May 28, 2024
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In its preface, “Shirat Haazinu” calls upon shamayim va-aretz (“heaven and earth”) to bear witness. Their very mention beautifully ties together the end of Sefer Devarim with the very beginning of Sefer Bereishit, but why are they summoned as witnesses?

Rashi quotes the two classic approaches: First and foremost, as heaven and earth exist forever, they can serve as eternal witnesses. Secondly, they also can serve as an agent of enforcement, for they can reward Bnei Yisrael with adequate rainfall and plenty should they follow God’s covenant, and punish them with drought and famine should they disobey (as we recite in the daily kriyat shema [Devarim 11:13-17]).

However, at the end of Parshat Vayeilech, when God explains to Moshe why and when this song may be needed, we find what may be an additional reason to invite the “heaven and earth” as witness:

“When I bring them into the land flowing with milk and honey that I promised on oath to their fathers, and they eat their fill and grow fat and turn to other gods and serve them, spurning Me and breaking My covenant, And the many evils and troubles befall them — then this poem shall confront them as a witness… (31:21-22)”

God is worried that “And you will eat and be satisfied, and you shall bless” (Devarim 8:10) will be replaced with “and they eat their fill and grow fat” (31:21).

Those blessings of the prosperity that should have led to gratitude and acts of kindness might lead instead to affluence and haughtiness; and then ultimately lead to idol worship. Or as the song itself predicts:

So Yeshurun grew fat and kicked/ You grew fat and gross and coarse/ He forsook the God who made him and spurned the Rock of his support. (32:15).

Why would prosperity lead to idol worship?

Unfortunately, when the goal in life is only prosperity, then man turns to “idol worship”—like the Canaanite gods such as “baal” and “asherah”—who promise rain and fertility simply in reward for their sacrificial worship. In contrast, the Torah teaches us over and over that the God of Israel, the Creator of “heaven and earth,” rewards His people based on their behavior and the just society that they must establish.

God’s intention was for the blessings of prosperity in the Land of Israel to serve as a tool, through which we can sanctify God, by using that prosperity for the caring of the less fortunate.

As all the classical prophets warned, sacrifice and prayer alone will not bring prosperity, rather actions of kindness, justice and righteousness (see Micha 6:8; Yirm. 9:23, Yeshayahu 58:6-9).

As such, “Shirat Ha’azinu” provides not only a severe warning of punishment, but also a guide for how the process of repentance can begin. The song exhorts Am Yisrael to contemplate both nature and history, even during times when God appears to conceal Himself.

Just as the Biblical story of God choosing His nation begins with Creation, so too, when all seems lost, our contemplation of the majesty of “heaven and earth” can hopefully “rekindle” that eternal relationship, and lead Am Yisrael onto the path of return

Or as the song concludes:

See, then, that I, I am He; There is no god beside Me. I deal death and give life; I wounded and I will heal: None can deliver from My hand. (32:39)

A very fitting message for Shabbat Shuva.


Rabbi Menachem Leibtag is an internationally acclaimed Tanach scholar and online Jewish education pioneer. He is a member of the Mizrachi Speakers Bureau ( www.mizrachi.org/speakers ).

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