The Purpose of Shirat Haazinu

This shiur provided courtesy of The Tanach Study Center In memory of Rabbi Abraham Leibtag

Who's to blame when something goes wrong?

In regard to tragedy that befalls the people of Israel, Parshat Ha'azinu offers a very bold, yet fundamental answer.

In the following shiur, we will study the introduction to 'shirat Ha'azinu' (found at the end of Parshat Vayelech) to show how it can help us understand what that song is 'all about'.


Even though the words of shirat Ha'azinu are quite difficult to translate, its overall theme and purpose is quite easy to decipher.  To do so, our shiur will first discuss the interesting introduction to this 'song' - which explains not only its purpose, but also the important questions that it is supposed to answer.  Then, we will show how the shira follows this theme, and answers those questions.

The Introduction in Parshat Vayelech

At the conclusion of Parshat Vayelech we find a new 'parshia' that begins in 31:14.  [Before continuing, it is recommended that you first quickly review that entire section, i.e. 31:14-30.]

This section begins with a rather depressing prediction, as God summons Moshe and Yehoshua to the 'ohel moed', to inform them that Yehoshua (and whoever may take leadership afterward) can 'expect the worst':

"And God said to Moshe, you will soon die, but this nation may thereupon go astray after strange gods of the land... and they will leave Me and [hence] break My covenant...  Then [therefore] on that day I will kindle My anger against them, and I will [appear to] abandon them, and hide My face from them, and many terrible things and tragedies will befall them, and they will say on that day, surely - it is because God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us" (see 31:14-17).

Even though God does not want this to happen, He appears to be quite sure that this scenario is inevitable.  [God's experience with Bnei Yisrael over the last forty years in the desert may have led to this conclusion.]

However, the purpose of God's statement is not simply to depress Moshe and Yehoshua.  Rather, it is to provide Am Yisrael with the necessary 'tool' that will help them cope (and properly respond) should such a situation arise.  To prove this, simply read the next two pesukim, noting how this introduction to the shira continues:

"And I will hide My face from them, for they have done evil and turned to other gods.

Therefore - write down this shira [song] and teach it to Bnei Yisrael... in order that this poem be My witness against the people of Israel - for when I bring them to the land flowing with milk & honey, as I swore to their forefathers, and they will eat and become satiated and grow fat - and will then turn to other gods and worship them, hence breaking My covenant."

Then, when these terrible things befall them, this song shall confront them as a witness, for it shall never be forgotten from their offspring - for I know their yetzer [evil inclinations], even before I bring them into the land..."  (see 31:19-21).

Based on this introduction, we now know what to expect from shirat Ha'azinu.  However, to fully appreciate its purpose, we must return to a key pasuk in this introduction (31:17), whose meaning (at first glance) appears to be unclear.

Who's to Blame?

Recall how God not only 'predicted' how Bnei Yisrael will stray after other gods, He also foresaw how they would react:

"And I will kindle My anger against them on that day [i.e. at that time] and leave them, for I will hide My face from them, and terrible things will befall them - and they will say on that day [at that time] - it is because God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us"  (31:17).

At first glance, the meaning of (Bnei Yisrael's response) : "it is because God is not in our midst" - is not clear.  Are Bnei Yisrael blaming God for these terrible events, or are they blaming themselves!  In other words, does their statement reflect a sense of:

  • Remorse ['teshuva'], understanding that they are at blame for they have left God.


  • Anger with God - blaming Him for abandoning His people.

[See Seforno.]

However, the answer to this question lies in the next pasuk:

"But I will hide My face from them, for they have done evil and turned to other gods" (31:18).

God's insistence that He will continue to hide His face from them implies that Bnei Yisrael statement in 31:17 reflected their anger with God (and not their remorse from their deeds).

Thus, we appear to have reached an impasse, as God blames His nation for unfaithfulness; while Am Yisrael blames God for not caring.

