• Rav Yaakov Beasley







Our parasha, Parashat Ha'azinu, is a majestic piece of poetry, overflowing with vibrant imagery and profound ideas.  It tells the story of the Jewish people, from the distant past to the turbulent present and to the triumphant future.  To study this section properly, the reader should first read it through once, noting the major topics that it contains.  Through this survey, the reader can easily ascertain the larger structure of the song.  Then, the song should be reread, but this time, concentrating on its detail, so that all its figures of speech and metaphors can be carefully scrutinized.  


Clearly, the song is a poem in the modern, literary sense.  However, as the Ramban points out (commentary to 31:19), it is known as a shira, a song, because “the Jewish people always say it with singing and music.  It is written as a song (in the Torah), because a song has breaks which indicate when one pauses in the melody.”  The Ramban refers to the Talmudic statement that the Levites in the Beit Ha-mikdash would sing part of Shirat Ha'azinu to accompany the musaf offering of Shabbat (Rosh Ha-shana 31)[1]. The Seforno suggests that this division reflects the conceptual structure that underlies the song:


First (v. 1-6), the intent of Hashem, the Blessed One, was to attain this purpose [recognition of Hashem’s greatness and justice] through all of humanity ‘in days of old and the years of many generations.

Second (v. 7-12), when this did not succeed, Hashem did great wonders with the Jewish people by elevating them to the heights (as He shall do again with the remnants of Israel at the end of days). 

Third (v. 13-18), Hashem gave them an appropriate place in which to serve Him in joy and goodness of heart, with an abundance of material blessings, but they rebelled and repaid evil for good.  The person who frustrates this intent [of Hashem] is clearly deserving of severe punishment.

Fourth (v. 19-26), because of the magnitude of their sins, they fell into the net of the wicked and were deserving of complete destruction, were it not for the desecration of Hashem’s honor, which prevented it.

Fifth (v. 27-35), He informs us the reason through which they will be redeemed at the end of days.

Finally (v. 36-43), he describes the manner of the Jewish people’s redemption, and the revenge that Hashem will exact against the oppressors of His people.  These are the various parts of Ha'azinu mentioned by the Sages in Rosh Ha-shana.  (Commentary to 33:7)


This week, we will investigate one of these sections in depth – the turning point between sections 3 and 4 in the Seforno’s rendering.




After a series of threatened curses and punishments against the Jewish people for their disobedience and infidelity, Moshe proclaims:


I thought I would make an end of them ("af'aihem");

I would make their memory cease from among men;

Were it not that I dreaded the enemy’s provocation,

Lest their adversaries should misdeem,

Lest they should say, "Our hand is exalted,

And it was not Hashem who has wrought all this."  (33:26-27)


Until this point, the threat of retribution that awaited the rebellious people had progressively increased in severity.  Now, the possibility of total destruction is suggested, only to be repudiated.  Hashem refuses to contemplate such a possibility.  This becomes a turning point in the song, for now Moshe proceeds to explain what prevents the nation from meeting its deserved fate. 


In this passage, it is the second word, "af'aihem" that presents the most difficulty to the commentators.  Questions arise both as to identification of the root word of "af'aihem" and the appropriate tense based on the verse's context.  Here are Rashi's observations on the text:


One may explain af'aihem to mean "I would make them as pe'ah," as the grain left in the corner of the field, to cast them away from me, to be at the mercy of all [just as the pe'ah has no owner, as it can be eaten by all] …

Onkelos, however, based himself on the Talmud, which divided the word in three: amarti af, ayei hem?  "I said in my anger (af), 'I will make them as though they are not,' so that those who behold them will ask, 'Where are they (ayei hem)'"?  (Rashi, 33:26)


Rashi suggests that the root of the word af'aihem comes from one of two sources  pe'ah, the unguarded corner of the field that is open to all, or af – anger.  He rejects the first explanation, as the implication is that Hashem wishes to make a present of the Jewish people to the nations.  However, the interpretation of Onkelos provided several grammatical difficulties, including the shift from past to future tense in the verse.  As such, it appears that Rashi views his first suggestion as the correct interpretation on the simple level. 


