Testimony for Bnei Yisrael

  • Rav Yair Kahn

Dedicated to the memory of my dear father
 Ossie Tofler (Boaz ben Moshe ve Gittel)
who loved Jewish education and worked for the continuity of the Jewish people
 in the small community of Perth, Western Australia.
He in turn was inspired his whole life by his barmitzvah 
teacher Miss Sarah Finkelstein,
and by the commitment to Judaism and Zionism of his parents.



I. Shira in Scripture


Most of this week's parasha is comprised of a shira – a song or poem. This is a rare biblical phenomenon, which can be identified by its distinctive layout in the Torah scroll. Most of the Bible is broken into subsections either by a space or by beginning a new line, and the words within that subsection are written from the beginning of the line until the end. Shira, on the other hand is written in one of two formats. In Shirat Ha’azinu, each line is broken into two segments, and as a result, the shira looks like two columns. Shirat Ha-Yam (Shemot 15), on the other hand, is a more complex format, with alternating lines broken into two and three segments. Our Sages likened this formation to a brick wall, since the sections of each respective line are placed to span the gap formed in the previous line, just as a bricklayer does not place each brick directly above a brick in the lower row, but rather shifts the bricks over a half-length to create a stronger interlocking structure. 


Shirat Ha-Yam and Shirat Ha’azinu are the only two shirot in the Torah. (There are other examples such asShirat Ha-Be'er in Bamidbar 21:17, but these lack the distinctive shira design). There are only a few more examples of shira in the entire Bible, such as Shirat Devora (Shoftim 5) and Shirat David (Shmuel II 22). Therefore, it seems obvious that if the Torah insisted on writing Ha’azinu in the shira format, there is something unique about this particular section.


The Torah notes that the shira is meant to bear testimony: "And now, write for yourselves this shira and teach it to Bnei Yisrael. Place it into their mouths, in order that this shira will be for Me as a witness for Bnei Yisrael" (31:19).Moreover, the Torah adds that this shira will never be forgotten: "This shira … will not be forgotten from the mouth of their offspring" (31:21).


What is so unique about this shira? What does it contain that has not yet appeared in the rest of the Torah? Another question that we will address is the relationship between Ha’azinu and the other examples of Biblical shira. All the other cases are songs of praise and reactions to redemption or revelation. Shirat Ha’azinu, on the other hand, describes a very difficult historic reality. Is shira the appropriate format for such a troubling prophecy?


II. Two Scenarios


Let us begin with the background to Shirat Ha’azinu. The shira is first mentioned after Hashem informs Moshe and Yehoshua of what the future has in store:


And Hashem said to Moshe: Behold, you are [about to] lie with your ancestors and this nation will rise up and stray after the deities of the nations of the land… And they will forsake Me and violate My covenant… And My fury will rage against them on that day, and I will abandon them and hide My face from them… And now, write for yourselves this shira and teach it to Bnei Yisrael. Place it into their mouths, in order that this shira will be for Me as a witness for Bnei Yisrael. (31:16-19)


As we noted in last week's shiur, this prophecy is the first time that Moshe is told unequivocally that the nation will inevitably fail. Therefore, the shira, which also contains this prophecy, seems to be some form of response or reaction to this dramatic disclosure. 


If we inspect the introductory section more closely, we will notice that Hashem repeats the fall of Yisrael and subsequently repeats the need for the shira:


When I bring them to the land which I have sworn to their forefathers [to give them], a land flowing with milk and honey, they will eat and be satisfied, and live on the fat [of the land]. Then, they will turn to other deities and serve them, provoking Me and violating My covenant. And it will be, when they will encounter many evils and troubles, this shira will bear witness against them, for it will not be forgotten from the mouth of their offspring.(31:20-21)


A quick glance at the original Hebrew will show the deliberate repetition of key phrases and parallel ideas:


(כ) כי אביאנו אל האדמה אשר נשבעתי לאבתיו זבת חלב ודבש ואכל ושבע ודשן

ופנה אל אלהים אחרים


ועבדום ונאצוני והפר את בריתי:



