Looking Towards The Future: Part I
Shirat Ha'azinu: The Song Of Moses
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
In this video, the first of a three-part series, we ask about God's odd prophecy to Moses at the end of the Torah. As Moses is about to die, why does God tell him about how the Israelites will ruin everything? Rabbi Fohrman hints that Moses has the power to help us get out of a vicious cycle, which we explore further in the next video.
Looking Towards the Future
Looking Towards the Future
Hi, this is Rabbi David Fohrman, you are watching Aleph Beta and welcome to Parshat Nitzavim-Vayeilech.
Okay, so let me ask you a question, if you are God and you are going to give a final goodbye speech to Moses before he died, what would you tell him? I don't know about you but if it was me, I would say thank you, you are my favorite fellow in the whole of history so far, job well done, something like that. What does God actually say to Moses? Let's take a look at his final speech, you can find it right here in this week's Parshat.
God's Final Speech to Moses
Vayomer Hashem al-Moshe, 'and God said to Moshe', hincha shochev im-avotecha, 'you are about to die, you are going to sleep with your forefathers and I just want to give you a little peek of what's going to happen to these people, after you die.'
V'kam ham hazeh, 'this nation is going to get up,' v'zanah acharei eluhei nechar-haaretz, 'you know, your whole life's work, Moshe? Everything you tried to do, you tried to build up this nation instilling in them the importance of serving God, set them up in security in this land that they are going to go to. It's all going to go to naught, everything is going to come catastrophically tumbling down after you die and then this nation is going to finally enter its land, they are going to go into the land.'
V'zanah acharei eluhei nechar-haaretz, 'they are going to stray after the indigenous Gods of the land,' asher hub a-shamah bekirbo, 'they are going to utterly leave me behind,' hefer et-briti, 'they are going to completely desecrate my covenant with them,' asher karati ito.
Now if we just stop the speech right here, it would be bad enough, it would be disastrous. God is in a fact, telling Moshe that his entire life's work is going to come crashing down. It is the worst goodbye speech ever but, it doesn't stop here.
It gets even worse because the next thing God says is that God is going to make it worse. You think I am going to take this lying down, you think if they are going to do this, I am just not going to react? I am going to react, I am going to get angry.
V'charah api bo bayom-hahu, 'It is going to be terrible, I am going to get angry at them,' vaazavtim, 'and I am going to leave them,' v'histarti fanai mehem,' and I am going to hide my face from them,' v'hayah le'echol, 'they are going to be vulnerable to their enemies,' umetzauhu raot rabot v'tzarot, 'and all these terrible things are going to happen to them.'
This is Moshe's worst nightmare. Why inflict the worse nightmare? I mean he is dying already, just let him die in peace. If God is saying this, there really can be only one explanation it seems to me. Moshe can do something about it.
This life, this world is not a world for congratulations, congratulations can come later. God and Moshe will have plenty of time in heaven for all the 'you did a great job' kind of stuff. As long as you are alive, this world is about trying to make things better and Moshe can make things better. There is something that he can do and God tells him that there is something that he can do.
If you look at the end of the speech, God finishes with the words, v'atah, 'and now, therefore,' – 'therefore' means here is what you can do about it. 'Therefore,' brings us to next week's parshat. Kitvu lachem et-hashirah hazot, 'write down this song'.
Shirat Ha'azinu: The Song God Gave to Moses
This speech, this final speech of God to Moshe is the introduction to shirat haazinu, the final song in the Torah. A poetic retelling of the Jewish history that is designed to counter a problem, the problem that God has just outlined to Moshe.
In effect, what God is telling Moshe is that shirat haazinu, the song that God is now going to command him to write, is a kind of antidote. It is a song that will stand the test of time – that is as if Moshe, you have died but you will constantly be there before the people. They can always look back on what it is that you are saying now and it says, if you are there telling it to them now, and those words are there to counter a devastating cycle.
There is something about shirat haazinu, about the way the Jewish history is told in this song, they will be able to counter the terrible nightmare of worst case scenario, that God has just revealed to Moshe.
In order to understand the nature of the antidote, however which we will talk about next week, we have to understand precisely the nature of the problem.
What Is the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy About?
I want to come back to the language of the nightmare that God reveals to Moshe; it's not just, hey here are some really bad things. You see there is actually a progression. A leads to B, to C, to D. Let's take a careful look at these words because if we can really understand the problem, we can begin to understand the solution.
Okay, so let's go back to this nightmare prophecy that God gives to Moshe just before he dies and as we look at it, I just want to point out to you that one of the things that you will find is God seemingly repeating himself for no apparent reason.
You see right over here it says, God is hiding his face from the people, then little bit later God is hiding his face from the people, why is he repeating that? We got it, the first time.