[See also Ramban on 31:17, where he indeed understands Bnei Yisrael's statement as minimal teshuva; however (most probably due to 31:18), Ramban understands this teshuva as superficial, and hence God continues to hide His face, waiting for Am Yisrael to perform more intense teshuva before they can be deserving of redemption.]

Therefore, to prepare Bnei Yisrael for this inevitable 'showdown' of 'who's to blame', Moshe charges the nation before his death, teaching them shirat Ha'azinu - so that the 'answer' is ready for any future generation (see 31:22-30).

With this background, we can begin our study of the shira, with the goal of showing how it relates directly to the points raised in this introduction.

32:1-3 - The Preface

Review the first three pesukim (32:1-3), noting how they form a preface.  In fact, 32:3 explains who Bnei Yisrael should answer with a 'praise to the Lord' whenever Moshe will mention God's Name (and hence our custom to this day of saying 'baruch Hu uvaruch shemo' - whenever we hear God's Name mentioned in a blessing.]

[In regard to the 'shamayim' and 'aretz' being called upon to witness, see Part Two of this shiur.]

This observation is important, for if 32:1-3 forms an introduction, then we can conclude that 32:4 forms the opening (and cardinal) statement of the shira.

32:4-6 - The Opening Statement [Who's to blame!]

To confirm this point, review 32:4-6, noting how these pesukim deal directly with the key question of 'who's to blame'!  [i.e. God or the people]:

The Rock [i.e. God] - His deeds are perfect, all His way are just. A steadfast God ['emuna' - see the shiur on 'mei meriva'!] and no injustice. He is just and upright.

If so, then who should Bnei Yisrael blame when something goes wrong?  Once again, the shira provides the answer:

[Do you attribute] injustice to Him? ['shichet lo'] no - ['lo' - with an 'aleph'] It is his children's fault ['banav mumam'] - A generation so crooked and perverse. Shall you blame this on God? - so foolish a nation- and unwise For He is your father who created you He made you and established you. [And therefore, why would He want to cause you harm, unless there was a purpose.]

Based on our introduction, it is clear why this must be the opening statement - for this is exactly the question that Bnei Yisrael will ask when they are confronted with tragedy.  Since they are God's nation, they expect their God to protect them and save them from trouble.

However, this question stems from a terrible misunderstanding of the special relationship between God and His people.  God did not promise to be a like 'fairy godmother', taking care of every tiny need of a spoiled child.  Rather, God entered a covenant with Bnei Yisrael for a purpose - to represent Him before the nations of the world.  [See TSC shiurim on Breishit, Noach, Lech Lecha, Vayera, etc.]

This covenant contains not only privileges (i.e. promises of protection), but also responsibilities.  Because the goal of this covenant is so important, God threatens to punish Bnei Yisrael should they be unfaithful to this covenant, just as he promises to be helpful should they be faithful.  [This theme is repeated numerous times in Chumash, especially in the 'tochachot', and throughout Sefer Devarim.]

Therefore, the purpose of divine punishment is to remind Bnei Yisrael of their covenantal responsibility should they go astray.  [Note the Torah's use of the word 'brit' in 31:16 & 20!]  Hence, the shira opens by telling us not to blame God when the nation is plagued by tragedy.  Instead, blame yourselves, for God has no reason to punish you - unless you have gone astray.

32:7-12 - Remember Why and How You Were Chosen

The last point made in this section (i.e. 31:6) forms the introduction to the next section of the shira.  Recall God's last remark: "Shall you blame this on God - so foolish a nation- and unwise?  For He is your father who created you, He made you and established you."

Now, God explains how and why we should remember this point, by providing a quick review of Jewish History, from the time of Creation.

Remember the days of old, consider the ages past. Ask your father, and he will tell you, so too your elders. When Elyon [God] gave each nation its land, As He divided up the nations [i.e. Migdal Bavel narrative] He fixed the borders of these nations, According to the numbers of Bnei Yisrael - For God's portion is His people - [The children of] Yaakov - is His allotment  (32:7-9).

