Parsha Ha’azinu records the song that God had commanded Moses to teach to the Israelites; a song which would be for God “a witness against the Children of Israel”. This is the second of two songs of the Torah. The first was sung by Moses and the Children of Israel in celebration of their escape from Pharaoh and the army of Egypt. Then, standing on the western bank of the Sea of Reeds as free men and women, they sang a prayer of thanksgiving, in celebration of Israel’s physical survival; words that are still uttered today in the Shacharit service.
The Song of the Sea (Az Yashir Moshe) reflected the overwhelming gratitude of the Israelites to the God of their forefathers, who had reappeared after many years to free them from the oppression of their Egyptian overlords. It is an anthem of hope whose triumphant tone and unbridled optimism still reverberate in the hearts of Israel. Now, over forty years later, the descendants of those liberated slaves were gathered on the eastern bank of the river Jordan, prepared at last to begin their conquest of Canaan and the redemption of their national patrimony.
The sanguine confidence of the Children of Israel as they stood over the washed up corpses of the Egyptian cavalrymen had wearied during the course of their wilderness wanderings. Their faith, never strong to begin with, had been tested time and again and was found to be lacking. Moses was no longer the triumphant liberator but a bitter leader denied the chance to step onto the holy land of the Promised Land.
The song recorded in Ha’azinu reflects the accumulated despair and disappointment of those forty years; unfortunately the Children of Israel could never rise to the magnificence of the moment, and their experiences following the revelation at Mt.Sinai showed a people easily led astray, unwilling or incapable of putting their trust in either of God or Moses. Ha’azinubegins with a now all too familiar refrain as Moses called on “heaven and earth” to bear witness to the calamities that would befall Israel when they failed to heed the word of God.
Ha’azinu reiterates the strong messages of the preceding parashot. Its opening verses follow the pattern of the Tochacha (the admonitions) which were recorded in Parsha Ki Tavo; In a composition that transcended the past and the future, Israel stood accused of causing their dire predicament: “Is corruption His? No; His children’s is the blemish; a generation crooked and perverse.” However, it ends not on a note of despair, but with a message of joy and the hope of final redemption. God’s wrath will then turn from Israel and will be directed against those that had persecuted Israel: “He will avenge the blood of His servants”.
Moses concluded his iteration of Ha’azinu with a final plea to the Children of Israel, adopting the message recorded in Parsha Nitzavim. He again spoke of the choice that Israel would have to make, time and again; “Lay to heart all the words which I enjoin upon you this day, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of the this Torah. For it is no trifle for you, but it is your very life and thereby you shall live long in the land which you are going over the Jordan to possess”.
There, in the last days of his life, Moses tried to impress on the Israelites the gift that God had given them; the Torah. Moses sought again to convince the Children of Israel that they ought to observe the laws of the Torah, not just because they were a divine requirement, but because following the laws would itself constitute a source of great benefit and well-being.
Perhaps that is the most enduring of all the messages that Moses had tried to impart to his people; that observing the laws that he had taught would in itself lead to reward. That a people that observed the social and ethical dictates of the Torah would be a better people; that a society beholden to protect those less fortunate and that abided by the golden rule, to treat others with respect and dignity, could only become a better society.