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Haazinu | The Constant Connection

Rav Itiel Gold

I. The Purpose of the Song

Parashat Haazinu is unique among all the parashot in the book of Devarim.  Up to this point, the speaker in the entire book has been Moshe, with God in the background, but here the roles are reversed. Already towards the end of the previous parasha, we encounter for the first time in the book the word of God, who gives a song to the people of Israel,[1] with an unusual explicit command that the song be written and placed in the mouths of Israel: 

Now therefore write this song for you, and teach it to the children of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for Me against the children of Israel. (Devarim 31:19) 

In addition, God commands that the song be remembered from generation to generation: "For it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed" (31:21). This seems to be the reason that God chose to convey the ideas in the form of a song – a medium that allows ideas to be transmitted and remembered in a simple and popular way. 

What is the exceedingly important idea that is expressed in the Song of Haazinu? On the face of it, the song deals with an idea that has already been mentioned many times throughout the book: the people of Israel will come to the land and sin there, and will be punished in response.

The basic answer to this question can be found in the previous parasha, where God explains that the song is intended to testify against the people of Israel in times of trouble:

Then My anger shall be kindled against them on that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide My face from them, and they shall be devoured, and many evils and troubles shall come upon them; so that they will say in that day: Are not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us? And I will surely hide My face on that day for all the evil which they shall have wrought, in that they are turned to other gods. Now therefore write this song for you, and teach it to the children of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for Me against the children of Israel. (31:17-19)

God describes here a problematic situation that will occur in the future: He will hide His face, because of the evil deeds committed by the people, and that will lead to troubles. However, instead of the troubles stirring the people to repent, they are liable to interpret this as God's abandonment of them: "Are not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?" which will only lead them to distance themselves even further from God.

At this point, God would like to turn to the people and explain that hiding His face is not abandonment, but rather it stems from their actions that anger Him. Paradoxically, the hiding of God's face is actually an expression of connection. In the framework of a relationship, one of the parties can be disappointed, angry, and distant. But when there is no relationship at all, none of this is relevant; there is simply a general disregard.

However, God cannot turn to the people at such a historical moment and explain this, because it would negate the hiding of His face: "So that they will say on that day: Are not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us? And I will surely hide My face on that day…" (31:16-17).

The song serves as a solution to this complex problem. It functions as a "witness" in that it describes in advance Israel's anticipated sins, that will lead to the hiding of God's face and to their troubles. The people of Israel have the song and will pass it down from generation to generation. Thus, when the troubles appear, it will become clear to the people that they arose precisely from Israel's connection to God, who at this time is deliberately hiding His face from them.

The song is actually a letter sent to the future, to the time when God will be prevented from speaking with Israel. The letter to the future expresses the deep connection between God and Israel, which exists, though hidden, even in times of trouble. It is the same connection that is the cause of the trouble.

Now, we can move on to the song itself and see how it expresses this idea.

II. “You Are Sons of the Lord Your God”

          Towards the beginning of the song, the relationship between God and the people of Israel is compared to the relationship between a father and his son: "Is He not your Father that has made you [kanekha]? Has He not made you, and established you?" (32:6).[2] God is the Father of the people, He who brought them into being and created them.[3] For this reason, He also protects and worries about them: "As an eagle that stirs up her nest, hovers over her young, spreads abroad her wings, takes them, bears them on her pinions" (11).

God's devoted care of His children is connected to the primal period, when the people of Israel were in the stage of early childhood: "He found him in a desert land, and in the waste, a howling wilderness; He encircled him about; He cared for him; He guarded him as the apple [lit. pupil] of His eye" (10). This verse gives an intimate and moving description of God's devoted care of his people during their wanderings in the wilderness.

It is reasonable to interpret the phrase "He found him [yimtza'eihu] in a desert land" in accordance with the commentary of the Rashbam:[4]

Like "and suffice for them [u-matza lahem]" (Bamidbar 11:22). The Holy One, blessed be He, sufficed for them; the Holy One, blessed be He, satisfied them." (Rashbam, ad loc.) 

The relationship between God and Israel in the wilderness was similar to the primal relationship between parents and their child, in which they are there for him and provide for all his needs. 

The commentators struggled to understand why the song opens with a description of Israel's wandering in the wilderness and ignores the exodus from Egypt. It seems that the answer to this question relates to the purpose of the song – to describe the relationship between God and Israel using the metaphor of a father and his son. As mentioned, the period that most symbolizes this is the period of the wilderness, when Israel received close paternal care.[5] The exodus itself expressed a different relationship – not of father and son, but of savior and saved.