In other words, when God first established mankind, dividing them up into nations, He already had in mind this purpose of Bnei Yisrael to represent Him amongst these nations.  [See TSC shiur on Parshat Noach - re: Migdal Bavel.]

The next three pesukim (32:10-12) describe how God took Bnei Yisrael through the desert, taking care of their needs, and preparing them for their existence in the land of Israel:

He found them in the desert land... ...  & watched over them as the pupil of His eye. Like an eagle watches over his nestlings... God alone guided them (thru the desert) No other god assisted Him.

32:13-15 - From Prosperity to Affluence

At this point, the shira now shifts from past to future, projecting what may happen when Bnei Yisrael will enter the land; i.e. warning how prosperity may lead to affluence, and then to idol worship, and then to divine punishment.  In other words, all of the points described in the introduction (see 31:16-20), are now described in poetic detail.

He set them up atop the highlands To feast on the yield of the earth He fed them honey from the crag And oil from the flint of the rock... The best lamb, and rams, and goats With the very finest wheat, and foaming grape drink. So Yeshurun [Israel] grew fat and kicked Fat, gross, and coarse. He forsook the God who made him (compare 32:16) And spurned the Rock (see 32:4) of his salvation.

32:16-18 - From Affluence to Idol Worship

They incensed Him with alien things, Vexed Him with abominations. They sacrificed to demons, no-gods. Gods they had never known, new ones.... You neglected the Rock that gave birth to you Forgot the God who brought you forth.

(again, compare with 32:4-6!)

32:19-25 / God's Wrath is Kindled

As Bnei Yisrael have broken the covenant, God has no choice but to punish them, for what is the point of their existence if they are not fulfilling their covenantal purpose!  Therefore, the next section describes this punishment.  Once again, we find how the topic of 31:17 (& 31:21) is described in poetic detail.

The Lord saw and was vexed He spurned His sons and daughters, saying: I will hide My face from them ['hester panim' (see 31:17-18)] Then see how they will fare in the end! For they are a treacherous breed, Children with no loyalty. They incensed Me with no-gods... I will incense them with a no-folk Vex them with a nation of fools. For a fire has flared in My wrath.... [read the rest on your own]

The sword shall deal death without As shall the terror within To young man and maiden alike, The young babies as well as the aged.

32:26-38 - Saved by the Bell

In the next section, God continues to explain how and why His anger is kindled, however He also explains why sooner or later, He must come to the aid of His nation (even though they may not be deserving).

I might have reduced them to nothing Made their memory cease among men - But, for the fear of the taunts of the foe Their enemies who may misjudge and say - "Our own hand has prevailed; none of this was caused by the Lord"

A comment is now added, noting how foolish the nation was for not recognizing the Hand of God in these events.

Were they wise, they would think upon this (compare 32:7) Gain insight into their future: How could one have chased a thousand, And two put ten thousand to flight. Unless their Rock had sold them....

[32:32-25 continues the rebuke]

Then, God explains how and why He will save His nation, so that this disgrace in the eyes of other nations should not become too great.

When God will judge His people And have mercy upon His servants For He will see that they are helpless... Lest [the other nations] say - Where is their God? The rock in whom they sought refuge...

[See Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, Ramban, vs. Rashi]

32:39-43 - A Call for Reflection

Even though God has promised ultimate redemption, He still calls upon Am Yisrael to recognize that He was the cause for both their punishment and salvation:

See, then, that I - I am He There is no god beside Me I bring death, and I cause life I wound and I heel No one can deliver from My Hand...

Finally, the shira concludes with a call to other nations to recognize the hand of God in the wake of these events:

O nations, acclaim His people - For He will avenge the blood of His servants Bring vengeance on His enemies And His land shall protect [or cleanse] His People.

[translation of last phrase is difficult, see commentators.]

