Torah | Moses swan song: the message we need as the holidays end

Ha’azinu

Deuteronomy 32:1-52

II Samuel 22:1-51

A swan song: a farewell, a final appearance, a last hurrah. While many of the swan songs of history have been from the heart, meaningful and full of inspiration for the future, there have definitely been moments where the performance was so bad that it would warrant using the old Vaudeville hook to take a person off stage just so the audience wouldn’t have to listen to the routine any longer. I often wonder to myself what I would say in my swan song. Would I offer words of hope and encouragement, advice for the future, or perhaps criticism to those left behind? What would you say in your swan song?

This week’s Torah portion, Ha’azinu, is one of only a handful of poetic pieces in the entire Torah; in a way, it is Moses’ swan song as he prepares to die.

The content of his speech is challenging. On the one hand, Moses reminds the Israelites of God’s divine qualities of justice and mercy, characteristics that filled the pages of our High Holy Days liturgy in recent weeks. At the same time, Moses chastises them for all of their wrongdoings, not only in the past, but in the future as well. It is as if the fearless leader of the Israelites has succumbed to the realization that, despite his best efforts, the Jewish people will never be perfect. One might also say that since this is Moses’ last hurrah, it was a final opportunity for Moses to get up on his soapbox and vent all of the frustrations from his life.

There is, however, one saving grace in the whole monologue.

At the very end Moses says: “Take to heart all the words with which I have warned you this day. Enjoin them upon your children that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this teaching. For this is not a trifling thing for you: it is your very life; through it you shall long endure on the land that you are to possess upon crossing the Jordan” (Deuteronomy 32:46-47).

In his summary of the significance of this song, Nachmanides, the great 13th-century Spanish commentator, says that the beauty of what Moses says is not so much the literal content, but the fact that it speaks to ultimate redemption. Quoting a midrash, Nachmanides teaches: “Great is this song as it embraces the present, the past and the future, this life and the thereafter.”

Nachmanides picks up on an important insight about life: There will be times throughout our lives — past, present and future — when we fall off course and lose our way. There are times when our stubbornness will overpower our ability to change or to behave in a moral or ethical way. Yet, ultimately, we believe in a God that is a judge of truth, Dayan HaEmet, and a God of mercy, Rachamim. In a way, Moses paints an honest reality of human living, that we are and always will be fallible. That is our nature; that is what it means to be human. Even though we may strive to do what’s right and to improve when we make mistakes, we will nonetheless err. At the end of the day, however, God will still be our God and God will still be by our side, judging us fairly and with mercy.

As we continue through the holiday season, transitioning from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur into Sukkot — from a time when God judges us mercifully and with compassion to a time of joy and celebration — may we be blessed with the foresight of Moses. May we long be able to recognize our faults while embracing our vulnerabilities. And at the same time, may we forever aspire to do better and appreciate how we’ve grown throughout life, despite the knowledge that we will again make mistakes or behave stubbornly. Hopefully, no matter our past or even our present, Moses leaves us with the encouragement and blessing that we can and will begin the next phase of life singing a new song filled with hope, new meaning, inspiration for all that we do and peace.

Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at rabbi@peninsulasinai.org.

Rabbi Corey Helfand

Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at rabbi@peninsulasinai.org.