What is Moshe trying to tell us?

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Jewish holidays, during prayer items kippa with prayer shawl tallit on shofar, torah scroll in a synagogue

Rabbah Arlene Berger | Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Ha’azinu, Deuteronomy 32:1-52.

Parshat Ha’azinu is the second to last chapter in the Torah. We’ve been schlepping across the desert for 40 years and endured innumerable experiences that have been enumerated time and again in the Torah. It’s time to enter the Holy Land.

But there’s a catch: Moshe doesn’t get to go with us. The last line of the parshah reads: “Yet you shall see the land before you; but you shall not go there to the land which I give the people of Israel.”
It makes you want to weep. Moshe has been with us since the beginning and we owe him our lives and now he is to leave. Moshe has chosen to write a poem as his final message. We are not sure why. He doesn’t appear to have written poetry before, but he is now. What message does Moshe have for us?

There are only five songs, or shirim, in the Tanach and they are all written in a certain pattern both syntactically and, occasionally, even graphically on the page. Each marks a critical event.
If you have the opportunity this Shabbat, go up to the Torah and look at the page of Shirat Ha’azinu. It is written in two narrow columns with the first part of each verse written on the right side, a big space in the middle and the second part of the verse written on the left side.

The graphic image is reminiscent of two stacks of bricks. There are 43 rows of “bricks” in this poem that are divided into six aliyot for Torah readings. The 10 remaining verses comprise the seventh aliyah and make for a full Shabbat reading. In the Gemara (Rosh HaShanah 31a), we learn that Shirat Ha’azinu (the “bricks”) was read in six parts by the Levites as the Shabbat Musaf offerings were made. It was also read that way in the synagogue with the rest of the parshah making up the seventh reading.

Commentators have connected this combination of the six readings of Shirat Ha’azinu and the seventh reading of remainder of the parshah with the Shir Shel Yom, the six special daily psalms that were said by the Levites in the Mikdash/Tabernacle and that we say today in morning prayers. They also connected these six and seven parts to the days of Creation (Likkutei Sichos Section 24, Tur).

Does the appearance of Shirat Ha’azinu seem to you as a stable and solid arrangement or a somewhat shaky or unstable pattern? Some of the other shirim have different patterns. Rabbenu Nissim (commentary to Megillah 16a) explains that because Ha’azinu 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.

If one looks at the end of Shirat Ha’azinu, we see that the Torah returns to its regular, wide-column format, thus appearing to give Ha’azinu a solid footing to stand on. And just as Ha’azinu ends on a solid footing, so does the parshah tell us that we, too, will end on solid footing. Was that Moshe’s message? Trust and we’ll be OK? Maybe.

All we can do is read his words and learn what we can. Perhaps that why he wrote a song or poem whose very structure ensures that its words will linger, its messages will seep into our minds and hearts. Messages of hope and forgiveness. Messages of God and faith and peoplehood. Messages of a new beginning and a healthy new year.

Rabbah Arlene Berger is rabbi of Hevrat Shalom in Rockville.

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