Sing A Song Of History


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 6:25 p.m.
Torah: Deut. 32:1-52
Haftarah: II Samuel 22:1-51
Havdalah: 7:21 p.m.

‘Deep in the Heart of Texas.” “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O).” “Rock Around the Clock.” “Hard Day’s Night.” “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”  “La Bamba.” “I Will Always Love You.” “Livin La Vida Loca.” “I’ll Be There for You (Theme from ‘Friends’).”

Depending on your decade of musical awareness, one of those titles probably brought a tune and words to your lips. It is one of the gifts of music, to embed itself deeply in our beings, to return to help soothe, excite, or bring us joy long after the original experience has gone.

Now, one more song: Ha’azinu.

Those who attend synagogue regularly, and/or are particularly adept at the cantillation of Torah reading, probably thought of the first section of the 43-verse song. Unfortunately, those first verses are introduction, and convey none of the song’s content. It is hard, today, to find even very educated Jews who are familiar with the broad sweep of the song, let alone the details of its message.

It is a message that the Torah considered of such significance that God told Moses to write the song down — the source in Jewish law for the obligation to write a personal scroll of the Law. A message of such significance that God told Moses to teach it to the Jews, and “put it in their mouths,” a phrase that, at its simplest, suggests Jews are supposed not only to know this song in the ordinary latent way of most knowledge, but to have an easy familiarity with it.

That we don’t is easily explained by the song’s length; moderns have long fallen out of the habit of memorizing lengthy songs. The Psalms, medieval history, and even older pop hits tell us that this was not always the case, that even much longer passages than Ha’azinu were once memorized and well known.

That we don’t know Ha’azinu might be further explained by the difficulty of some of its words and passages, some so obscure that traditional commentators are split over whether a significant part of the song, the part that explains why God will redeem and rehabilitate the Jews, refers to non-Jews or the Jews themselves.

Our ignorance of Ha’azinu would be a problem, from a Biblical perspective, even if those were the sum total of the reasons. It is more distressing if we have to worry that many of us don’t want to know Ha’azinu. After all, the basic thrust of the song is that the course of Jewish history is shaped, positively and otherwise, by the faith and commitment of the Jewish people. Ha’azinu is a concentrated expression of the longstanding Jewish assertion that there is a meaning, shape, and a Shaper of history. Particularly for the Jewish people, Ha’azinu says, history does not just happen, it reacts and reflects our spiritual state.

It started well, with God providing the Jews a Land of bounty and goodness, but deteriorated from there. The Jews abandoned God, God sent us into exile, left us to the vicissitudes of other nations’ handling. Eventually, we are promised, God would take us back (and here is where the commentators differ — some see the Jews earning that by realizing the error of their ways, and some think God will only do it to prove a point to the non-Jews who fasten on our troubles as proof of God’s non-existence and/or weakness).

Those ideas today are anathema in many circles, even some fairly traditional ones. That is perhaps because the scars of the Holocaust are still too fresh, so that we inevitably hear those words as a warning and a threat. We might have hoped that the ensuing establishment of the State of Israel, with all the remarkable blessings that has brought the Jewish people, would somewhat mitigate those scars, but still not enough to allow many of us to accept a God Who operates in history, both positively and punitively.

And that is a shame because Ha’azinu does not only warn us of disasters, it reminds us of the unimaginable bounty God can bring if we meet minimal standards of faith and fidelity. Standards that start with recognizing God’s active hand in history, at least on the national level for the Jewish people.

Learn the song, sing the song, let it bounce around with the rest of your mental musical library. I expect you’ll find it amply rewarding, musically and otherwise.

Rabbi Gidon Rothstein has served as a congregational rabbi and educator. His most recent book is “We’re Missing the Point: What’s Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It” (OU/KTAV).