Transmission of Torah values through the soul of poetry
Parshat Ha’azinu is known as a shirah, a song or poem. The Torah has another famous shirah, the “Shirat Hayam,” better known as “Az Yashir,” the song or poem of the Red Sea. In these sections, the text of the Torah is written as justified columns of words, occasionally interrupted with spaces to separate passages.
The Talmud, in Megillah 16b, says that “Shirat Hayam” is written in the Torah as a brick wall, with interlocking bricks. One line has two longer “bricks” of words on the two sides. The next line has two shorter “half-bricks” on the sides, with a longer brick in the middle. Between the bricks, there are empty spaces. In the Scroll of Esther, the “song” relating the downfall of the 10 sons of Haman is written in two long thin columns. This is because the wicked should not be able to stand up — a tower of single bricks will topple. An interlocking wall, on the other hand, has strength.
If so, why is it that the song of Ha’azinu is written in two parallel columns, with a space (gutter) going down the length of the shirah? There is no interlocking. What is the difference between “Shirat Hayam” and Ha’azinu? Why is Ha’azinu like the song of the wicked?
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Rabbeinu Nissim (Gerona, 1320-1376) answers: Ha’azinu includes a passage about the downfall of the wicked. In addition, the two columns are not made up of short bricks, but long bricks, with a shorter space. This does not fully answer the question. Why would it not be interlocking as well?
It is quite obvious that “Shirat Hayam” is all about the joy and exultation felt when Israel experienced the revelation of the Shechina, the Divine Presence. They felt the warmth and closeness of Hashem and were inspired to song.
Ha’azinu, however, is a poem of rebuke. Moshe is about to take leave of Israel, and he warns them about what lies ahead. If they misbehave, terrible consequences will result. He actually records the type of misbehavior. But then why is it called a shirah, which usually means a more positive type of song?
The power of poetry and song is greater than that of ordinary prose or conversation. Both serve to connect two people. Conversation communicates logical thoughts and ideas. Song, poetry and art communicate on a much deeper level. The two souls communicate. What cannot be expressed with mere words can be expressed through these media. Internal feelings, moods and emotions can be communicated.
We say in the section of Shabbat and yom tov prayer known as “Nishmat,” “All the insides and kidneys will sing to Your Name,” because song comes forth from the innermost parts of the body. Hidden thoughts, even unknown feelings, can be passed from one soul to the other. Even if one does not even understand it himself — even if neither side understands — the message is passed on, and it rests inside until the time will come that it will make sense or will be felt.
This passage of Torah was given in poetic form. This quality is greater than the quality of regular Torah. It is Torah studied as a song. It can penetrate many barriers between the two parties.
At the Red Sea, Moshe and Israel, and in many ways Hashem Himself, were all able to come together on a very internal and deep level. The song is an expression of this joining of the souls. The interlocking pattern shows this connectivity. The spaces show that there really does exist a distance between Israel and Hashem, but there is also a connection. The middle bricks break the barriers.
In Ha’azinu the theme is indeed rebuke. But the purpose is to connect the new generation with the old. The central verses are “Remember the [history of] the days of the world. Make sure to understand the years of each generation. Ask your father so that he will relate [the history] to you, and your grandfather, that he may say it to you!” The later generation will not have witnessed the events witnessed by the earlier generations. They will never be able to see them visually. Only if their fathers somehow are able to convey the feelings and experiences, will they ever gain any insight into history. Even then, they will never fully understand it. This is why the introduction of this song calls on the Heavens and Earth to testify. There will come a time in the future that a generation will be totally ignorant of the great experiences, they will not understand them, or they will not believe them!
Rebuke implies two parties on opposite sides, with a space or barrier between them. In addition, there is a generation gap. Through the medium of poetry, they can come together and understand each other. Their souls can communicate and connect.
Moshe realized that after he departed there would be a distance between himself and Israel. There would no longer be that connection. Through this shirah they would be able to relate to him until the end of time. Every single Israelite, in every generation, can relate to the soul of Moshe through song in a way that he does not even understand. The soul is connecting to the soul. This song embodies the power of mesorah, transmission of the Torah. PJC
Rabbi Shimon Silver is the spiritual leader of Young Israel of Greater Pittsburgh. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.