Richard Kronenfeld
Adult Ba'al Teshuvah Ph.D. Physicist

The Song of Ha’azinu: A Third Rebuke?

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As we conclude the annual cycle of Torah readings and prepare to say goodbye to Moshe Rabbeinu, the pre-eminent figure of the past four books of the Torah, we can look back upon two tochachas (rebukes), one by Hashem in His own words expressed by Moshe (Leviticus/Vayikra 26:3-45) and the other by Moshe in his own words (Deuteronomy/Devarim 28: 1-69). But then there is the song of Ha’azinu (Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:1-43), which appears to cover the same ground. There is a significant difference, however, between the song and the other two. The tochachas are written in the subjunctive – if the Jewish People obey the mitzvos, these are the blessings that will accrue to them, while if they don’t, these are the curses that will descend upon them. On the other hand, the song of Ha’azinu is written as prophecy, that is, what will actually happen is that the Jewish People will disobey G-d and suffer the consequences, which aren’t itemized in great detail. Rather, the text excoriates the Israelites for their foolish disobedience.

The foregoing raises a question: if Hashem and Moshe know in advance how the people will behave, what is the purpose of the tochachas? Why lecture the people if you know they won’t heed your warning? If the tochachas could possibly have an effect, however, how certain can it be that they won’t?

To begin, there is another element to the story. As the Art Scroll Chumash observes, the song of Ha’azinu ends with the redemption of the Jewish People, a redemption which does not depend on repentance, unlike the tochachas. In other words, the ultimate redemption is guaranteed. Moreover, the song prophesizes that G-d will punish our enemies at that time for all they have done to us. Coming as it does when the nation is preparing for the loss of its leader, the ending of the song offers a note of consolation. As Rav Dovid Hofstedter observes in Dorash David, [Series I: DevarimParshas Ha’azinu, “I Will Sing about Kindness and Judgment,” p. 491] unlike the other tochachas, the song focuses more on the connection between Hashem and His people than on our sins.

Another element of the song that differs from the tochachas is its tone. At the beginning, Moshe prays that his teachings “drop like the rain” and his words “flow like the dew.” That is, instead of the “scared straight” approach of his previous rebukes, he appeals to their sense of justice: see how much Hashem has done for you, and how have you repaid Him? Therefore, G-d’s decree against them is totally justified by their disloyalty. But that decree has limits. “When Hashem will have judged His people, He shall relent regarding His servants, when He sees that the enemy power progresses, and none is saved or assisted.” [Art Scrolol Tanach, Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:36, Parshas Ha’azinu] At that point, G-d will turn His wrath from His disobedient children toward their persecutors, as He did with the Egyptians when their viciousness exceeded their mandate to afflict the Israelites. Once again,  G-d will conclude that His people have suffered enough and deliver them out of the hand of their enemies, for our enemies are really G-d’s enemies. We can see that in our time, as the leading promoters of anti-Semitism are those who reject, not only the commandments, but reality itself, when they claim humans, unlike every other form of animal life on Earth, aren’t binary with respect to gender, so that the identification of male and female is purely an arbitrary assignment at birth, determined by genitalia, and can be altered at will, even by children.

Another example of defying G-d’s commandments is the substitution of “social justice” for “justice.” The Torah repeatedly calls for righteous judgment:

“Do not accept a false report, do not extend your hand with the wicked to be a venal witness. Do not be a follower of the majority for evil; and do not respond to a grievance by yielding to the majority to pervert [the law]. Do not glorify a destitute person in his grievance.” [Exodus/Shemos23:1-3, Parshas Mishpatim.]

“Judges and officers shall you appoint in all your cities … for your tribes; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. You shall not pervert judgment; you shall not respect someone’s presence, and you shall not accept a bribe, for the bribe will blind the eyes of the wise and make just words crooked. Righteousness, righteousness shall you pursue …” [Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:18-20, Parshas Shoftim]

“…I [Moshe] took the heads of your tribes, distinguished men, who were wise and well known, and I appointed them as heads over you … I instructed your judges at that time, saying, ‘Listen among your brethren and judge righteously between a man and his brother or his litigant. You shall not show favoritism in judgment, small and great alike shall you hear; you shall not tremble before any man, for the judgment is God’s… “ [Deuteronomy/Devarim 1:15-17, Parshas Devarim]