(כא) והיה כי תמצאן אתו רעות רבות וצרות








וענתה השירה הזאת לפניו לעד כי לא תשכח מפי זרעו

(טו) הנך שכב עם אבתיך וקם העם הזה


וזנה אחרי אלהי נכר הארץ אשר הוא בא שמה בקרבו

ועזבני והפר את בריתי אשר כרתי אתו:

(יז) וחרה אפי בו ביום ההוא ועזבתים והסתרתי פני מהם

והיה לאכל ומצאהו רעות רבות וצרות ואמר ביום ההוא הלא על כי אין א-להי בקרבי מצאוני הרעות האלה:

(יח) ואנכי הסתר אסתיר פני ביום ההוא על כל הרעה אשר עשה כי פנה אל אלהים אחרים:

(יט) ועתה כתבו לכם את השירה הזאת ולמדה את בני ישראל שימה בפיהם

למען תהיה לי השירה הזאת לעד בבני ישראל:


Clearly, this section is not merely redundant, but rather introduces an additional perspective. The double narrative reflects variant versions of Yisrael’s failure, each of which will eventually occur. According to the first version,Yisrael stray after the Canaanite deities, while according to the second version, Yisrael fail because of their prosperity. These two scenarios are also recorded earlier in Sefer Devarim:


And it will be, when Hashem your God, brings you to the land He swore to your fathers, to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov, to give you, great and good cities that you did not build, and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant, and you will eat and be satisfied. Beware, lest you forget Hashem, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage… Do not go after other gods, of the gods of the peoples who are around you. For Hashem your God, is a zealous God among you, lest the wrath of Hashem your God, be kindled against you, and destroy you off the face of the earth. (6:10-15)


It is important to note that Hashem distinguishes between these two versions. Straying after foreign deities is considered betrayal or adultery. In Shir Ha-Shirim, the unique relationship between Hashem and Yisrael is likened to that of lovers, and the Sinai covenant is considered a marriage; the metaphor of adultery in describing straying after Canaanite deities is therefore appropriate. The punishment for this act of betrayal is hester panim (Hashem hides His face, as it were). However, in the second section, which describes leaving Hashem as a result of prosperity, both the metaphor of adultery and the result of hester panim are absent.


These two scenarios find expression in the shira as well. The shira begins by describing the chosen-ness ofYisrael from among all other nations:


When the Most High gave nations their lot, when He separated the sons of man, He set up the boundaries of peoples according to the number of Bnei Yisrael. Because Hashem's portion is His people, Yaakov, the lot of His inheritance. He found them in a desert land, and in a desolate, howling wasteland. He encompassed them and bestowed understanding upon them; He protected them as the pupil of His eye. As an eagle awakens its nest, hovering over its fledglings, it spreads its wings, taking them and carrying them on its pinions. [So] Hashem guided them alone, and there was no alien deity with Him. (32:8-12)


This is followed by a description of the prosperity with which Hashem blessed Yisrael:


He made them ride upon the high places of the earth, that they would eat the produce of the field. He let them suck honey from a rock, and oil from the mighty part of the crag. The cream of cattle and the milk of sheep, with the fat of lambs and rams of Bashan and he goats, with kidneys of wheat, and it [the congregation of Israel] would drink the blood of grapes [which was] as the finest wine. (32:13-14)


The shira then describes Yisrael's ingratitude as they forget Hashem as a result of the prosperity He bestowed upon them:


And Yeshurun became fat and rebelled; you grew fat, thick and rotund; [Yisrael] forsook the God Who made them, and spurned the [Mighty] Rock of their salvation. (32:15)


Afterwards, the shira alludes to failure resulting from foreign influence, which, in the context of chosen-ness ofYisrael recorded at the beginning of the shira, is tantamount to betrayal:


They sacrificed to demons, which have no power, deities they did not know, new [gods] that come from nearby, which your ancestors did not fear. (32:17)


 At this point, the shira notes hester panim.


III. The Shira's Testimony


Not surprisingly, the Torah records Moshe teaching the shira to Yisrael twice. First, "And Moshe wrote thisshira on that day, and taught it to Bnei Yisrael" (31:22). This is a fulfillment of the command Moshe received following the description of the first scenario: "And now, write for yourselves this shira and teach it to Bnei Yisrael” (31:19). Afterwards, the Torah adds: "Then, Moshe spoke into the ears of the entire assembly of Yisrael the words of the following shira, until their completion.” (31:30). Perhaps this dualism reflects a twofold testimony as well.