The Ibn Ezra rejects Rashi's interpretation that Hashem intended to scatter the Jewish people to the ends of the earth, for that would have implied that they would have continued to exist, which does not fit the context of the verse ("I would make their memory cease from among men").  However, he acknowledges the grammatical and contextual difficulties of the other interpretations:


Some say it is three words.  The truth is that is has no precedent in scripture.  It means, "I will destroy them," which parallels the subsequent "I will make their memory cease to exist" … i.e., all of them will die.  If the meaning is as the grammarians suggest, "to scatter them to all the corners of the earth" (pe'ah), this does not suit the verse's context.  Others suggests, “I will destroy them in my wrath."


Later commentators, however, see even in this verse a sign of Hashem’s everlasting kindness.  The Ramban maintains that the correct interpretation of the verse is like the interpretation that Ibn Ezra rejected, "I will scatter them upon the corners of the earth;" he explains that despite all their provocations, the Jewish people will not be destroyed for the sake of Hashem's great name:


When all [the other nations] sinned of their own free will and denied Him, only this one nation remained for His name.  He publicized the signs and wonders through them, for He is the God of gods and Lord of lords.  By this, He became known to all of the nations.  Now, if Hashem were to retract his covenant and destroy the memory (of the Jewish people), the nations would forget His signs and his deeds … and there would not remain any among them who would know His Creator, but only those who provoke Him.  Therefore, it was appropriate for Him at Creation to establish for Himself a nation for all time, for they are His servants who stood with Him while in exile, like servants, bearing the troubles and servitude.


The Abarbanel explains the word af'aihem in the exact opposite manner, but he explains the underlying meaning in a similar manner to the Ramban.  According to his approach, this word refers to a decree that all of the Jewish people will congregate in one area of the world, so that their enemies will be able to destroy them in one attack, so that no memory will remain of them.  In His mercy, however, Hashem scattered the Jews among the different nations:


Some have suggested that the text implies that Hashem thought to scatter them to the corners, and I say the opposite.  Hashem intended to destroy them in one corner, in order to cause their memory to cease from humanity, as in the case of the ten tribes whom were exiled by Assyria … when Israel is concentrated in one spot, the enemy can easily destroy them, as Haman [tried to do] when the Jews were in Persia.  But when they are scattered in many kingdoms, they always have a place to flee.  This is the interpretation of the Sages to Shoftim 5:11 – Hashem showed kindness to Israel by dispersing them among the nations.  The Trojans, thought they were a mighty nation, were totally destroyed by the Greeks because they were cornered in one spot.  But the Jewish people, no matter how decimated, have always managed to survive and find refuge.  The king of England wiped out the Jews in his kingdom, and in our time, the king of France. Had the Jews been cornered in one place, not one would have survived.  But the Almighty promised us, "And yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, neither will I abhor them to destroy them completely"” (Vayikra 26:44).  Dispersion was thus a great kindness, ensuring our survival and deliverance.


We can only add the historical note that the Abarbanel himself would be forced to flee Spain, where he wrote these words, and find safety in Italy (most of those Jews who survived the Spanish Expulsion made there way to the Ottoman Empire, where the sultan welcomed their talents and abilities).




We shall conclude our survey of the meaning of the word af'aihem with the prescient words of the Seforno.  He interprets the word as similar to pe’ah, a corner; however, he understands it to refer to the remnant after the total destruction, not the part of the nation that will perish:


"Af'aihem" – I will leave a corner of them, and utterly consume the rest.  This I will do at the End of Days, since I have not yet achieved their perfection, neither at the giving of the Torah, nor in the land of Israel, nor in exile, as it states, "In Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be a remnant, as Hashem has said, and in the remainder whom Hashem will designate." (Commentary to 33:26)


The Seforno clearly understands that the End of Days will unleash destruction on world Jewry that will utterly consume the Jewish people, wherever they may be located.  However, those Jews who live in the Land of Israel at that time will be spared.  Let us hope that whatever suffering we have seen has already fulfilled these prophetic sections of Ha'azinu, and may we be privileged to see the fulfillment of its final verses:


Sing aloud, O ye nations, of His people; for He avenges the blood of His servants, and renders vengeance to His adversaries, and makes expiation for the land of His people. (32:43)


[1] According to most understandings, Shirat Ha'azinu was divided into six sections and only completed over a six-week cycle.  However, the Tur (Orach Chayim 428) suggests that it was not sung on Shabbat, but during the six weekdays, hence completing the song every week.  See the Rashash on Rosh Ha-shana 31 and the Derisha on Orach Chayim 428n for further development of these two views.