By contrast, some observers see “social justice” as operating on the concept that the judge[s] should determine in advance who “deserves” to win the case and then twist the law to produce the desired outcome. Thus we achieve outcomes such as: Dr. Simone Gold, founder of America’s Frontline Doctors, was arrested by an FBI SWAT team barging into her home early in the morning, charged with misdemeanor trespass for being swept into the Capitol without a permission slip from Nancy Pelosi, and delivering a speech which was planned for outdoors, but was barred when permits were canceled without explanation. She was coerced into accepting a plea bargain by the Justice Department, which threatened to try her for a felony carrying a 20-year maximum sentence, excoriated by the judge, and sentenced to 60 days in prison, which was totally unprecedented for a woman with no prior criminal record. On the other hand, a man charged with deliberately killing an 18-year-old Trump supporter by running his car over the victim was released the following day on $50,000 bail.

Before concluding the topic of rebuke, we should examine its history since the Torah was given. For centuries, through the era of the Judges and then of the Kings, Hashem sent prophets to give the people mussar [reproof]. As The Midrash Says observes [The Book of Deuteronomy, Parshas Zos Haberacha, p. 381], “From Moshe the later prophets learned to conclude their sermons of reproof with words of comfort and blessing for the people.” The situation changed, however, when the exiles returned from Babylonia to build the Second Temple. Ezra and the 120 men of the Great Assembly, many of whom were prophets, successfully prayed for an end to the desire for idolatry, which had caused so much trouble over the centuries. [Yoma 69b] That release came with a price, however. In order to maintain the balance between good and evil that allows true free will, G-d withdrew the gift of direct prophecy, though lesser forms such as ruach hakodesh [Divine inspiration] continued. [Sanhedrin 11a] With that development, the responsibility for rebuke devolved to the Jewish People collectively. This conclusion is based on Leviticus/ Vayikra 19:17, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall reprove your fellow and do not bear a sin because of him,” which actually admits two contrasting interpretations: first, that we are obligated to prevent fellow Jews from sinning, and second, that we should not sin by embarrassing the would-be sinner in the process. The latter requires tact, as The Midrash Says [The Book of Leviticus, Parshas Kedoshim pp. 255-256] advises to reprove others in private, to speak gently, and to prepare one’s words in advance to phrase them in the way that is most likely to have a positive effect. In fact, Moshe Rabbeinu used this tactic in Ha’azinu by addressing his remarks to innocent parties, heaven and earth, while indirectly calling out his listeners, the Children of Israel. (In Yiddish, this approach can be described as Ich mein nisht dir, nur di Vand, “I don’t mean you, just the wall.”)

More generally, the Talmud (Shevuot 39a), in discussing the domino effect of sin, concludes with the Aramaic phrase, Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, meaning all of Israel are responsible for each other. This extends not only to preventing other Jews from sinning, but also to ensure that their basic needs are provided.

The bottom line, as expressed by Rav Dovid Hofstedter in Dorash David,[Series I: Devarim Parshas Ha’azinu, op.cit., p. 492] is “The ‘song’ of Parshas Ha’azinu contains a message of great import for us. It teaches us to look at everything that takes place in the world as an act of Hashem’s guiding Hand and a function of His Providence over every individual Jew. It also teaches us that, while it is certainly fitting to ‘sing’ the praises of Hashem when He showers us with blessing and good fortune, a person who suffers from troubles and misfortunes chalilah, must recognize that his troubles are also from Hashem and are imbued with the authentic love of a father who lovingly disciplines his child. Ultimately, the purpose of suffering is to bring about repentance, and a person who experiences suffering should see it in a positive light, as a manifestation of Hashem’s constant presence in his life. If we keep this principle in mind, we will be able to perceive Hashem’s Light in the darkness in which we live, and we will know that all of our troubles are merely temporary, for our salvation will surely come.”

About the Author
I'm a native New Yorker (Brooklyn, to be precise) transplanted to the desert as a teen-ager. I hold a Ph.D in Physics from Stanford and have taught mathematics and physics at the high school, community college, and university level. I'm an adult ba'al teshuvah and label myself as centrist Orthodox and a Religious Zionist along the lines of OU, Yeshiva University, and Mizrachi.
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