We can appreciate the difference if we compare the image of the "eagle" that appears here with a corresponding image in the book of Shemot, just after the exodus from Egypt:

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings, and brought you to Me. (Shemot 19:4)  

There too, God uses the image of an eagle's protection, but in a different way. In Shemot, the eagle is described as helping to bring the people of Israel from Egypt to God. The nation already exists, but they are in a state of slavery, and God saves them and brings them to Him. In contrast, here in the Song of Haazinu, the eagle is described as a protector and guardian of its young. It reflects the intimate relationship between a father and his son, the father watching over his son "as the apple of His eye." Therefore, for the purpose of developing an understanding of this layer of the relationship between God and Israel, the song turns to the period of Israel's sojourning in the wilderness and not to the exodus from Egypt.

The next period to which the song turns, using the metaphor of the father and son, is that of Israel's entry into the land:

He made him ride on the high places of the earth, and he did eat the fruitage of the field; and He made him to suck honey out of the crag, and oil out of the flinty rock. (Devarim 32:13) 

At this stage, the nation moves into a more mature period. They are no longer young chicks that require close care inside the nest. They can already be set down in the land, in a place of abundance, where they will be able to manage on their own. However, they must still remember that the source of all this abundance is their Father, God.

Therefore, here too we find an expression of parental care (this time maternal rather than paternal): "And He made him to suck honey out of the crag." The people of Israel are supposed to be more independent with all the abundance in the land, but still feel that they are in essence suckling from God.

III. The Hiding of God’s Face

The beginning of the song thus describes the "paradise of childhood," in which there was a harmonious relationship between God the Father and His child, Israel. The people received a land full of abundance in order to continue living in paradise while maintaining a relationship with God.

However, the song predicts that the people will not be equal to the task. Adolescence will lead to disconnection and to forgetting the Father who gave birth to the nation:

But Yeshurun waxed fat, and kicked – you did wax fat, you did grow thick, you did become gross – and he forsook God who made him… Of the Rock that begot you, you were unmindful, and you forgot God that bore you. (15-18)

Now comes the stage of God's hiding His face, which was already mentioned in the previous parasha as an event that requires the writing of the song:

And He said: I will hide My face from them, I will see what their end shall be; for they are a very contrary generation, children in whom is no faithfulness. (20) 

On the one hand, there is harsh criticism of Israel here – "a very contrary generation." Instead of returning God's goodness, they alienate themselves from their heavenly Father. However, it seems that there is also another message here.

In tractate Kiddushin (36a), Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Meir disagree about whether or not the people of Israel are called God's sons even when they sin. Rabbi Yehuda maintains that they are called sons only when they act properly – "when you behave as sons, you are designated as ‘sons.’" Rabbi Meir disagrees: “Either way, you are called sons, as it is stated… 'They are sons in whom there is no faithfulness.’” Rabbi Meir's proof that Israel continues to be called God's sons is from this verse, which contains a sharp critique of Israel but in which, despite the criticism, Israel is still referred to as "sons."[6]

We may add to the words of Rabbi Meir that it is possible that it is precisely because the people of Israel are considered God's sons that He resorts to hiding His face. As mentioned above, paradoxically, it is precisely the close relationship that can cause hurt and anger. The hiding of God's face is a result of the special relationship between God and His sons, as described at the beginning of the song. We are talking about chicks that were cared for with great devotion, who decided to abandon their father – "And he forsook God who made him" (15). Only such a move can lead to the stirring up of the father's anger: "They have provoked Me with their vanities" (21). 

This point is related to another interesting phenomenon that appears in verse 20. As mentioned, God speaks there about hiding His face due to the sins of the people. Ostensibly, "hiding the face" means that God will not look at Israel or show interest in them. However, much to our surprise, we find just the opposite: "And He said: I will hide My face from them, I will see what their end shall be." On the one hand, God hides His face, while on the other hand, He continues to see what will happen to them in the end! This is reminiscent of a father who hides from his son in a game of hide-and-seek, but keeps peeking to check what is happening with him.

IV. The Father’s Anger

Indeed, the verses that follow indicate that the hiding of God's face is not absolute. Rather, He continues to be interested in what is happening with the people of Israel – and He also continues to be actively involved with them. For example, He does not just hide His face but also punishes them:

For a fire is kindled in My nostril, and burns to the depths of the nether-world, and devours the earth with her produce, and sets ablaze the foundations of the mountains. I will heap evils upon them; I will use up My arrows upon them. (22-23)

It is evident that God’s anger over Israel's betrayal is still active. He cannot be satisfied by distancing Himself from them, for the connection continues to exist at all times. That is why He continues to punish Israel severely, because their actions continue to be connected to Him. These difficult verses seem to contradict the paternal relationship with which the song opened, which is supposed to be warm and loving. However, the ties between a father and his son in the Bible are not limited to care and concern. They include the father's duty to be exacting with his son, so that he will follow the proper path. This obligation also includes the use of harsh chastening to educate the son.

