Haazinu: Moshe Rabbeinu's Last Day

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

Parshat Vayelech opens with Moshe's farewell to Bnei Yisrael, in which he informs them that he will soon die and reassures them that Yehoshua will take over and fulfill what God had promised (see 31:1-6). The opening pasuk of the parsha baffled the commentators:

"Vayelech Moshe - and Moshe WENT, and spoke these things to Bnei Yisrael..." (31:1)

Where did Moshe go? Where was he coming from?

Most commentators suggest that for his final farewell, Moshe left his own tent and 'went' from tribe to tribe to comfort each shevet individually. [See Ramban, Chizkuni, & Ibn Ezra.]

Ibn Ezra adds a very interesting insight to this interpretation. He understands that while Moshe visited each shevet to bid farewell, he gave each tribe their individual blessing, i.e. the blessing recorded later in Parshat V'zot Habracha (33:1-29).  [See Ibn Ezra on 31:1 inside!]

If Ibn Ezra is correct, then SHIRAT HA'AZINU becomes the final message of Chumash! This interpretation is supported by the final pesukim of Parshat Ha'azinu, where God commands Moshe to ascend Har Nevo to die (see 32:48-52), which, chronologically, must be the last narrative of Chumash.

[See also Ramban on 31:24-26. Even though Ramban disagrees with Ibn Ezra with regard to the actual sequence of events, V'ZOT HABRACHA is still not Moshe's final message to Bnei Yisrael.  It is merely his final blessing. The closing 'charge to Am Yisrael' of Chumash is definitely Shirat Ha'azinu, even though Moshe may have administered his blessings to the tribes later on that day.]

This observation can provide us with a better appreciation of the final events of Sefer Devarim.  After Moshe Rabbeinu completed his speeches [i.e. the main speech of mitzvot/ chapters 5->26, and the "tochacha"/ chapters.27->30], Chumash concludes with two mitzvot that guarantee the continuity of Am Yisrael.

  1. HAKHEL (31:7-13)
  2. SHIRAT HA'AZINU (31:14->32:47)

[Note that both these sections include the writing of the Torah, see 31:9 & 31:24-26!]

Let's explain:

After introducing Yehoshua as his successor (31:1-8), Moshe gives the written Torah to the KOHANIM and the elders (31:9), charging them with the responsibility of continuing what Moshe had begun - i.e. teaching this Torah to the entire nation.  As we explained in the shiur on Vayelech, the mitzvah of HAKHEL is added in order to 'relive' the SINAI experience every seven years.

Note the conclusion of this unit:

"And the children, who do not yet know, will listen and learn to fear God all the days that you LIVE on THE LAND THAT YOU ARE NOW CROSSING THE JORDAN TO INHERIT." (31:13)

A similar conclusion closes SHIRAT HA'AZINU:

"For this is not an empty thing, for it is your life, and by keeping this, you will LIVE many years on THE LAND THAT YOU ARE NOW CROSSING THE JORDAN TO INHERIT."  (See 32:47 and its context.)

Certainly, the teaching of the Torah guarantees the continuity of Am Yisrael; but wherein lies the importance of SHIRAT HA'AZINU?

As we explained in Sefer Breishit, God has set a goal for the Jewish people: to become a nation that abides by His Torah and represents Him by serving as His chosen nation. This stature of a special nation entails not only privileges, but, even more so, responsibility. Therefore, to assure that Bnei Yisrael will keep His laws, it becomes necessary to punish them should they disobey and not fulfill that destiny. [That's what the "tochacha" is all about.]

The fact that God's covenant with Bnei Yisrael necessarily includes divine punishment creates an intriguing predicament. Specifically because of our status as His special nation, our plight becomes worse than other nations (see Amos 3:1-2!). When misunderstood, this can lead to a very dangerous conclusion. Instead of understanding punishment as a divine call for "teshuva," Am Yisrael may perceive it as proof that they are no longer chosen, and hence no longer bound by God's covenant. When things go bad, they will blame God rather than themselves. For example:

"The ROCK (the Lord)- His deeds are perfect, His ways are just, a faithful God, never false, He is true and upright, [but] SHICHET LO, LOA BANAV MUMAM... - Do you attribute the bad to Him? No! It is His children who are at fault, a crooked and perverse generation. Do you blame God for this, o dull and witless people? Is not He the Father who created you? He made you and fashioned you!"  (loose translation of 32:4-6).

As SHIRAT HA'AZINU continues, God predicts the inevitable outcome of Bnei Yisrael's settlement in the land. They will become affluent and forget Him (see 32:15). He, in turn, will punish them or hide His face from them, but they will fail to recognize the reason behind their punishment (see 32:16-26). That is why we need the SHIRA. SHIRAT HAAZINU reminds us not only of God, but also of WHY we are chosen, that our stature and accompanying responsibilities remain applicable even when our situation is far from ideal. "ZCHOR Y'MOT OLAM..." - Remember, learn from your history... (see 32:7-13). God tells us how to relate to Him in trying times. If we remember WHY we were chosen, for WHAT PURPOSE, then we will understand why we have been punished. Hopefully, those thoughts will steer Am Yisrael back onto the proper path.

Finally, even should we not repent, ultimately God will redeem us (see 32:27-29), but once again, only so that we recognize our purpose. If not, then the awful process of punishment will start all over again.

This is how SHIRAT HA'AZINU guarantees the continuity of Am Yisrael. It is an eternal cry not only for TESHUVA, but also for the recognition of our purpose, and hence, it reminds us of the reason for both our reward and our punishment.