When I am preparing a family for the funeral of a loved one, we meet privately to recite the phrase Baruch Dayan HaEmet, "Blessed is the True Judge," as we put a tear in the black k'riah ribbons of mourning. We acknowledge that saying the words and hearing the sound are harsh. But I give this perspective: This act frames the funeral, which ends at graveside with the Mourner's Kaddish. Both are statements of faith in God, even at a time when we are most forlorn, angry, or confused. When we recite these phrases, we remind ourselves of the bonds of eternal love—both our love for the deceased and God's love for us.
Parashat Haazinu (Deuteronomy 32:1-52), too, provides such a framing, of the forty years of wilderness wanderings as well as of the career of Moses as leader of God's people. It is to Moses that Torah ascribes the Song at the Sea (Exodus 15), exalting God for the deliverance from Pharaoh and the miracle of the parting of the waters; here, it is Moses who delivers the song of his own eulogy.
At a funeral, the framing provides the family with a sense of strength—a strength which, at that moment, they may not know they possess. So too in the Torah, the framing is given to show the Children of Israel how strong and united they are, how far they have come, and how much they have already endured—despite episodes of impatience and prophecies of future backsliding.
In both cases, the framing is designed to bring the family (or the extended family of Israel) together when circumstances easily could pull them apart.
But the framing of the Song at the Sea and the song of Haazinu also gives us something else: a subtle statement of the evolution of ancient Israelite religion.
Much mainstream scholarship (including the Reform Movement's Plaut Commentary) accepts a dating for Deuteronomy to the reign of King Josiah in the seventh century BCE, based on material brought south during the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom a century earlier. This material was them reshaped to fit the needs of the Southern Kingdom and Josiah's desire to centralize the cult in Jerusalem; emphasize the power and centrality of the priesthood; and exhort the people to the worship of one, and only one, God.1
This shift of emphasis from monolatry (worshiping Israel's God among the gods) to monotheism (the belief that there is only one God) is expressed in the words of the two poems. In Exodus 15:11 we read:
Mi-chamochah ba-eilim, Adonai?
Mi camochah nedar bakodesh?
Nora t'hilot oseh fehleh
"Who is like You, Eternal One, among the celestials;
Who is like You, majestic in holiness,
Awesome in splendor, working wonders!"
And in Deuteronomy 32:21 we read:
Heim kin'uni b'lo-eil, ki-asuni b'havleihem
Va'ani ak'ni-eim b'lo-am, b'goi naval ach'iseim.
"They incensed Me with no-gods, vexed me with their futilities;
I'll incense them with a no-folk, vex them with a nation of fools."
The language here is explicit: No longer is God compared with other eilim, "other gods"; now there is only Eil and lo-eil, the "God" and "no-gods." And if the Israelites do not follow God, they become a "no-folk" because they have no higher power to turn to for help, no Divinity providing guidance, security, or mercy.
The commentators note that other civilizations of no-gods have become no-folk. Rashi singles out the Chaldeans, the idolaters of Abraham's youth, of whom Isaiah said, "Behold the land of Chaldea—this is the people that has ceased to be" (Isaiah 23:13). As Nachmanides emphasizes: "There is no God except for the Lord, no helper other than He."2
In essence, if they reject the theology of monotheism, this group of wilderness-weary former slaves would no longer even be a nation; for this nation was forged in the escape from Egypt and bound in covenant at Sinai, all under God's protection and direction. Without God, there is no Israel; absent God, there is no alternative.
Yet Moses cannot take himself up the mountain to die leaving the people bereft and afraid. His song nears its end with a promise of redemption by this now one-and-only God in Deuteronomy 32:39:
"See, then, that I, I am the One;
There is no god beside Me.
I deal death and give life;
I wounded and I will heal"
God has been so angry, so often, with this stiff-necked and recalcitrant people. But unlike the black k'riah ribbon—which, once torn, cannot be mended to be good as new—the split between God and God's people Israel can always be healed.
1. "Introducing Deuteronomy," Dudley Weinberg and W. Gunther Plaut, in The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Rev. Ed. (New York: URJ Press, 2005), p. 1,143-1,144
2. See Michael Carasik, ed., trans., annot., The Commentators' Bible: Deuteronomy, the Rubin Miqra'ot Gedolot (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2015), p. 226
Imagine you're an Israelite camped out across the Jordan River, poised to enter the Promised Land, and you hear Moses final appeal and farewell. Maybe your reaction would be similar to that of the fictitious child of Israel quoted below:
"Oh my gawd, the rabbi's final sermon this week! I mean, what a farewell! You think he's a little frustrated? Rav Moshe didn't give us the usual "Charlton Heston" tones and his "Now hear the word of the Lord" bit. No pious platitudes, it was just straight talk. I guess he knew that this was his farewell sermon, so he summed it all up for us. I went home and wrote down what he said. Of course, he said it in Hebrew in kind of poetic words, so this is just my take on it, you understand."
Pay Attention! Have you people been listening to me, or what? Week after week, I'm here telling you guys that God lets Her goodness rain down on you, and you act like you deserve it. Sometimes, I feel you people are unworthy of His blessings. You are a crooked and twisted bunch; your baseness has played God false. Are you guys just dull and witless? Don't you get it?
God has created a wonderful universe and given it to you; life is good and full of blessings. God wants you to enjoy Her gift of life . . . not take it for granted and follow your own heart to do "bad." Just add an "o" in the middle of God and you get "good." That's what He wants from us—to do good. Otherwise She's gonna zap the heck out of you—literally (remember Nadab and Abihu?). How many times do you need to get zapped before you get it?
I have been telling you people this for years now, but I'm not gonna be around forever, you know. Sometimes I think that talking to this people is like talking to the earth and sky. Haazinu! Pay attention! Next week I'm moving to the retirement home up on Mount Nebo, so I won't be here to guide you anymore. I got the call today that a bed has opened and I have to take it or lose my place.
So remember: God loves you. She's like a mighty eagle watching over her brood, but it's also in your hands. Do good and live long and prosper.
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