarily solving it.

“The Rock!—His deeds are perfect, all His ways are just; A faithful God, never false/ True and upright is He” (Devarim 32:4).

First, says Moshe, know that every detail of the story has purpose and meaning.  It has all been written by a trustworthy and righteous Author. Not only that, but every step of the journey is exactly as it is intended.

“You neglected the Rock that begot you/ Forgot the God who brought you forth” (Devarim 32:18).

The lacking found in the nation are not God’s; they are due to the problematic actions of the nation. And the difficulty and punishment that will ensue is due to their choices. 

And here we are presented with one of the great mysteries of our story. How can every chapter in the story of Am Yisrael both be orchestrated by a loving God and be filled with so much tragedy? Would not a loving God protect His nation from harm, no matter what the consequences?

The power of a poem is that it gives the listener the space to hold these two truths, despite their mystery. In the world of the poem, contradictions live side by side. 

But not so in the world of philosophy. If we were to step away from the language of poetry and into the language of philosophy, we would see a different response. In Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato’s 16th century work Da’at Tevunot, he explains that God created two modalities through which His desire is manifest. The first is called hanhagat hamishpat, which is the way we see the world. We experience it through action and consequence, both in the realm of nature (what goes up must come down) as well as conceptually through justice and inequity, and reward and punishment.

The second modality is called hanhagat hayichud, and it expresses God’s hidden ultimate desire for creation. Like a current that runs beneath the ocean of history, this modality is guiding everything towards its final and complete expression. Though we cannot see it in the here and now, as the story unfolds through history, we can experience a taste of this modality. Its ultimate expression will only come at the end of the story.

In the language of the philosophy of the Ramchal, the pain and suffering experienced throughout history by Am Yisrael was only part of the picture, a picture limited by our human perspective. But at the end of the story, the curtain is pulled back, and the deeper truth of the story is finally revealed. God was there every step of the way, guiding the story towards its incredible conclusion. 

But this explanation still leaves many questions, including the most difficult question: why? But in contrast, the song of Moshe does not leave the listener in a state of existential crisis; it leaves him with a sense of wonder. As opposed to the question of “why,” we are left with the question of “how.” And the more we ponder the “how” of our story, the more we are filled with gratitude and awe. 

At the end of his life, Moshe does not want to repeat the story of Am Yisrael again. He wants to leave the nation with a sense of wonder and awe and love for the Creator, who is orchestrating the story to its glorious end. He uses the power of the poem to create a new and powerful lens through which to view the story of the nation, as well as their own personal stories.

We can look at our own stories through these different lenses as well. The lens of philosophy will allow us to see how one event leads to another. At some points, we may even be able to see the current beneath our story, i.e., God’s hidden hand which is guiding us always. And this is a powerful lens through which to view ourselves.

But if we look at our story through the lens of poetry, we can appreciate it from a different perspective. It allows us to hold a space for the conflicting desires in our hearts, and for the fact that we both desire good for ourselves and our loved ones, yet to those same people we also cause pain.  Poetry’s ability to hold a space for contradiction allows us to see the most complex and human part of ourselves, to accept ourselves with all our contradictions, and to work on ourselves. 

What do you think? Is your identity based on a story of yourself as understood through the lens of philosophy, or through the lens of poetry? How would it look different if you looked at it through another lens?

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash at the Hebrew University Hillel, which offers Jewish educational programming for overseas and Israeli Hebrew University students from all backgrounds and denominations.
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