Haazinu – The Past as Future Song

This past week’s Sedra, Ha’azinu, is perhaps the only one which receives its own advertisement in the previous week’s Sedra: “ואתה כתבו לכם את השירה הזאת – and you should write for yourselves this song.” The song referred to at the end of Sedrat Vayeilech is likely our Sedra, Ha’azinu, which in totality is a song about the future time to come. That is not the only possibility, however. The Gemara also posits that the entire Torah is the song to which that earlier verse refers.

Either option is unsettling, albeit for different reasons. If the song refers to Sedrat Ha’azinu, which is in fact laid out in the Torah as a song, it is still unclear why Ha’azinu is laid out as a song. More basically, perhaps, how it is even possible for Ha’azinu to be a song? Songs are written to commemorate events of the past – Shirat HaYam after passing through the Sea of Reeds; Shirat Chana after the birth of Shmuel. How can one be reasonably expected to burst forth in song over events which have not even taken place yet, over predictions of days to come? Shouldn’t song be reserved for past events, not future ones? Moreover, if the second possibility is correct and the song mentioned in the earlier verse refers to the entire Torah, why would the entire Torah be considered a song? The Torah reads more like prose, at least at first glance.

This latter question was posed to me by another local educator, who answered in the following creative way: what song and Torah have in common is that both are meant to affect a person in a profoundly personal and internal way. Song, as a medium,  touches and affects us in a way which, while hard to qualify precisely, we know that prose alone cannot. Torah should be the same way. Torah, like song, is meant to affect us in a way which surpasses the sum of its parts. Torah is not dry lyrics on a paper, meaningful but otherwise lacking the combined instrumental affect that, once added to those lyrics, can cause them to conjure up a range of feelings, eliciting emotions which until then have laid dormant deep inside us.

In fact, this idea is hidden inside Torah itself, or at least Navi. Hashem gives Yehoshua a famous exhortation at the beginning of the Book of Yehoshua: “והגית בו יומם ולילה, and you should higiah in the Torah day and night.” That word in the middle is usually translated something like study or invest or toil in. Rashi, however, disagrees with all of these, instead translating the word as vihitbonanta, and you should contemplate or reflect upon or internalize the Torah. Torah, like song, should affect us internally, personally. Rashi’s translation also helps us understand the conception of Torah in Yehoshua’s worldview. How, after this exhortation, could Torah barely be mentioned again in the entire book of Yehoshua? Far short of creating a network of yeshivot or Kollelim across the Land of Israel, Yehoshua goes off to war, leading battles against our enemies! Where is the והגית בו יומם ולילה? Does Yehoshua so quickly forget Hashem’s call for daily and nightly Torah study? Perhaps we can answer that Yehoshua’s commitment to study is one that is eternal but internal, one not in contradiction to fulfilling all of life’s other pursuits but fulfilled through those very pursuits.

As to the the second of our original two questions, how indeed can Ha’azinu’s lyrics, centered as they are on the future, create a heartfelt song in the present? That depends on one’s perspective. We exist in a world with a built-in limitation of our only experiencing one reality – present – and we assign to the other realities which we cannot immediately access the designations of “past” and “future.” In the reality, however, that only Hashem can access, all of time is one connected reality. About the Jews at the Sea, we are famously told that “אז ישיר משה – then Moshe will sing.” This is perplexing, as it seems to be framed in the wrong reality, that of the future. But to Hashem it is all one reality, and the singing of we “future” Jews each morning in Shul as we recount Yetziat Mitzrayim is no different – either chronologically or concepually – from the singing of those “past” Jews at the Sea that very first time.

Ha’azinu, as well, is a uni-reality song, corrected for Hashem’s lens in which the past and future are really a singular, indistinguishable entity. As we, too, begin to see the world through this lens, we can begin to burst forth in song at a vision of Hashem’s salvation which now appears to us so evident that we could swear it already happened. As we approach the world through Hashem’s monocle, we are as excited about a future salvation as we would be about a past one.

I, too, touch the future each day, sharing with a new generation the secrets of the past. Learning Torah always connects generations, as we argue with sages of millennia past and contribute to the discussion ideas of our own. To engage in this dialogue with learners of the future, though, makes that historical monocle only sharper – and more important. We weave between realities, sometimes as unsure if we are present or past Jews as someone wrapped in the plot of a play unfolding before him. That hidden aspect of Torah’s beauty is not an anamoly but the closest manifestation of what Torah should be, allowing us to connect with the world through the one true lens, the singular reality, the worldview of Hashem.

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