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The Last Lecture: Moses's Valedictory Song

  • The Last Lecture: Moses's Valedictory Song

    Haazinu, Deuteronomy 32:1–52
D'var Torah By: 

What would you say to the people you care about if you knew you were about to die? How would you choose and position your words to reflect your deepest commitments? How would you capture and then keep the attention of your listeners and, without self-pity, give them the tools to carry on after you are gone? Every year, when we Jews are focused on questions of life and death during the High Holy Day season, we read Moses's last lecture, Moses's final song.

Few of us have the opportunity-and the skill-to articulate a valedictory speech, a legacy of direction to those we love. Moses's words as presented in Parashat Haazinu and preserved for so many centuries pose more questions than answers. These words serve to provoke more than to calm, to challenge rather than to comfort.

Moses's words are in the form of a poem, Shirat Haazinu , also called the Song of Moses. In the Torah scroll, and in some printed versions, these forty-three verses are written in two columns, the only poem that appears in this format in the Torah. This ancient form was chosen by the editors of the Torah to underscore the importance of Moses's last words, even as the poem tells of a"relationship gone awry" (Andrea L. Weiss, in The Torah: A Women's Commentary , ed. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss [New York: URJ Press, 2008], p. 1,251).

The poem begins with great strength as Moses addresses not only the people, but also the heavens and the earth:"Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; / Let the earth hear the words I utter!" (Deuteronomy 32:1). He continues by invoking the natural water sources above and below and comparing his words to their power:"May my discourse come down as the rain, / My speech distill as the dew, / Like showers on young growth, / Like droplets on the grass" (Deuteronomy 32:2).

As Moses stands at the edge of the land he will not enter, he pours out his heart to his people. The words that tumble from his mouth are full of love, but as so often happens when we desperately hope that our listeners will take our words to heart, Moses turns to rebuke, warning, and threat. While God is"upright," the Israelites are"Unworthy children- / That crooked, perverse generation" (Deuteronomy 32:4-5). Employing a rich range of metaphors, Moses speaks of God as father, as companion, as eagle, as nursing mother. In spite of this nurturing, the Israelites"grew fat and gross and coarse- / They forsook the God who made them / And spurned the Rock of their support" (Deuteronomy 32:15). Only when God realizes the potential drawbacks of destroying the people does God decide to preserve them-and honor the covenant. Moses recalls God's words:"I might have reduced them to naught, / Made their memory cease among humankind, / But for fear of the taunts of the foe, / Their enemies who might misjudge / And say, 'Our own hand has prevailed'" (Deuteronomy 32:26-27). Instead of offering us a nechemta , a message of comfort and healing, the final images of the poem are of an angry, vengeful God:"O nations, acclaim God's people! / For He'll avenge the blood of His servants / Wreak vengeance on His foes, / And cleanse His people's land" (Deuteronomy 32:43).

Who is Moses as he delivers these words? Does Moses feel caught between his loves: his love of God and his love for the Jewish people, described here as hopelessly entangled in conflict? Is the weather-beaten, still powerful patriarch expressing his own pain and terror as he reflects on this strained relationship, a relationship that represents his lifework, his raison d'etre?

As Moses concludes, his tone markedly changes:"He said to them [all Israel]: Take to heart all the words with which I have warned you this day. Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching. For this is not a trifling thing for you: it is your very life; through it you shall long endure on the land that you are to possess upon crossing the Jordan" (Deuteronomy 32:46-47). Moses has been speaking to the Israelites for over forty years as God's mouthpiece, attempting to serve both his God and his people. Here, at the last moment, he wants desperately to give direction and guidance to the people he is about to leave. With words of love that reflect his life's passion, he reminds them that true service to the Holy One demands all our energy-indeed, our entire beings. He points the people to read these words as one part of a much larger corpus:"take to heart all the words ," those spoken today and those spoken on our long journey from slavery to freedom, on the shared and arduous trek toward the land of promise. These teachings are"your very life."

The parashah concludes with one of the most poignant exchanges in the Torah. God tells Moses,"Ascend these heights . . . to Mount Nebo . . . and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving the Israelites as their holding. You shall die on the mountain that you are about to ascend, and shall be gathered to your kin. . . . You may view the land from a distance, but you shall not enter it-the land that I am giving to the Israelite people" (Deuteronomy 32:49-52). Perhaps this excerpt from the poem "I Wasn't One of the Six Million: And What Is My Life Span? Open Closed Open," by the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, best describes our patriarch at this moment:

. . . I still have the fire and the smoke
within me, pillars of fire and pillars of smoke that guide me
by night and by day. I still have inside me the mad search
for emergency exits, for soft places, for the nakedness
of the land, for the escape into weakness and hope,
I still have within me the lust to search for living water
with quiet talk to the rock or with frenzied blows.
Afterwards, silence: no questions, no answers.
(Open Closed Open, trans. Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld [New York: Harcourt, 2000], p. 3)

Moses's song is spent, and he is silent. We remain, to consider his direction, his passion, his angers, his loves. We remain, to weigh Moses's words and to contemplate his, and our, end.

Unfinished Journeys
Davar Acher By: 
Eric Eisenkramer

In her d'var Torah, Rabbi Elwell describes Moses as a "weather-beaten, still powerful patriarch." He is an elderly, exhausted man, a man who fears that his life's work may be erased by his death. Moses knows that he cannot enter the Promised Land and that his journey of forty years will end just short of the destination. As he prepares for his own death, Moses must have felt deep sadness and disappointment, perhaps even despair, at not being able to cross the Jordan River.

Like Moses, we too will not complete all of our journeys in this life. There will be tasks left undone, goals not accomplished, dreams left unfulfilled. No matter how hard we work, there will be tasks we leave behind. The higher goals that we pursue, creating peace and repairing our world, cannot be completed in one lifetime. It is our very mortality that prevents us from achieving all that we would hope.

Yet the Torah teaches us not to despair over the unfinished work. In the Book of Numbers, Moses ascends the heights of Abarim, to view the land before he dies. God then tells Moses to"single out Joshua son of Nun, an inspired individual, and lay your hand upon him" (Numbers 27:18). Joshua will continue the journey, leading the people to the Promised Land.

As Moses ordained Joshua, we too pass on the unfinished tasks to those who come after us. It is the next generation that offers the possibility of completion and redemption.

In the Talmud, we read,"Rabbi Eleazar said in the name of R. Chanina: The disciples of the wise increase peace in the world, as it says: 'All thy children shall be taught of the Eternal, and great shall be the peace of your children' (Isaiah 54:13). Read not banayich [your children] but bonayich [your builders]. Not my children, but my builders" (Babylonian Talmud,B'rachot 64a).

In our lives, we may not be able to accomplish our loftiest goals, like creating shalom, peace, in this world. Therefore, we teach our children to be our builders and, like Joshua, to continue the journey toward the Promised Land.

Reference Materials: 

Haazinu, Deuteronomy 32:1–52
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,555–1,566; Revised Edition, pp. 1,398–1,412
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,251–1,270

When do we read Haazinu

2020, September 26
8 Tishri, 5781
2021, September 18
12 Tishri, 5782
2022, October 8
13 Tishri, 5783
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