With the Promised Land in sight, Moses painfully embraces that the end is near. Our greatest prophet opens his mouth for a final address, and poetry streams forth. This week’s Torah portion opens: “Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak; may the earth hear the words of my mouth.” (Deuteronomy 32:1)
We may be taken aback by this poetic pivot, because this is not what we have come to expect from Moses. So accustomed are we to this lawgiver’s powerful prose urging and inspiring us to live aligned with God’s commandments, that his poem lands like lyrical whiplash.
What would move Moses to interrupt his typical oratory to frame his final address as a poem?
The Song of Moses in Ha’azinu may seem out of character, yet this is not his first poem. Moses’s first, The Song of the Sea in the book of Exodus, captures the jubilation of the Children of Israel’s transition from slavery to freedom with signs, wonders and miracles.
We might understand the use of poetry at these two moments as bard-like bookends of a glorious career. Just as the Song of the Sea celebrates the birth of a nation under Moses’s burgeoning leadership, so too does the Song of Moses commemorate the end of his storied tenure.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz writes: “Prose is perhaps stored in our memory, and from time to time even rises in our consciousness. Song, however, is not only remembered from the text but recitation and singing as well.” According to this modern sage, the medium is as important as the message. Akin to an ethical will, the Song of Moses implores the people to follow the Torah so that they can actualize God’s aspirations for them. Moses purposely employs poetry, verse and song as teaching tools to enable the Jewish people to internalize the eternal lessons of the Torah.
Equally important, Moses painfully acknowledges that the people’s path ahead will include bumps along the way. We can only imagine that for a leader like Moses, who nurtured and shepherded his community for decades, these negative assessments about the Israelites’ future are as difficult to deliver as they are to hear. As T. S. Eliot asserts: “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” Protective of the Children of Israel until his last breath, Moses cloaks his cautionary words with lyrical flourishes to soften their blow.
The words of Moses not only shaped and inspired one nation, but also changed the world for all time.
Interrupting his prose with poetry, Moses signals that the messenger has become the message. Moses more than narrates this poem; he uses it as a platform to share a deeply personal message intermingled with as much nostalgia and gratitude as regret and concern. He harkens back to what his life as a prince of Egypt or a shepherd in Midian might have been had he not been called to service. His life did not turn out as planned. As we know, Moses begins his career as a reluctant prophet who does not see himself as a “man of words.” Yet his words not only shaped and inspired one nation, but also changed the world for all time.
Thousands of years later, on the other side of the Jordan River, Yitzhak Rabin studied at the Kadoorie Agricultural High School in the Galilee with dreams of becoming a water engineer. At graduation, Rabin received a prestigious award that included a stipend to study water engineering in America. However, the outbreak of World War II and increased tensions in British Mandate Palestine disrupted his plans.
While his original plan entailed making the Land of Israel blossom with the most advanced agricultural technology, he would end up sowing the seeds of peace at the diplomatic table. Twenty-five years after his assassination, we still wait for these seedlings to grow. The call of service to God and country interrupts Rabin’s life, yet his new path enables this soldier of peace to change the world in his own way.
The Song of Moses coincides with Shabbat Shuva, the Sabbath before Yom Kippur. At this time of year, we recognize not only that time is fleeting, but also that life can change instantaneously in unforeseen ways.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg once said: “So often in life, things that you regard as an impediment turn out to be great, good fortune.” While the call to service unexpectedly interrupts the trajectory of Moses’s life, this new path gives him the opportunity to change the world. Forever our teacher, Moses’s final address invites us to reflect on our own lives and to imagine the impact we can make one stanza at a time.
Rabbi Charles E. Savenor serves as the Director of Congregational Education at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York.
Shabbat Candlelighting, Torah Reading
Friday, Sept. 25
Tishrei 7, 5781
Light Candles at 6:29 pm
Saturday, Sept. 26
Tishrei 8, 5781
Torah Reading: Ha’azinu: Deuteronomy 32:1-52
Haftarah: Hosea 14:2-10; Micah 7:18-20
Shabbat Ends 7:26 pm