This week’s Torah portion is Haazinu, Deuteronomy 32:1 – 32:52.
The parsha Ha’azinu is the second-to-last chapter of the Torah and is written as a poem or song.
One definition of a song in the Torah is a parsha that is written in a certain pattern. There are five such songs in the Tanach, and each marks a passage or critical event. It just so happens that we read two this Shabbat: Shirat Haazinu, our Torah portion, which takes place as the children of Israel are in the desert and are readying to enter Canaan, and Shirat David, our haftarah (II Samuel 22:1-51), which takes place at the establishment of the monarchy through King David’s line; the Hebrew word “shirat” means “the song of …”). Shirat David is read as Haazinu’s haftarah when Shabbat Haazinu falls after Yom Kippur, as it does this year.
The written structure of the shirim is different than the rest of the Torah. Shirat Haazinu is written in two narrow columns reminiscent of two stacks of bricks, a somewhat shaky or unstable pattern. Shirat David is written in one wide column designed to look like one stack of interlocking bricks. It is said that a pattern of interlocking bricks is much stronger than a stack in which each brick lies directly above the one below it. Rabbeinu Nissim explains that because the Torah portion speaks of the downfall of evil, it appears in the Torah like flimsy stacks of bricks, symbolic of evil’s inability to stand for long (The same is true of the list of the 10 sons of Haman in Megillat Esther.)
Shirat David, on the other hand, represents a time when the monarchy was established and things looked promising for the future. It is therefore constructed in a strong way so that it can stand and even be added to.
Looking at the end of the Torah portion, we see that the Torah returns to its regular, wide-column format, thus appearing to give Haazinu a solid footing to stand on. And just as Haazinu ends on a solid footing, so does the Torah portion tell us that God will be there to intervene on behalf of the children of Israel, no matter how far the people fall.
One interpretation of Haazinu and Shirat David that always inspires me is the representation of the importance of the individual — the proof that one person can make a difference. Where would we be today without Moses, King David, Joshua, Deborah (the only female judge) and others? These individuals lived a long time ago, and we still feel the impact of their actions today.
In the present, we have a different set of individuals to look up to, and we can reflect on the impact of their actions. We can consider the many firefighters, policemen, emergency medical technicians and others on 9/11 who went above and beyond in saving the lives of so many during of the horrific events of that day. We can look at Malala Yousafzai, a young Pakistani woman who became a human rights advocate for education and for women in her country after surviving an attack that would have turned others inward and toward hate. And just this week we have a visit to Washington from Pope Francis, leader of the Roman Catholic Church, who is here to spread faith and optimism for a brighter future and a better world.
If this season of repentance, prayer and acts of charity and justice teaches us anything, it’s that the actions of one person can make a difference. We may feel we are standing on shaky ground like Haazinu — but then find the courage within to remember that there is a firm base underneath us. Or we may have a more unstable set up like our haftarah, in which case we have to ask for the help of others to get back to firmer ground.
May we all find our place and our individual ways to make a difference in this New Year.
The writer is the rabbi of the Olney Kehila.