For example, in the passage dealing with a rebellious son: 

If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, that will not hearken to the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and though they chasten him, will not hearken to them. (21:18)

This idea also appears several times in the book of Mishlei, which advises a father to chasten his son in order to educate him: "Correct your son, and he will give you rest; he will give delight to your soul" (Mishlei 29:17). And similarly in the well-known verse: "He that spares his rod hates his son" (Mishlei 13:24).

Already at the beginning of the book of Devarim, we find a parallel between a father's chastening of his son and God's chastening of Israel in order to teach them: "As a man chastens his son, so the Lord your God chastens you" (Devarim 8:5).

Thus in the Song of Haazinu as well, the harsh descriptions of the punishments that will be imposed by God (22-25) appear deliberately after the many images at the beginning of the song, which compare the relationship between God and Israel to the relationship between a father and his son. They constitute a result of this connection and explain why the Father, God, would intend to punish the son, Israel, with such severity.

The harsh punishments for the sons are not perceived as alienation, but rather as a fulfillment of a father's duty to educate his son. The punishments are created out of concern for the son, for him to emerge from them educated and worthy. It is precisely a father who fails to punish his son who is perceived as alienated from him.

V. The Reaction of the Nations

The song then teaches that God's punishments will continue to be imposed upon the people, but only up to a certain limit. Though God thinks even about destroying the people, he stops because of the possible reaction of the other nations:

I thought I would make an end of them, I would make their memory cease from among men; were it not that I dreaded the enemy's provocation, lest their adversaries should misjudge, lest they should say: Our hand is exalted, and it was not the Lord who wrought all this. (26-27) 

God is concerned that the nations will conclude that their success was due to their own strength rather than to His initiative to punish Israel.[7]

It is worth noting the similarity between the concern regarding the reaction of the nations and the concern for Israel's reaction to the troubles. As stated earlier, the entire song was written as a solution to the possibility that once the troubles come upon them, Israel would say: "Are not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?" (31:17). There is a risk that the punishments will be interpreted incorrectly; instead of an educational act performed by a father on behalf of his sons, they will be perceived as abandonment. Here we encounter a similar risk, but from the direction of the nations; they too are liable to misunderstand the punishments imposed upon Israel and think that they represent abandonment. At this point, God is limited, as it were, with respect to the level of punishment that He can mete out against Israel. He must put an end to it, so the nations will not think that God's hand is not directing the events.

We thus see that it is very important to God that it be understood, by both Israel and the nations, that His actions stem exclusively from the special relationship between Him and his sons. This relationship leads not only to high levels of devoted care, but also to anger and severe punishment, in the wake of the sons' abandonment of their Father.

As soon as such a lack of understanding arises and the people's troubles are liable to be interpreted as a sign of God's leaving the relationship, God must intervene and act. In the case of Israel, He writes in advance a song that will testify before them that they are experiencing punishment as part of the connection. As for the nations, God is "forced" to put an end to Israel's troubles, even if they are undeserving.

Once again, we see that even when God hides His face, He continues to be interested in what is happening with Israel. It is important to Him that the nations continue to see them as His sons and the punishments imposed upon them as an educational initiative.

VI. God’s Mercy

The Song of Haazinu does not end on a particularly optimistic note. It does, however, end with a certain degree of salvation and vengeance against enemies (36-42). As stated, this salvation is connected to the fear of an inappropriate reaction on the part of the nations, but there is also another factor: God's mercy is stirred over the people of Israel, who are in a state of utter helplessness:

For the Lord will judge His people, and repent Himself for His servants; when He sees that their might is gone, and there is none remaining, shut up or left at large. (36)

There is no real or just reason for God's “change of mind” here, such as repentance or the merits of the Patriarchs, which appear elsewhere in the Torah as reasons for salvation. Here, there is only God's simple mercy for His people, since there is no one else to help them.

One might have expected that the image of the father and son would appear in this part of the song as well. After all, this is what is special about the relationship between fathers and sons – that with all the anger and difficulty, the basic love that gives rise to mercy remains. It is difficult for a father to see his son in a desperate situation, so he takes pity on him, beyond the letter of the law; "If we are like sons, have mercy on us as a father has mercy on his sons" (Rosh Hashanah prayer).

