This week’s Torah portion is Haazinu, Deuteronomy 32:1-32:52.
There are three songs attributed to Moses: The Song of the Sea (Shirat Hayam); Psalm 90, also called A Prayer of Moses; and this week’s reading, Ha’azinu (The Song of Moses).
In Haazinu, the final Torah portion, Moses is commanded to ascend Mount Nebo in the land of Moab, where he will die. Following a death we are commanded to mourn the deceased. In our tradition, this can include crying out, weeping and lamenting. Facing death, Moses sings a poetic verse. Instead of lamentations, we have a song of love. He is finishing life with hope and admonition.
“Give ear, O heaven, and I will speak: And may the earth hear the words of my mouth,” Moses sings in the first verse.
The hope Moses sings about is the Torah, its teaching and its wisdom. The admonition is against forgetting the Torah and straying from its message.
In visiting those with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, I have found that at some point in the progression of disease, there is a noticeable loss of the distinction between past and present. Someone may speak of their childhood family life in the present tense.
Moses sings of the past, present and the future at age 120 (without any loss of memory). Nevertheless, according to Rabbi Gedalia Schorr, there is no conflict, only harmony — “everything is melded as if it were all happening at the same time.”
The poetic device of calling heaven and earth as witness, is for all time. Ibn Ezra cites that this is for the covenant of Torah, and that violating this covenant would have consequences even in nature.
Verse 2 continues with, “May my teaching drop like the rain, may my utterance flow like the dew; like the storm winds upon vegetation and like raindrops upon the grass.”
Rashi explains that the struggle to understand the Torah makes us grow. Sforno adds that like the dew, even small amounts of Torah will nourish life, giving it depth, and doing much good.
In verse 3 we read: “When I call out the name of God, ascribe greatness to our God.” Talmud Berachot 21a says that this indicates that a blessing should be recited before study, and we are instructed that the proper response to hearing God’s name is “Blessed is his glorious kingdom forever.”
The use of the word tzur, rock, a metaphor for God, reminds us of the Talmudic prayer Tziduk Hadin, recited at burials. Perhaps the drumbeat effect of repeating the word tzur is Moses’ own recitation of the final steps on his life’s journey. The prayer has greater depth when we are aware that it is rooted in these last words of Moses’ song.
That Moses can sing about the difficulties and the triumphs is a message to us, inspiring us not to deny life’s difficulties and failures, but that in reflecting on life and living it, we can sing out, praising the creator, in music, poetry and with our footsteps which, like a great cadenza, can summarize the themes of our existence.
Rabbi Arnold Saltzman is the rabbi of Hevrat Shalom of Maryland and Sha’are Shalom of Waldorf, rabbi emeritus of Beit Chaverim of Calvert County and cantor emeritus of Adas Israel Congregation, Washington.