Ha-azinu:  Raining Wisdom

When Moses is 120, his main worry is that the Israelites and their fellow-travelers will continue to disobey their God.  So in last week’s Torah portion, Vayeilekh (“And he went”), before he climbs up Mount Nebo to die, he gives the people a written scroll called the Torah, and teaches them a song.  Both are intended to remind the people of how they ought to behave.  But while the Torah will be read out loud to the people, the song will become so familiar that the people themselves will sing it and teach it to future generations.

So God orders Moses:

by James Tissot

“And now, write for yourself this shirah and teach it to the Israelites; put it in their mouths, so that this song will be a witness against the Israelites.”  … And Moses wrote this shirah on that day, and he taught it to the Israelites.  (Deuteronomy 31:19, 22)

shirah (שִׁירָה) = song.  (Poem set to music.)

The portion Vayeilekh ends by referring to the song:

Then Moses spoke in the ears of the whole congregation of Israel the words of this shirah, until the end.  (Deuteronomy 31:30)

The song is the Torah portion Ha-Azinu (“Use your ears”), which falls this year of 5779 in between Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

Whenever I read the words, Ha-Azinu strikes me as a poor summary of the rules Moses laid out earlier in the Torah.  Instead it seems to be yet another long-winded warning that the Israelites will screw up again once they are living in Canaan.

Perhaps if I heard Ha-Azinu as a song, with its own ancient melody, it would have a different effect on me.  Perhaps the words and melody together moved the Israelites the same way that the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur moves me when we sing it to traditional melodies, even though I might find fault with some of the words.

And even without the melody, the introduction to this poem does stir my heart.

Use your ears, Heavens, and I will speak;

Listen, Earth, to what my mouth says.

May my insights drop like rain;

May my utterances drip like dew;

Like showers upon deshe,

And like downpours upon eisev growing plants.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:1-2)

deshe (דֶשֶׁא) = green sprouts, new grass.

eisev (עֵשֶׂב) = annual plants that grow during the rainy season; grass, herbs, vegetables, weeds.

In the first two lines, Moses is calling upon Heaven and Earth to witness his poetic address to the Israelites.  The next four lines (verse 32:2) express how Moses hopes his words will be received by his audience—both by the children of Israel assembled on the bank of the Jordan, and by everyone who will hear the song in the future.

Most poetry in the Torah is written in paired statements.  The second line may appear to be merely a repetition of the first line, substituting synonyms for some of the words, but actually it adds another shade of meaning.

What is implied by the pairing of rain and dew?  16th-century rabbi Obadiah Sforno wrote that wisdom from the Torah rains down on intellectuals, but even the common people benefit from the dew of some small knowledge of God.  (He sounds like a snob, but it is true that the more one studies a text, the more one can draw insights out it.)  According to the Zohar, a 13th-century kabbalistic work, the rain is the written Torah, given from heaven, and the dew is the oral Torah, our human interpretations here on earth.  19th-century rabbi S.R. Hirsch wrote that rain breaks up clods of dirt and prepares the soil of our minds to receive insights, while dew encourages and revives wilting spirits.

I think this couplet considers the two ways that plants get watered in the hills of Israel: by rain during the winter rainy season, and by dew after the rains have ended but there is still enough moisture in the air to condense on low plants overnight, then drip down into the ground.  After divine insights have watered people’s minds, additional bits of enlightenment continue to reach them.

The next couplet refers to effect of rain on annuals, the plants that spring up during the rainy season in Israel.  Rain showers make seeds sprout and send up green shoots; downpours water well-rooted plants so they can continue growing.

Like deshe and eisev, humans find it hard to grow in arid conditions.  A little dampness deep below the surface of the soil might suffice for a tree in the desert, but we need rain showers for our awareness to sprout.  Once we have reached one level of insight, we are ready for downpours, ready to be flooded with teachings, explanations, rules, stories, and poems.  As wise words continue to rain down on us, our souls can grow and stretch out branches and leaves, green with our own new wisdom.

May we all be thirsty for more teachings.

(An earlier version of this essay was published in 2011.)

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