Surprisingly, however, it is precisely at the end of the song, when mercy is introduced, that the image of the father and the son is absent and the song moves to other images: "For the Lord will judge His people, and repent Himself for His servants" (32). Here, Israel is not called God's sons, but His people and His servants. So too in the last verse in the song, which deals with the future revenge against the nations: "Sing aloud, O you nations, of His people; for He does avenge the blood of His servants" (43) – God will avenge the blood of His servants, not the blood of His sons.

The perception of the song in particular, and of the Torah in general, is different from the current perception of the relationship between fathers and sons. This relationship creates concern and care, but when the son deviates from the proper path, it is the father's responsibility to educate him and even chasten him. Showing mercy at this point, when the child sins, is a dereliction of parental responsibility.

Mercy can, however, come from another direction – from the relationship between master and slave. The slave is weak, void of rights, and defenseless. Helplessness is an essential part of the slave's existence, which leads to his master's mercy: "When he sees that their might is gone, and there is none remaining, shut up or left at large." There is no one to help them; they are left to their own devices – and therefore, there is room to show them mercy. As sons, on the other hand, they are seen as having the strength and the ability to meet expectations and challenges. There is no room for mercy and giving up on what can be expected from them.

Therefore, God continues to hide His face from the sons to the end of the song. However, there are also other layers in the relationship with God. He sees the people as oppressed slaves left to their own devices, and thus His pity for them is awakened.[8]

As discussed earlier, the purpose of the song, described in Parashat Vayelekh, is to explain to the people of Israel that the troubles that will come upon them are also part of their connection to God. A study of the song demonstrates that the relationship between God and Israel is expressed in a variety of ways, according to Israel’s various stages and circumstances. The expressions are different, but the root is the same – the deep connection between God and Israel that will never be severed.

That is why the song is so important that it must be committed to writing and memorized. There is a constant connection between God and Israel, that goes beyond the changes of times and circumstances.

Only with this knowledge can the people of Israel enter the Promised Land.

(Translated by David Strauss) 

[1] It is true that the song is worded as spoken by Moses and speaks of God in the third person, as pointed out by Rabbi Samet in his article Mavo Le-Shira.” Apparently, God presented the song to Moshe but he formulated it differently, in accordance with the entire book of Devarim, which is presented as the words of Moshe.

[2] From here on, unless specified otherwise, all citations are from Devarim Chapter 32 – the Song of Haazinu.

[3] The expression "kanekha" in this verse can be misleading and give the impression that God "acquired" the people of Israel. Such an interpretation would present the relationship between God and the people of Israel as that of a master and his slaves, whom he acquires. However, the term "kanekha" appears here in the sense of "maker," as in the words of Chava: "I have made [kaniti] a man with the help of the Lord" (Bereishit 4:1).

[4] It is clearly difficult to interpret the phrase "yimtza'eihu" in the sense of finding a lost object, since God did not find the people of Israel for the first time in the desert. Rashi understands it differently – God found the hearts of the people of Israel whole, for they followed Him in the wilderness. However, this interpretation does not fit as well with the context, which describes God's treatment of the people of Israel rather than Israel's response to it.

[5] In earlier shiurim on the book of Devarim, I have explained the gap between the first generation (that left Egypt) and the second generation (that of the wilderness) in terms of a process of maturation. The first generation is in a primal, childlike state, while the second generation has reached a more mature developmental stage. This gap clarifies various aspects of the book of Devarim; see, for example, my shiurim on Parashot Devarim, Vaetchanan, Ekev, and Ki Tetze. Now, in the Song of Haazinu, we learn that this imagery in relation to the generation of the wilderness is explicit in Scripture.

[6] Similarly, in the previous verse: "And the Lord saw, and spurned, because of the provoking of His sons and His daughters" (19).

[7] God even complains about the fact that the nations are not smart enough to understand that the troubles are only from Him: "If they were wise, they would understand this; they would discern the latter end. How should one chase a thousand, and two put ten thousand to flight, if not because their Rock had given them over and the Lord had delivered them up?" (29-30).

[8] We can find attention to the change of images over the course of the song, and the fashioning of two different relationships between God and Israel, already in Chazal:

"'Is not He your Father that has made you? Has He not made you, and established you?' – If your Father, why your Maker, and if your Maker, why your Father? Rather, when Israel performs the will of God, He has pity for them like a father for his sons, but when they do not perform His will, He chastens them like a slave. Just as a slave, for his good or not for his good, serves his master against His will, so you will do the will of God, for your good or not for your good, against your will" (Shemot Rabba 24, 1). 

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