After the long speech by Moshe, a summation of the exodus and the wanderings through the desert, which constitutes the Mishne Torah, the fifth book of the Torah, Moshe decides to wrap things up with two things, a lengthy poem, which makes up the bulk of Perashat Ha’azinu and a set of blessings to the tribes which brings the book of Devarim to an end.

The blessings, we are told (Devarim 27:1), were given by Moshe prior to his death. From this language, the Sifri, quoted in Rashi, surmises that these blessings were given literally just before Moshe died, in the “if not now then when?” situation. It would seem from the commentators that these blessings are perceived in that sort of last minute sense. Most of the traditional commentators suggest that these blessings to the tribes are formulaic and ritualistic- Abraham, Isaac, and Yaakov did it (at the end of the Book of Bereishit), and Moshe continues in that mode. Ibn Ezra views these blessings as being prophetic in origin, implying that Moshe didn’t “compose” them at all, but was merely the vehicle for them. Following either approach, we can conclude that the last major act of Moshe was the composition of the long poem presented in Perashat Haazinu, with Perashat Zot Haberacha, which contains the blessings, to be more of an epilogue. In fact, the normative tradition seems to approach the blessings in just this way, in that the perasha of the blessings is not read on a regular Shabbat as are all the other sections of the Torah, rather it is read on Shemini Atzeret (or outside of Israel on the day after, on “Simchat Torah”), where it is conjoined to the beginning of the Torah, to Bereishit (which is then reread in full, akin to all the other perashiyot, on a regular Shabbat).

R. Zadok Hacohen explains this tradition as confirming the merely supplementary nature of Zot Heberacha, of Moshe’s blessings being merely a completion of Yaakov’s blessings, and thus not being equivalent to the rest of the Torah, and thus read only on a holiday, and not on a Shabbat (Of course, these days, when one states that a text is merely supplementary, one is almost inviting an orthodox deconstructionist to tell you why it is the most important part of the whole text; I welcome such a reading if any readers have one. My email is listed below…)

In summary, then, we see that Moshe, chooses, as his last conscious act, to end with a poem. Why a poem? After all, at this point in Moshe’s spiritual progress, after the Exodus, after Sinai, after leading the people across the desert and choosing their new leadership, one would have imagined that his choice would have been a direct restatement of some critical law, or some great ethical and spiritually reverberating directive. But in the end, what we get is- a poem? Furthermore, the text shows how insistent Moshe was on everyone hearing this poem, enlisting Yehoshua Ben Nun, his successor, to ensure that everyone learned the poem. So what is it about a poem that led Moshe to choose that form of literary expression for his public last words?

Before dealing with the matter of format, let us look at content. What do the words of the poem in Haazinu teach us, as text? The answer,  given in both halachic and midrashic statements, relates this poem to the centrality of Torah study and practice. In a legal teaching, the Talmud (BT Berachot 21.) uses the third line in our poem to source the following ruling, obligating a blessing prior to studying Torah:

“What is the source mandating a blessing before Torah study? (Devarim 32:3) I will call out Gd’s name, let us praise gloriously our Lord”.

Homiletically, as well, we have several teachings linking this poem to Torah study; for example, the Sifri on verse 32:2, “My lessons shall drop as the rain, my teachings shall drip as the dew”, presents a long series of lessons using rain and dew as metaphors for Torah- as the dew causes plant life to grow, so does Torah cause mankind to grow, as the dew falls on all sorts of plants, so does the Torah deal with holy, profane, permitted and forbidden things, etc. The Talmud (BT Taanit 7.) as well, uses this verse for a surprising teaching:

R. Bana’a used to say, all who study Torah for their own profit (shelo lishma), their study becomes for them as a deathly poison, as the verse says, (32:2) Ya’arof k’matar likchi, “My lessons shall drop as the rain” and ya’arof (the verb for rain dropping) also means to kill by decapitation…

Following these precedents, the Vilna Gaon composed a treatise whereby he derives all of the 613 Torah commandments from this poem, which, as it turns out, actually contains exactly 613 letters (I didn’t count them myself, but this information came to me through from my teacher, R. Moshe Tzuriel, who is an authority in this sort of thing). At any rate, we can see that this poem is read as an ode to Torah, and so states Rashi as well, explaining that this poem is “testimony that the Torah which I (Moshe) have put before Israel is like life to the world”. As the poem unfolds, keeping to this reading, it is then about life within or without connection to Torah.

