HA AZINU - on poetry, on punishment, and on posterity

As we near the end of the Torah, in this last parshah of the weekly cycle (the last parshah is read on Simchat Torah to restart the cycle in the new year), we really see how the Torah blends history and literature. In an academic paper for my rabbinic training, I discuss the elements of Torah that combine fiction and fact, something akin to “memoir” or historical fiction. In this parshah, Moses is recounting his life and the story of the exodus, the making of the Jewish people, and the disappointments and triumphs. The section is written with clear knowledge of the later exile, and so history is being written backwards. This is one of many examples of biblical prophecy in retrospect. It is easy to know what will happen when you write the story after it already has. The content of this parshah is less interesting than the form and style. The structure is poetic – this is called the “Song of Moses,” and reminds us that the root of the word “history” is “story”. Here we have the narrative of our people.

Moses begins by saying that his discourse is to come down as rain (32.2). The words of the song are flowing down to the people. Rain is necessary for growth and for the flourishing of life, but it can also drown us. This seems, to me, to be like Torah. Our traditions can strengthen or enslave us, and we learn them through words, devarim (the Hebrew name for the book of Deuteronomy). The text repeatedly references the peoples’ rebellions and how they do not deserve the God who has saved them. Moses notes that God might have even considered destroying the people but, knowing that this would embolden other peoples to doubt the strength of the Israelite God, he reluctantly spares them. In the Song of Moses there are many references to such other Gods, and even a sense that the writer(s) believed that the Israelite God was more of the chief God in a pantheon, than the one and only God. Some of the awkward editing makes it seem as though polytheistic references were edited out. Moreover, the images/names for God in this section – “the rock” and “El” come from the surrounding culture. Reading Torah is always most interesting when we can glean glimpses of what has been excised, what is the story behind the story, what is unsaid as well as what is said.

The text also has merit for its form. There is something to be learned from the language here. The theism is bolstered by the powerful words and imagery the Song evokes. One example is the description of God taking the Israelite: He found him in a desert region, In an empty howling waste. He engirded him, watched over him, Guarded him as the pupil of is eye. Like an eagle who rouses his nestings,
Gliding down to his young, So did He spread is wings and take him, Bear him along on His pinions (32.11)

This passage about God as protector is filled with literary devices such as metaphor and simile, and strong imagery. Many commentators have focused on the metaphor of God as eagle, because it is so striking. There are passages that focus on the protection God provides, and others that focus, in equally stunning poetry, on his vengeance:

I will make my arrows drunk with blood- As My sword devours flesh- Blood of the slain and the captive From the long-haired enemy chiefs (32.42)

Here the imagery is much more frightening. Both passages highlight the power of the God-figure, but here the power is less inspiring and more terrifying. These contrasting images of God make it clear that different ideas of what/who God was have been combined in the Song. Moses tells the people to love God, but his Song really suggests that it is less important to love, and more important to fear and obey. The God-figure of the Hebrew Bible is powerful, and powerful language is used to describe him, but he is the cause and reason for following the law. Torah, as we reach its conclusion, is always both law and story, each reinforcing the other.

Moses' song is his swan song. He knows he will die. It is interesting to consider that if we each knew exactly when we were to meet our end, and we knew we had a platform, what ideas and words would we find it most important to convey? What messages about our legacy, our hopes for the future, what we have learned while on earth? Moses is made very clearly mortal in order to show that he is not a god. We are to identify with his humanity. And so the text asks us to say goodbye to this this leader, teacher, this guide of ours, and to do carry on the peoplehood he helped to create and to free.