This final point is important as well, for it reflects back on the very purpose of God's covenant with Am Yisrael, to represent God among the nations.  In the 'bottom line', God hopes that even when Am Yisrael (unfortunately) needs to be punished; the manner of that severe punishment may still lead to the recognition of God by other nations, hence serving the same underlying purpose

A Harsh Conclusion

As difficult as the message of shirat Ha'azinu may be, its theme is congruent not only with its introduction at the end of Parshat Vayelech, it also follows the very same underlying theme of Chumash that began with God's choice of His nation back in Sefer Breishit, and the demanding terms of God's covenant with Bnei Yisrael at Har Sinai [see shiur on the 13 middot].

Even though Am Yisrael may reach the mistaken conclusion that God is 'hiding His face from them', the primary point of the shira is that God is always there, even though it may appear otherwise.  [See 32:29!]  It also not by chance that God is consistently referred to (in the shira) as the 'tzur' - a large rock, or bolder, that does not move.  It is always there and can even provide protection, even though it often remains unnoticed, or may be taken for granted.

[In my opinion, the Torah's use of the word tzur may also relate to the events at 'nikrat ha-tzur' at Har Sinai - where God first explained to Moshe His attributes of mercy / see Shemot 33:19-22, and its context from 33:12-19, as well as our shiur on the 13 midot - 've-akmal' - i.e. a topic for a future shiur.]

Obviously, the goal of Chumash is that we should never need to experience the sequence of events described in this song.  However, the shira remains as an eternal reminder for Am Yisrael to remember their covenantal purpose, as well as a call for proper teshuva in times of national misfortune.

As Yom Kippur approaches after a year of such terrible sorrow and tragic events, we pray to Hashem that He speedily fulfill His promise of ultimate redemption, as well call upon ourselves to fulfill our destiny to become His special nation.

The witnesses - 'SHAMAYIM va-aretz'

In its preface, shirat Ha'azinu calls upon shamayim va-aretz ['heaven & earth'] to bear witness.  On the one hand, the very mention of this 'Biblical duo' beautifully ties together the end of Sefer Devarim with the very beginning of Sefer Breishit.  However, they also add thematic significance to the shira itself, and its connection to a very basic theme of Chumash. Part Two of this shiur will discuss this topic.


Already in the introduction to shirat Ha'azinu (back in Parshat Vayelech), we find the mention 'shamayim va-aretz', and their call to serve witness:

"Gather to Me all the elders of your tribes that I may speak these words to them, and that I may call shamayim va-aretz to testify..."  (see 31:28-29 / note also 30:19).

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that we find their mention at the very beginning of the song:

"Ha'azinu ha-shamayim va-adabera, ve-tishma ha-aretz imrei fi."  Listen heaven, and I will speak, and the aretz should hear the words of my mouth (see 32:1).

But why are specifically 'heaven and earth' summoned as witnesses?  Although the answer may seem obvious at first, as we will see, there may be far more here than first meets the eye.

Rashi's Approach

Rashi quotes the two classic answers, based on two Midrashim (Sifrei 306 and Tanchuma 1):

  1. An eternal witness: Heaven and earth exist forever and can thus serve as eternal witnesses.  Whereas Moshe himself is mortal, he must summon the everlasting forces of nature as his witnesses. (See Ibn Ezra.)
  2. An agent of enforcement: As explained in Devarim 11:13-17, 'heaven and earth' will reward Bnei Yisrael with adequate rainfall and plenty should they follow His covenant, and punish them with drought should they disobey. (See also Rashbam.)

In truth, these two answers are not mutually exclusive.  They provide a 'double reason' for God's choice of shamayim va-aretz: not only do they provide eternal testimony, but they also help enforce the covenant.

Nevertheless, according to other commentators, these reasons alone do not suffice.  We will now note how both Ibn Ezra and Ramban provide additional comments on this pasuk that point us back to Sefer Breishit.

