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Singing out water from the rock

Haazinu is an ode to God, to our relationship with God, and to the magnificence of Torah; this is my ode to Haazinu
Illustrative. Waterfall from the rocks. (Pixnio)
Illustrative. Waterfall from the rocks. (Pixnio)

“Write this song for yourselves and teach it to the Children of Israel — put it in your mouths…the mouths of your descendants will not forget it” (Deut. 31.19, 21).

This command to learn Haazinu off by heart lies heavy on my tongue yet the numbers of my Rosh Hashanahs pile up and, although year by year I commit a few more verses to memory, I am a sieve that loses more than it holds. The few nuggets that don’t slither out suffice for a haiku, a limerick, a brief ballad. Not what Haazinu deserves; Haazinu as poetic art is an ode to God, to our and Moses’ relationship with God and to the magnificence of Torah.

Testimonial to God’s power, testimony to the punishment awaiting if we sin, Haazinu is a meta-poetic perspective on the words of the Torah. It contains Moses’ lyrical last words as a leader, his verbal injunction to follow the written words of the Torah (Deut. 31.24, 30). The words form a strange “future perfect” retrospective of “you will have disobeyed me and this will have been your punishment.”

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth

However, Haazinu is not just a powerfully worded caveat; the first 14 verses of the poem form a ballad of God’s Being, a throwback to Genesis, our genetic code. “Listen, O heavens, and I shall speak! Let the earth hear the words of my mouth” (Deut. 32.1) — In an opening calling upon the heavens and the earth, Moses appoints these earliest witnesses of the world’s creation as the two witnesses able to condemn future human generations for the compact they have transgressed.

After being cleansed in the mikveh of Yom Kippur, it’s not clear how to start totally afresh. And Haazinu seems more forceful and belligerent than I’d remembered from last year. I’d place myself as a singer in the nationalistic creation of Beshallach and the Song of the Sea, but that’s not right for now. I need to find my individual and religious place and this is a place to sing the Torah with my own voice. I don’t need to hold on to who I was because the world does that for me.

When Moses sung water from the rock

Elements of Genesis’s universal creation morph into separation and distinction not of species but of peoples: “When the Sublime One gave to the nations their inheritance, when He separated the children of men, He fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the Children of Israel” (Deut. 32.8). The song of Haazinu offers a vision of the creation of a people who do (or do not) serve God and, with that, the voice that can make that happen.

Last year, I sat on my Jerusalem balcony, scratching my thirsty pen into a rain dance, the song I would sing in between verses of Hallel as the first rain fell. Give me Torah. Give me a kind heart. Give me drive to change myself. Give me growth.

“My doctrine shall drop as the rain…The Rock, His work is perfect” (Deut. 32.2-4). The rock and the water are two motifs that mark Moses’ leadership. Moses’ leadership publicly begins with taking his people through water, with walls of water instead of rock, and it ends in Haazinu, calling for his teaching from God the Rock to fall like rain. At a time when we are just about to pray for rain, the connection of song, the medium, to the message of rainfall is important. Just as water gives shape to anything, given enough time and persistence, so too our voices with the content of Torah, can lift and shape our reality.

In Numbers 20.8, Parshat Hukat, Moses, surrounded by bleating complaints from his thirsty flock, is told by God to speak to a rock which will then produce water. When Moses engages in non-verbal communication by striking the rock, twice no less, he and Aaron, who accompanied him, are told they will not be allowed to enter Israel.

The place of the rock and the water in Moses’ life is akin to the journey of first-second century tanna (sage), Rabbi Akiva, the man whose Torah would one day stump Moshe Rabbenu. Rabbi Akiva’s conscious desire for connection to the Creator of All Things begins with seeing water dripping on a rock[1], seeing how something seemingly vapid can wear away the most permanent. The prayers of our songs can “wear away” at God, and create the solid ground for us to stand on, the promise of new life.

Rebirth through song

Haazinu offers song as a way of offering freedom. The slave who begs off dismissal is pierced through his ear into the door as a sign of the gate of freedom he could have walked through. The ear that has listened to his mortal and not immortal master symbolizes his not having raised his voice to ask for autonomy. “Haazinu,” “listen up” (from “ozen,” ear) offers us an opportunity to listen to a different voice — the voice of something larger than our own desire for familiar safety. Where the Song of the Sea is a song of freedom from constraints, the song of Haazinu is a song of consent for the restrictions that service of God means.

The resultant effect of Haazinu is to remind us that really, yes, really, it’s a song. That Moses’ swan song is verse not prose. That rebirth can be seen in the atemporality of song over the written word. That the way we talk to ourselves in self-discipline or others in guidance is often more effective when the lilt to the words is melodious, for that way harmony lies.

On Rosh Chodesh Elul, when the streets were still steaming with the gluttonous wasted energy of summer, three generations of my family’s women filed into shul for the first day of shofar-blowing. We came to start a 39-day period of intermittent shofar blowing, which ends just before we read, sing, and hear Haazinu. I came to hear something I didn’t know I hadn’t heard yet, to practise inhaling and exhaling in sound before words.

Haazinu falls either just before or after Yom Kippur (depending on what day of the week Yom Kippur lands and if there’s a Shabbat squeezed in before Sukkot starts). Barring a messianic inauguration meantime, the shofar is blown for its final blast on Yom Kippur. That last tekiah gedolah of Neilah unfurls, and in the pounding silence that lies after it, preluding Haazinu, we wait to sing. Targum Yonatan to the start of the Song of Songs says there are 10 songs sung in the world. The first was sung by Adam; the second, the Song of the Sea; the third, when we got a well of water to drink from; and the fourth is the song of Haazinu. The 10th is waiting for us in the future.

Haazinu comes to tell us that even when we’re left standing in the silence after the shofar, there is song we can sing. When we’re waiting to find the words to use, praying for the right rain for our rocky path ahead, we are at a point of re-creation.

Choose regeneration. Sing it. Shanah Tovah.

[1] Avot deRabbi Natan 6:2

About the Author
Tikva Blaukopf Schein lives in Jerusalem, where she runs Torah-poetry slams, teaches, and learns. She is enaged in doctoral research at Bar Ilan University on laughter. Her BA is from Oxford University in Classical and Oriental Studies.
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