Jewish Poetry in Motion
Based on Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
by Braha Bender
What do great people do on the day they die? On the day he died, Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our Teacher) recited an epic poem to the Jewish People.
The forty-three verses of the poem in Parashas Ha’azinu, divided into seventy stanzas, delve to the depths of Jewish history to illuminate the guiding principles and themes that shape our destiny. Like the beams of a great house, these themes create a structure in the mind, a framework that has contained, measured and guided the stories of our lives throughout time.
The first section, including the introductory stanzas, calls upon nature itself:
Listen, O heavens, and I will speak! And let the earth hear the words of my mouth! (Devarim-Deuteronomy 32:1)
Moshe summons the unchanging greatness of earth and sky to witness that these words will be eternal.
The second section illuminates the will of the Creator as manifest in human history:
The deeds of the [Mighty] Rock are perfect, for all His ways are just; a faithful God, without injustice, He is righteous and upright. Destruction is not His; it is His children's defect... (ibid 4-5)
Human history has been full of tragic consequences to foolish decisions, and Jewish history is no exception. When we abandon Torah, we abandon our destiny as the heroes and role models of humanity. What happens in a world without the light of Torah? Darkness. We have suffered terribly as a result.
Yet Hashem’s vision for us as the shining, joyful heroes and role models of all humankind will one day be achieved. The second section of the poem goes on to describe how we will slowly but surely actualize our destiny by the end of days.
But nobody said it would be easy…
The third section of Shiras Ha’azinu (the poem of Ha’azinu) ruefully describes the rocky process of our growth, beginning with the amazing kindness of the Almighty and ending so often in our profound lack of gratitude:
He found them in a desert land, and in a desolate, howling wasteland. He encompassed them and bestowed understanding upon them; He protected them as the pupil of His eye… And Yeshurun became fat and rebelled; you grew fat, thick and rotund; [Israel] forsook the God Who made them, and spurned the [Mighty] Rock of their salvation. (ibid 10-15)
Of course, things get worse before they get worse. The fourth section of the poem depicts our failures in still more excruciating detail – our betrayal and duplicity:
They sacrificed to demons, which have no power, deities they did not know, new things that only recently came… You forgot the [Mighty] Rock Who bore you; you forgot the God Who delivered you. (ibid 17-18)
The poem tells a painful truth: we don’t deserve Him. We don’t deserve His kindness, His love, or His dedication. When we betray the Almighty and His Torah, we deserve to be left to our own bitter devices.
As Rabbeinu Bachya Ibn Pekudei later wrote in his famous Duties of the Heart, when we invest our hearts in forces other than God, God allows us to see the story through to the end. Our crime is its own punishment. We end up finding out exactly what happens when we invest our hearts in, say, money or power or physical pleasures. We get to find out.
For example, in a recent interview, a Jew named Hugh Hefner said that the only thing that gives him any pleasure whatsoever now is eating soup. That’s it. No relationship with God, no wisdom, no meaningful achievements, no family. No joy.
Justice and Joy
The climax of the poem comes in the section following. What happens next?
We follow the pattern throughout history: He proves His love to us a thousand times over, yet we invest our hearts in fake gods. Those fake gods don’t come through for us. The feet of clay are revealed. Hard times arrive and there is nobody there to help.
That’s the moment when we hear the Almighty speaking in our inner voice:
Then He will say, "Where is their deity, the rock in which they trusted… Let them [the fake gods] arise and help you! Let them be your shelter!”
Yet the Almighty continues:
“See now that it is I! I am the One, and there is no god like Me! I cause death and grant life. I strike, but I heal…” (ibid 37-39)
We realize our mistake and return to our true Beloved.
The reunion is exquisite, but what of the rest of the world? The sixth section describes the fact that justice goes both ways. Just as we meet the painful consequences of our mistakes, so too do the nations that have acted against us in hatred and evil.
As much as they were God’s messengers to teach us the consequences of our poor choices, they didn’t have to enjoy it so much:
When I sharpen the blade of My sword, and My hand grasps judgment, I will bring vengeance upon My adversaries and repay those who hate Me. (ibid 41)
Evil is punished and good is rewarded. Clarity will reign supreme as the entire world comes to recognize the divine plan that had been in play all along:
Sing out praise, O you nations, for His people! (ibid 43)
Order is restored to humankind as Jews fulfill the Torah, serve as a light unto the nations, and the entire world learns to live in joy and peace.
Take To Heart
It’s incredible to imagine that we are in the midst of this process even now. On a national and on a personal level, we each follow and are followed by the consequences of our choices. Ultimately the purpose of all consequences is to teach us clarity and goodness. Sooner or later, we will ultimately fulfill our wondrous, exhilarating destiny.
But it’s up to us where on the spectrum we will place ourselves. Must we make poor choices or can we bring the redemption even now? You decide.
May we merit the complete redemption soon in our days.