Back to Bereshit

Let's begin with Ramban.  First of all, he concedes that reason (1) above is the simple 'pshat', and he even brings additional proof from a similar incident, where Yehoshua designates a stone as an eternal witness to a covenant (see Yehoshua 24:25-28).  However, afterward he adds a very interesting comment:

"... these are the original shamayim and aretz that are first mentioned in Breishit.  Since they are entering into a covenant with Israel, they are told to listen..." (Ramban 32:1)

[Note how Ramban refers to this approach as 'al derech ha-emet' [lit. 'by way of the truth'], as opposed to his assessment of his first peirush, as 'al derech ha-pshat' [lit. 'by way of the simple meaning of the text'].  We find this expression al derech ha-emet- quite often throughout the Ramban's commentary, usually when he hints to a much deeper explanation for why the Torah chooses a specific phrase, one which relates to a more general theme in Chumash. (See Ramban's introduction to Chumash.)]

Here we find that Ramban 'hints' to a thematic connection between shirat Ha'azinu and Bereishit, but he does not explain the reason or significance behind this relationship.

Though somewhat obscure, a connection between Ha'azinu and the beginning of Chumash appears in the comments of Ibn Ezra, as well.  First, he quotes Rav Sa'adia Gaon's suggestion that shamayim refers to the 'angels in heaven' and aretz to 'men on earth.'  He then continues:

"... or the testimony [refers to] the rain that will come from heaven and earth that will give [the earth's] produce.  But what seems most correct to me is that they both exist forever [reason (1) above], and I have earlier alluded to the fact that the neshama (of man) is in the middle - between above and below..." (see Ibn Ezra 32:1).

What exactly Ibn Ezra has in mind is far from clear.  However, it appears to be an allusion to his lengthy commentary on Breishit 1:26, where he explains the meaning of God's creation of man 'be-tzelem Elokim'.

Following this 'lead' alluded to by both Ibn Ezra and Ramban, we will explore a possible thematic connection (on a 'pshat level') between the shamayim va-aretz in the first pasuk of shirat Ha'azinu and the shamayim va-aretz in the first pasuk of Chumash.

A 'Prosecutor' or a 'Reminder'?

As we explained earlier, both explanations quoted by Rashi personify shamayim and aretz, treating them as actual witnesses who will enforce the covenant.  This understanding implies that the purpose of this summons to shamayim va-aretz is to frighten Bnei Yisrael, so that they realize that 'someone' is always there watching should they break the covenant.

However, one could suggest a different function of shamayim va-aretz, based on an earlier instance in Sefer Devarim, where Moshe Rabbeinu summoned shamayim va-aretz to witness his final charge to Bnei Yisrael at the conclusion of his 'finale' speech:

"I call upon the shamayim and the aretz as witnesses today, for I am presenting the choice between life and death - the blessing or the curse - and you should choose life..." (see 30:19 & its context).

Commenting on this pasuk, Rashi offers a beautiful explanation.  After first identifying their function as 'eternal witnesses,' Rashi then cites a different explanation from the Midrash:

"Hashem tells Bnei Yisrael: look at the shamayim that I created to serve you - do they ever change from their regular pattern?  Look at the aretz that I created to serve you..."

According to this second peirush, the shamayim and aretz are not personified; they take no active role.  Instead, the pasuk calls upon Am Yisrael, to act!  They must look at and contemplate the shamayim va-aretz, who now serve as a constant reminder, and thereby find purpose in God's creation.

In other words, God's selection of shamayim and aretz to witness the covenant is not in order to 'scare' us, but rather to 'teach' us that just as there is a purpose for God's creation of heaven and earth, so is there an overarching purpose for His covenant with Am Yisrael.

[See also Ramban on Breishit 6:18, in his peirush of the word brit, where he adds al derech ha-emet that brit is connected to 'briya'.  In other words, God's covenant with Noach directly relates to the very purpose of His Creation.]

