by R. Gidon Rothstein
Hearing Moshe’s Words
Moshe opens the song of Ha’azinu, the song Hashem had told him to teach the Jewish people as a permanent witness of how history would treat them, with a call for his words to come down like rain, descend or settle like dew, 32;2. The idea of his words falling like rain or dew most simply seem to mean he wants them to be heard, but Onkelos translates yevasam and yitkabbal, will be pleasant and accepted. He thinks Moshe is hoping for more, is asking for his words to be accepted, people incorporate what he has to say in how they view the world.
Rashi pointed out dew is in a sense better than rain, because travelers dislike rain, as do those who have open cisterns full of wine (where the water will dilute it). When the verse continues ki-se’irim alei desheh, Rashi takes se’irim to be winds (most translations see it as another version of rain or showers), and winds do more than make everyone happy, they support their growth, as do words of Torah, strengthen those who study it, and help them grow.
More than heard, Moshe wants them absorbed and accepted, Onkelos tells us, and Rashi thinks they will be beneficial, uplift those who study them (Rashi expands it to Torah generally).
So what is involved?
Gd’s Perfection and Our Failures
Perhaps we should not be surprised that it starts with Gd. In 32;4, the Song describes Gd as ha-Tzur tamim fo’alo, the Rock, all of His works are perfect (or whole). Ramban takes the Rock to refer to middat ha-din, Gd’s Attribute of Justice, and the verse is telling us whatever that Attribute does is whole, complete, meaning it will not change forever (Rambam, too, thought perfection had to be unchanging, because change implies a need to improve).
The next part of the verse says all of Gd’s ways are mishpat, a word we normally also think of as about justice, yet here Ramban takes it as about Gd’s mercy, perhaps because the word derachav, ways, reminds Ramban of Moshe having asked to learn Gd’s ways in the aftermath of the sin of the Golden Calf. There, the ways were ways of kindness, which by definition cannot be a matter of justice. He suggests mishpat here means well-distributed. Justice makes Gd the Rock, but has to be applied with leeway for mitigating circumstances.
Ramban implies a balance within Gd Himself, as it were, Who is whole, perfect, dispenses truth and justice, but Who also has ways, incorporates mercy, imperfect but fair.
The Jews Go Astray from Gd or Torah, Like Nevalim
In the next verse, 32;5, Moshe says the Jewish people will go astray, shihet, a word Rashi and Rashbam take to mean going the wrong way is their blemish. Onkelos defines it more explicitly, they will worship powers other than Gd. Throughout the Song, in fact, Onkelos sees references to the Jews’ choosing to fear/awe/worship other powers (demons, no-gods), where Gd is the only dahala, true source of fear or awe.
The next verse berates them for being an am naval ve-lo hacham, a naval nation that was not wise. I left naval untranslated because Onkelos, Rashi, and Ramban each take it their own way. Onkelos writes de-kabilu oraita ve-la hakimu, who received the Torah and did not become wise. He connects Torah to wisdom again in 32;10, where the verse says yevonenehu, a word English translations render as watched over or instructed; Onkelos writes alfinun pitgamei oraita, taught them words of Torah. This foolish nation (as he translates naval in verse 21) was taught the Torah that would have taken it to good places, and instead stayed naval.
Ramban notes the phrase dor ikesh uftaltol from the end of the verse that called the Jews an am naval, and sees it as a contrast to Gd being described as tzaddik ve-yashar, righteous and straight. The Jews could have emulated Gd’s ways, and would have been a nation that was tzaddik ve-yashar, where they instead allowed their flaws to lead them to wrongful actions.
Rashi says they were naval in forgetting what was done for them, not wise in ignoring the future, Gd’s power to help or punish. Verse seven says they should have paid attention to history, seen how Gd has punished in the past, such as the flood of the generation of Enosh (not mentioned in the Torah itself), yet did not learn enough to avoid the bigger Flood of the time of Noah. On the flip side, they failed to focus on Gd’s ability to bring the Messianic era, had they only listened to prophets and hachamim,¸Torah scholars, those bearing Gd’s Word.
Ramban says a naval fails to repay good others have done him/her, like Naval the Carmelite in I Shemuel 25, whom Scripture says was as his name, ungrateful for the favors David had done for him, refused to repay by sharing any of the bounty of his harvest or sheep-shearing.
For Ramban, the Jewish people’s ingratitude involves repaying Gd’s many kindnesses with rebellion. On verse fifteen, he points to the ways the Jews will abandon Gd, Malachi 3;14-15 quoting the evildoers among the Jews as saying there is no benefit from following Gd’s rules, the wicked women of Yirmiyahu 44;18 attributing their exile to Egypt (after the destruction of the Temple) to their failures in worshipping the hosts of heaven.
Gd models both the perfection of justice and moving from perfection to kindness. Instead, the Jews turn naval.
The Jews’ Abominations
While only Onkelos connected naval directly to worshipping powers other than Gd—Ramban held the lack of gratitude to Gd made them naval, whether or not it led to idolatry—Ramban does read the to’evot mentioned in verse sixteen as about avodah zarah, and on that verse he says the entire Song is directed at such wrongful worship, particularly the Molech worship of passing their children through a fire.
Rashi relied on Sifrei, which related the word to’evot to other places it appears in the Torah, regarding homosexual relations and witchcraft. Aside from the technical meaning, Ramban sees the Song caring about one big sin, where Rashi thought other concerns made the list as well.
[Ramban and Rashi seem to me to also debate the significance of sexual sins in Vayikra 19;2, where the verse calls for Jews to be kedoshim. Rashi thought refraining from prohibited sexual relations counted as making oneself kadosh, where Ramban thought the term had to be broader than that.]
When Women Might Have Preferred Not to Be Noticed
Verse nineteen says Gd will become vexed or angered from the actions of banav u-venotav, His sons and daughters. The mention of daughters surprises Ramban, since the Torah usually refers to the men, folding women into the expected group of benei Yisrael. He thinks the Torah brings up women here because they will play a more prominent role than the men in the sins that will bring the Jews’ downfall. We have already noted the example from Yirmiyahu, where the women among the people who chose to go to Egypt rather than stay in Israel repudiate the prophet’s call to change their ways, insist it was their not worshipping the hosts of heaven well enough that got them in trouble. In Yehezkel 8;14, too, we find women being the ones to worship with the “Tammuz.”
He does not give reasons, but he notes women were heavily involved in the idolatry that brought the downfall of the generation of the destruction of the First Temple. And, whatever led to it, Ramban thinks Gd foresaw it (freewill seems to suggest it did not have to lead there, Gd foresaw the likelihood of it, I think).
Non Jews Help Us, Hurt Themselves
Verse 27 has Gd limit the punishment the Jews will get, lulei ka’as oyev agur, were it not for the pent-up anger of the enemy, other nations. Rashi says Gd chose not to give the non-Jews the free rein to conquer us as forcefully or punishingly as they would have wanted, to forestall their congratulating themselves and their gods for their victory.
The next verse calls some nation (it is not clear which) lacking in counsel (wisdom). Ramban thinks it is about those non-Jews who will be allowed to conquer us, who refuse to see Gd’s role in what happens to the Jewish people. Seeing a nation that speaks of its relationship to Gd, does not live up to Gd’s expectations, and then is punished for it, should have brought the whole world to accept the truth of Gd’s rule. Sadly, it did not.
It’s a song we can sing, learn from, grow, and find our way to full redemption. Or not.