We noted that the first scenario of idol worship results in hester panim. The Torah describes how Yisrael will react: "And they will say on that day, 'Is it not because our God is no longer among us, that these evils have befallen us?'" (31:17). Hashem responds: "And I will hide My face on that day, because of all the evil they have committed, when they turned to other deities." This response contains two separate points. Yisrael claim that evil befalls them because Hashem is no longer with them, but they totally ignore the fact that they are to blame. Therefore, Hashem notes that it is because of the evil they have committed. More importantly, Hashem clarifies that these evils lead tohester panim. This is a response to Yisrael’s claim that Hashem is no longer with them. Hashem counters – I am with them; I am merely hiding My face. This is the first aspect of the testimony, which relates directly to the hester panimthat follows betrayal.


The second scenario of rebellion due to prosperity does not lead to hester panim. What, then, is the second aspect of the shira's testimony? Interestingly, the second time the Torah records Moshe teaching the shira to Yisrael, two words are added: "ad tumam" (“until their completion;” 31:30). Therefore, it behooves us to look at the continuation of the shira in order to discover this additional aspect of testimony.


After describing the horrible calamities that will befall Yisrael, Hashem says:


I said that I would make an end of them, eradicate their remembrance from mankind. Were it not that the enemy's wrath was heaped up, lest their adversaries distort; lest they claim, “Our hand was triumphant! Hashem did none of this!" (32:26-27)


Just as the shira describes the inevitability of the destruction, so too it describes the inevitability of the redemption.


This conclusion contrasts with that drawn from the parallel section in Parashat Nitzavim, which follows the terrible destruction described in Parashat Ki Tavo:


And it will be, when all these things come upon you the blessing and the curse which I have set before you that you will consider in your heart, among all the nations where Hashem your God has banished you, and you will return to Hashem your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, and you will listen to His voice according to all that I am commanding you this day you and your children. Then, Hashem your God, will bring back your exiles, and He will have mercy upon you. He will once again gather you from all the nations, where Hashem your God, had dispersed you. (30:1-3)


Parashat Nitzavim describes redemption premised upon teshuva.


In Hilkhot Teshuva (7:5), the Rambam rules: "Yisrael will not be redeemed but through teshuva." However, since there is free will, perhaps Yisrael will never repent; in that case, how will they be redeemed? The Rambam's response to this question is based on Parashat Nitzavim:


The Torah has already promised that in ultimately Yisrael will repent at the end of their exile and will be redeemed immediately, as it says, '"And it will be, when all these things come upon you… and you will return to Hashem your God… and Hashem will return …"


However, in Shirat Ha’azinu, teshuva as a prerequisite to redemption is conspicuously absent.


The gemara in Sanhedrin (97b) brings a Tannaitic argument regarding whether or not teshuva is a prerequisite to redemption. The shira reads smoothly according to the opinion that teshuva is not an absolute necessity. Perhaps the Rambam, who preferred the conflicting opinion, understood the shira as explaining why Hashem would never destroy Yisrael, but the actual redemption requires teshuva.


In any event, the continuation of the shira (ad tumam), bears testimony to the inevitability of the eventual redemption, whether deserved or not.


IV. The Eternity of the Covenant


We can now appreciate why the Torah formatted Ha’azinu as a shira. After all, the testimony of Ha’azinufocuses on the eternal relationship between Hashem and Yisrael. If Yisrael betrays Hashem by straying after foreign deities, His face may be hidden – but Hashem will never forsake His people. No matter how terrible the tragedies are, and irrespective of how undeserving they are, Hashem will never destroy Yisrael. The covenant between Yisraeland Hashem is eternal, and ultimately, Yisrael will be redeemed.


This message is most profound, specifically within the context of the failure of Yisrael and the subsequent calamities that will occur. Even in the darkest phase of the exile, when Hashem's face nowhere to be found, the shirais heard loud and clear, an ode to the eternal covenant between the Almighty and Yisrael.