The strange poetry of Parshat Haazinu, and a hint of the afterlife

Lovers of poetry are a rare, often eccentric, breed, while poetry in the Torah is a rare occurrence indeed.

What is it about poetry that makes it so appealing to its connoisseurs and dilettantes? Surely it is not clarity. If anything verse is the aural thicket in which ideas both sublime and devastating seek refuge, often rendering itself inaccessible to the point of incoherence. And yet, opaque as a poem may be, the very sound of its chosen words, the manner in which different articulations are strung together create an abstract beauty of their own, irrespective of our capacity to engage the idea – if indeed there is any idea – embedded in its stanzas.

The adoring crowds who would flock to hear an inebriated Dylan Thomas declaim his verses came for the music – the music of his words and the music of his voice. It is doubtful much of what he recited made any sense, certainly not upon a first hearing. And often this was enough. Thomas’s ability to assemble a progression of words was sublime. No one came for the message. The sound was its own message.

Having grown up in the yeshiva world, I can safely say that interest in poetry among devout Jews hovers near the zero mark. I speak not only of secular poetry or the transcendental poetry of others. The late antique and medieval piyyutim that are such an important part of the High Holy Days service are inscrutable to nearly all the daveners. As for any penchant for penning new piyyutim among the vast mass of Torah obsessed, Talmud addicted men, simply non-existent. Here and there one may find an oddball who actually pays attention to the words, and comprehends the meaning of the verses. Yet even in such cases, it is more the meaning that they seek to access rather than the melody to which a tin ear is the Orthodox norm.

Which bring us to the poetry of Parshat Haazinu. It is highly doubtful that a critical mass of Israelites had an ear for poetry, let alone the ability to decode the largely horrific message encoded in Moses’ final and mostly hortatory poem. Indeed it is somewhat startling that the speech-impaired Moses who had demonstrated no penchant for poetry during his entire 120 years could suddenly, on his deathbed, rival King David, Eliezer Kallir, William Shakepeare and T.S. Elliot, let alone camouflage his parting admonition in this epic hortatory declamation.

The opening verses are, in fact, a statement to the effect that poetry is beyond the human masses.

א  הַאֲזִינוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם, וַאֲדַבֵּרָה;   וְתִשְׁמַע הָאָרֶץ, אִמְרֵי-פִי.

Listen o heavens, and I shall speak;
and let the earth hear my mouth’s utterances.

(Deuteronomy 32:1)

The poet makes it clear that his words are not for the unwashed masses, at least not their literal meaning. Rather,

ב  יַעֲרֹף כַּמָּטָר לִקְחִי,   תִּזַּל כַּטַּל אִמְרָתִי,   כִּשְׂעִירִם עֲלֵי-דֶשֶׁא,   וְכִרְבִיבִים עֲלֵי-עֵשֶׂב

My lesson shall fall like rain, my utterances flow like dew, like droplets on leaves of grass, and showers upon the herb (32:2)

If anything, these introductory phrases are an explanation of what poetry is. The bard writes not for pedestrian ears, but for heaven and earth, hoping that in the fullness of time the music of his words will come to irrigate and nourish and sustain.

In the poetry of Haazinu, Moses is simply repeating the dire and embittered predictions he offered in Parshat Vayelekh. Perhaps he, too, was hoping that the music of his words rather than the darkness of their meaning, would irrigate, nourish, and sustain the Children of Israel with the passage of time.

* * *

Is there life after death?

While the Torah offers no explicit reference to any afterlife, G-d’s final instructions to Moses would clearly indicate there is a life after death.

וּמֻת, בָּהָר אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עֹלֶה שָׁמָּה, וְהֵאָסֵף, אֶל-עַמֶּיךָ:  כַּאֲשֶׁר-מֵת אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ, בְּהֹר הָהָר, וַיֵּאָסֶף, אֶל-עַמָּיו.

And die in the mountains which you shall ascend, just as your brother Aaron on Mount Hor, and was gathered unto his people.

32:50

Clearly neither Aaron nor Moses was buried among their people. In fact the opposite. In physical death both brothers were forever isolated even from each other, all alone, their whereabouts unknown. Hence the phrase “gathered unto his (your) people” cannot possibly refer to their graves but rather to a spiritual afterlife in which they would sojourn with their ancestors and fellow Israelites who have served out their term on earth.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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