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Singing and Hearing Songs of Repentance

  • Singing and Hearing Songs of Repentance

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

FOCAL POINT |

  • Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; / Let the earth hear the words I utter! (Deuteronomy 32:1)
  • And when Moses finished reciting all these words to all Israel, he said to them: Take to heart all the words 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 which you are to occupy upon crossing the Jordan. (Deuteronomy 32:45)
  • 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 32:52)

D'VAR TORAH |

A few years ago, while in Israel, I visited Jordan. My last stop was Mount Nebo, which according to tradition is the site of Moses's death and burial. There I stood, gazing toward a distant Israel that was barely visible through the afternoon haze.

The fields in the valley beneath me were lush. Crops were ready for harvest, and orchard trees were heavy with fruit. This was the land of "milk and honey" that Moses had dreamt about-the land that was meant to fulfill the yearnings experienced over forty years of wandering. But Moses could only view this land, which was part of an ancient covenantal promise, from a distance. He would never descend into the lush valley, cross the river, and taste the sweetness of Israel.

As I stood among the trinket sellers and souvenir hawkers, I imagined what Moses's personal sadness must have been like. Gazing from Mount Nebo, I thought of him: torso slightly stooped with age; voice raspy, but still strong and secure. I saw a Moses with sad, tearful eyes and envisioned him pensive, deep in thought before speaking his final words to the people. I imagined myself among the multitude of Israelites, afraid of losing our leader and somewhat fearful of what will happen on the march to Israel.

Standing at the place where-according to tradition-Moses ascends after he delivers his inspiring song, I was finally able to comprehend not only Moses's deep longing for the land, but also why Haazinu is so often read on Shabbat Shuvah.

Much of Moses's song admonishes us. Similar to our High Holy Day liturgy, the words of the song lead us to repentance. And at the same time, like much of our liturgy for the Yamim Noraim, the song of Moses offers us hope and sets a path on which we can create a better future.

The extraordinary song of Moses encompasses all of the history of the Jews. It tells of the past, present, and future of our people. Like the words of our machzor, it encompasses all of Jewish existence.

How opportune that we read Haazinu, featuring the Song of Moses, on Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Repentance. Although we refer to the inspiring text as a shir, or "poem," the word shir can also mean "song," as described in the Talmud. The Talmud tells us that the Levites sang Moses's song on Shabbat in the ancient Temple (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh HaShanah 31a).

With the triumphal melodies of Rosh HaShanah still resounding and the hallowed strains of Kol Nidrei and Yom Kippur just days away, Jews are especially filled with song at this point in our liturgical calendar. For us, song is a powerful medium. It is the most ancient musical expression, and it has the power to inspire, to invoke memory, to soothe, to heal, and to teach.

In Jewish life, our nusach, or "prayer melodies," change to reflect the current season. Our rich liturgy at this season is made more beautiful through the strains of the High Holy Day motifs.

The liturgy for this Shabbat fills us with introspection, reflecting its sacredness. We amend our Shabbat worship with reminders of the Yamim Noraim. We sing, Zochreinu lachayim . . . v'chotveinu b'seifer hachayim, "Remember us unto life . . . and inscribe us in the Book of Life." And we pray, Mi chamocha Av harachamim zocheir y'tzurav l'chayim b'rachamim? "Who is like You, Source of mercy? In compassion You sustain the life of Your children."

In congregations throughout the world, this special liturgy and music reinforce the idea that Shabbat Shuvah has a revered place in the cycle of Shabbatot.

Moses's song, recited amidst the words and music of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, reminds us that God is with us and guides us, just as He guided Moses on his spiritual journey.

After the visit to Mount Nebo, I returned to my fellow travelers. Together we drove to the border, and after the passport checks, visa stamps, and endless security clearances, we crossed over into Israel. I arrived back in Jerusalem with Moses's music echoing in my heart and soul.

As Moses taught his song to the Israelites (Deuteronomy 31:22), today I continue, along with all my cantorial colleagues, to share his song with the Jewish community. And inspired by Moses, our song has not only crossed the Jordan, but has also traveled across oceans, traversed continents, and spanned millennia.

May we always be inspired by Moses's song, and may we inspire those around us by continuing to sing it.

BY THE WAY |

  • Hear heavens, and listen earth. . . . (Isaiah 1:2)
  • I encourage each one of you to discover your own voice. Sing in the shower, sing in the car, sing along with your favorite soloist or band. Sing as you walk through a forest or meadow or hike a mountain trail. Sing in private until you stop listening to the negative tapes of other people's disapproval and hear instead the sound of your uniquely harmonious voice. Then if you wish sing for an audience. . . . (Mitchell Gaynor, The Healing Power of Sound [Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2002], p. 102)
  • To sing means to sense and to affirm that the spirit is real and the glory is present. (Abraham Joshua Heschel)

YOUR GUIDE |

  1. Midrash notes that the word haazinu indicates a listener who is nearby, but that the word tishma refers to a listener who is far away. In speaking to the Israelites, Isaiah and Moses uses both of these words. But Isaiah uses the word tishma first, followed by the word haazinu (Isaiah 1:2), whereas Moses does the reverse (Deuteronomy 32:1). Midrash indicates that this is because Moses is closer to heaven than to earth and that the reverse is true about Isaiah. Are there times in your life when you have felt, like Moses, closer to heaven than to earth? And are there moments when you have felt more like Isaiah, that is, closer to earth than to heaven?
  2. Moses's unique voice conveys his message to the people. It is a voice often inspired by God, even though Moses's words were sometimes criticized and questioned. Dr. Gaynor encourages us to find our own voices first in private and then, if we wish, to sing in public. If you were to sing in private as he suggests, what would your personal song be?
  3. During the High Holy Days when you join your congregation in song, what are the moments when, according to Heschel "the spirit is real and the glory is present"?
9/18/2004
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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