This Midrash raises the fundamental question, what conclusion does man reach when he contemplates the very existence of 'heaven and earth'?  What does man see in nature - pure coincidence, the work of many gods (with a delicate balance between their conflicting powers), a reality and force beyond human comprehension, or an organized universe created by One God - for a definite purpose?

It is precisely this question that the first two chapters of Sefer Breishit attempt to answer.  They teach us that what we perceive as nature - i.e. shamayim va-aretz and all their hosts (see 1:1, 2:1 & 2:4) - is a willful act of God.  Man, the pinnacle of God's creation, was charged to serve God (see 2:15) and to rule over nature (see 1:28).

At the same time, however, it is precisely shamayim va-aretz that may cause man to arrive at the exact opposite conclusion.  He may indeed perceive Creation as an act of God, but the vast abyss separating shamayim and aretz seems too wide to bridge.  Indeed, God is in heaven - but man remains on earth, with no means by which to connect to the heavens.  God may exist, but there may be no 'hashgacha' [divine providence].  Even though man may perceive and recognize divine Creation, he can still question how that Creator relates to his own daily life.

The Torah provides the answer, presenting the 'prophetic history' of God's relationship with man, himself a 'mixture' of shamayim and aretz (see 2:4-10, note 'neshama' / this may be what Ibn Ezra is referring to in his peirush to Devarim 32:1).  Each brit found in Chumash exemplifies this relationship.

[Exactly how britot embody this relationship lies beyond the scope of this week's shiur.  See the shiur on 13 middot.]

In fact, we find a similar use of shamayim va-aretz in relation to matan Torah - the most intense brit between God and Am Yisrael:

"From the shamayim He made his voice heard... and on the aretz He showed you His great fire, and you heard his words from that fire..." (see Devarim 4:36.  The beginning of that parshia - 4:26 - is the first time we find shamayim and aretz as witnesses!  Find the other parallels between chapters 4 and 30-31.)


We may now, therefore, suggest an additional reason for God's invocation of shamayim and aretz to witness the covenant.  Let's return to the pesukim in Parshat Vayelech that outline the reason for shirat Ha'azinu:

"... and they will leave Me, and I will hide My face from them, and terrible things will befall them, and they will say on that day - it is because God is not in our midst that these terrible things have happened.  But I will continue to hide My face... Therefore, write down this shira... and teach it to Bnei Yisrael in order that it be a witness for Bnei Yisrael..." (see 31:16-19).

God here threatens 'hester panim' - hiding His face, the most severe punishment Bnei Yisrael can experience.  This dreadful reality raises a critical theological question: how can Bnei Yisrael find God if He seems to pay no attention to them?  God's answer to this question is the shira.  God expects Am Yisrael to find Him by contemplating their history and the reason for their existence.  Even when God appears to conceal Himself, He continues to guide our fate - like a parent who 'punishes' a child by ignoring him.  The parent does so not because he doesn't care, but rather to educate the child so that he'll come to realize on his own the importance of parents.

The same 'self-taught' lesson that shirat Ha'azinu demands of us (see 32:7) may be the lesson of the opening pasuk in particular.  Shamayim and aretz are summoned as witnesses to help us recognize God's hashgacha, even when it appears to be hiding from us.

[Iy"h, the shiur on Parshat Breishit will discuss the meaning of rakia - created on the second day, that appears to divide between shamayim va-aretz (note the absence of 'ki-tov' on that day).  Similarly, in our study of Sukkot, we will discuss how the s'chach, which divides between our sukkah on the aretz and the shamayim above, yet needs to remain partially open - so that we can still 'see the stars'!]

As you study shirat Ha'azinu, note how this theme of historical perspective emerges as a primary topic.  Furthermore, note how it demands that we contemplate not only nature, but even more so - historical events - as it provides an eternal guide for the pattern of God's dynamic relationship with His people.