The answer is he is not repeating it, those are actually two separate discrete events and you see it once you begin to understand the progression that is happening here.
Here is the progression at least the way I see it. Element A, hincha shochev im-avotecha, 'the first thing that is going to happen Moshe is that you are going to sleep with your forefathers, you are going to die and when that happens,' v'kam ham hazeh, 'these people will get up and they will abandon me,' v'zanah acharei eluhei nechar-haaretz, 'they are going to go in stray after the indigenous Gods of asher hub a-shamah bekirbo, 'that they are going into the midst of these idolatrous.' Vaazavani, 'They are going to abandon me,' hefer et-briti, 'they are going to desecrate my covenant.'
So that is element 1 – element 1 is the people are going to go into the land and they are going to abandon God. What's going to happen next?
Element B: v'charah api bo bayom-hahu, 'God responds, I am going to become angry with them.' Vaazavtim, 'I am going to leave them,' v'histarti fanai mehem, 'I am going to hide my face from them. It is going to cause them to become vulnerable to their enemies,' v'hayah le'echol, 'they will become prey to those who will attack them,' umetzauhu raot rabot v'tzarot, 'and terrible, terrible things, invasions will come upon them.' That's Element B, what's going to happen next?
Element C: the Israelites respond, v'amar bayom hahu, 'and it will happen on that day that the people will say,' halo al ki-ein Elokai bekirebi metzauni haraot haeleh, 'isn't it because God is not within me, that all of these terrible things have happened?'
Now, if we stop right here, you look at element C, you say, wow! This is the beginning of the turnaround, I mean the people have finally realized that it is not just that the Palestine's have stronger armor than we did, or the Romans had techniques to break seize-walls but it was that God was part of the picture. It's because God has hidden his face from me that these things have happened. So things are turning around, right? Wrong!
Element D is devastating. Gods response to the people's supposed act of teshuvah, v'anochi haster astir panai bayom hahu, 'but I will hide my face, I will continue to hide my face' – as if not only am I ignoring the evils that will happen to them but I am ignoring their response. Al kol-haraah asher asah, 'above all the terrible evil, that is taking place,' ki fanah el-elohim acherim, 'because the people have turned toward other Gods' – but that's brutal, that's awful. Here is God ignoring not only the evil that has befallen to the people but that people's attempt at teshuvah, at repentance, how could it be?
This is the terrible cycle but to really understand the terrible cycle, you have to look back at element C – the supposed turnaround isn't quite the turnaround that we might have imagined. What is it exactly that the people say? Ki-ein Elokai bekirebi metzauni haraot haeleh, 'these terrible things have happened to me because God is not within me.'
Now, is this true or is it not true? The answer on the one hand is it is certainly true, the text has said it that it is true. God is not within them, exactly as they suspect. The problem is, it is true but it is not the whole truth. That's not really the source of the problem, go back in this text.
What was the source of the problem? Element B was God hiding his face but what was element A? The part that the people haven't spoken about. V'kam ham hazeh v'zanah acharei eluhei nechar-haaretz, their abandonment of God which they are silent about was element A. God is hiding his face which itself is a reaction.
When the people stop and say, 'Oh my goodness, why is it happening?' It is happening because God has hidden his face. What they are in fact doing is telling themselves they have truth and therefore, a lie. It's all God's fault, God inexplicably turned away his face; and as long as they locate the source of the problem in God's reaction, and not at the events that brought about that reaction – events which they have full responsibility for – they can never go about rectifying this.
Their pitiable statement, their supposed teshuvah is actually nothing but a half-baked act of self-pity which God rejects by further hiding his face. It's a terrible destructive cycle.
What is going to break that cycle? How will it stop?
What Did the Israelites Need Moses' Song?
When you come to say sorry and you are not saying sorry, you haven't gone to the core of what happened. Do you recognize what you did to precipitate the breakdown in our relationship? If you don't recognize that, how can the relationship ever be repaired?
God is relating this nightmare scenario to Moshe because the nightmare scenario is not inevitable. There is a way to break the terrible cycle.
Moshe in his last breaths upon this earth is called upon to create a lasting document, a document that the Israelites will always be able to look back upon, such that whenever this cycle seems to occur, they can look to this document and find it within themselves to break the cycle. That document is shirat haazinu.
V'atah, 'and now,' God says to Moshe, because of this terrible cycle that can take place, make certain that this nightmare can be broken. Kitvu lachem et-hashirah hazot, 'write down this song,' teach it to the Jewish people, simah bepihem, 'place it in their mouths,' leman tiheyeh-li hasirah hazot le'ed, 'so that forever more, this song will be a witness that the Israelites can always come back to.'
Let's come back next week and take a look at the shirah and try to understand the nature of this antidote.
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