So let us return to the structural format? Why a poem? Why not state all this information directly, without recourse to literary metaphors about dew, etc? The Sifri states simply:

Great is shira (poetry), for it contains within it the present, the past, the future and the world to come…

Is this so? What is there about a poem that enables it to contain all these different elements all at once?

I suppose that being so involved in the Poetry Slam movement for so many beautiful years allows me to wax, um, poetically about the virtues of verse; here I would like to suggest one approach (there is another approach which I will hopefully have the time to write up in the near future). I will not approach the myriad aspects of poetics per se- what matters for us is the concept of metaphor, which is at the core of the poetic experience.

Jacques Derrida, borrowing an idea from Anatole France, uses the term “White Mythology” to describe the attempt made by metaphysical philosophers to leave literary metaphors behind and come to a place of abstract ideations. He argues that the overall approach in Western culture is to prioritize the abstract conception lurking within language over the language and metaphor itself. I suppose the most obvious example is psychoanalysis, where the colorful images are all reduced to a common black and white set of meanings. Science, it would seem, may illustrate points with specific examples, but the “truth” is in the abstraction being illustrated. However, Derrida argues, that the reverse is true:

Metaphor is less in the philosophical text…than the philosophical text is within metaphor.

The “truth” is not some form of idealistic Platonism, in which there are concepts first and life is a secondary derivative experience, in which the lived world must experience some kind of “self destruction” or “death” in order for truth to be revealed, but rather it is lived experience, the world as it is, the world as disclosed by metaphor, which provides the raw material and impetus for theorizing. The metaphor, and by extension, the poem, is a reflection of the lived experience, life being more complex, variegated and full of meaning than any simple abstraction. The poem is an attempt, within a literary structure, of appropriation of the phenomenologicaly given, of conveying the manifold complexities of lived life.

Let us return to Moshe’s poem. Moshe’s poem, as we’ve seen, is concerned with Torah, and how it is lived. The teaching in BT Taanit cited above (in which Torah study may be equated to a deathly poison) is worth further reflection. The study of Torah is not merely “interesting” or “worthwhile”, but so critical to existence that a misstep can be life threatening. Our relationship to Torah is so involved, so intimate, that when misdirected, it can be, as it were, fatal. This teaching implies more than a riff off of poetic metaphor. Thus the poetic format– R. Zadok Hacohen recognizes the significance of the poem as being a unique form of text that can achieve the following synthesis of writing and life:

…Moshe composed this song, that is, it is a written text that contains within it as well the Oral Law…

What does it mean to include the Oral Law in a written text? Let us define “oral law”. Superficially understood, it seems like a set of laws derived from textual laws, established by the Rabbis. However, what is actually is, is the law as refracted through actual lived experience. There is a text, but a text cannot “mean” without being lived. A good example may be the world of medicine. Pick up any major textbook of medicine such as Harrison’s, or a cancer textbook like DeVita. The various illnesses are described in clean, cool scientific words. Then enter the medical ward, or visit the oncology department. Nothing in the text would have prepared you for the shock of real human suffering; no patient in the clinic is fully encompassed by the detached language of the textbook.

On the other hand, there is something about the metaphor, the poem, the work of art which contain within themselves the transmission of lived experience. This transformation of cold text into a vital life force is what Moshe wanted to create as his final action. Not another abstract conception, but rather the legitimization of real life, with its struggles, challenges, joys and sufferings. Oral Law is meant to bring about this reflection of life within the written text. R. Zadok insists that the poetic form, which unfolds the written text into something more vital, is meant to “transmit the ta’am, the taste or sense of the Torah”- a purely experiential concept. The Oral Law, as we’ve seen in its first case (see our shiur on Perashat Pinchas), that of the potential injustice that would have been inflicted upon the daughter’s of Zelophad in the allocation of the Land, is a reflection also of potential friction, of where the text seems to bring about injustice; “literal” readings may lead to immense suffering. The Oral Law is meant to be the remedy for this, taking into account the real needs of the people as history unfolds and the human drama differentiates in its myriad unexpected ways, uniquely for each individual. This is why Yehoshua, who represents the next generation, had to be centrally involved in the transmission of this poem.

In summary, we see that Moshe chose as his final public message to all the people and all of history, the form of the poem, that structure built of words which conveys not only some kind of abstract teaching, but reflects the evolving complexity of lived life in both its most public and most intimate nature. As the words of Sifri illustrate: the poem contains within it the present, the past, the future and the world to come…

Mark H. Kirschbaum, MD, is a hematology and cancer specialist based in Duarte, CA.
tags: Torah Commentary   
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