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Torah Commentary
Haazinu (September 7, 2013)

Sherry Nehmer,

I stood upon a high place,
And saw, below, many devils
Running, leaping,
and carousing in sin.
One looked up, grinning,
And said, “Comrade! Brother!”

THIS IS ONE of my favorite poems. It’s by Stephen Crane, who also wrote the famous Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage and a number of stories, novellas and short poems (including the chilling “War is Kind”), before dying at 28. Like Crane’s life, this poem is brief, but it packs a punch in the last line with its message — the writer above is as sinful as the devils frolicking below.

“I Stood Upon a High Place” is one example of the power of poetry, in this case the power to both amuse and yet also force self-examination. We feel the sting of anger and unrequited love stabbing through Shakespeare’s Sonnet 10, “Grant, if thou wilt, thou art beloved of many, But that thou none lovest is most evident”; we’re moved by “Give me your tired, your poor” from Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus”; we share the poet’s despair in the uselessness of war when we read “Anthem for Doomed Youth” by Wilfred Owen. From the ancient Greeks to the post-modernists experimenting with form and sound, poetry can not only make us look inward but also move us or even incite us to action. Think of the rhythm, the poetic repetitions of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech; the right words at the right time can change us forever.

And so it is with Haazinu. Deuteronomy comes to a close with this remarkable poem, recited by Moses “in the hearing of the whole congregation of Israel.” What a poem it is! This is a speech in poetic form, so that the listener finds it compelling. Moses speaks not only to the Israelites but also to the earth and the heavens themselves; his audience is infinite, and his words come straight from the Almighty. He starts with the metaphor of water, that his words may soak into the listeners like rain soaks the grass. I love these images of young growth and the dew, because not only are they beautiful, but they also express perfectly what Moses and God want — for the words to have meaning for the Israelites. They are to soak them up, heed them and remember them.

Right off the bat Moses starts with an indictment in no uncertain terms that they have been “unworthy,” “base,” “crooked” and “perverse” in following God’s laws. But it’s how he imparts this that is so powerful. Moses uses words like “Remember,” “Ask,” “Consider” — calls for action, for the Israelites to shake themselves from their lethargy and be mindful of everything God has done for them. Then follows a series of examples of the gifts and miracles God has bestowed upon them — and His anger that they have turned away and neglected Him. If you never read the rest of the Torah, in Haazinu you have the synopsis: God has chosen the Israelites as His people and has done wonders for them. They have neglected Him and turned away. They have been ungrateful children.

Now follows a list of God’s intentions, guaranteed to strike terror into the peoples’ hearts. He will ignore them; “I will hide My countenance from them, and see how they fare in the end.” Remarkable! What could be worse? They should prepare themselves for ravaging and wasting, for plagues, famines and misfortunes, for the death of all, young and old. He will use his “arrows” against them. They will die as a people.

But wait! Now Moses turns to the future. God can do all this…but he doesn’t have to, not if the Israelites don’t want outsiders to assume they perished because of their enemies’ actions and not God’s. I love this part. In some ways it brings God to a level the people can understand. Nobody wants those non-Israelites to jump to the wrong conclusion, do they? What will the neighbors think?

They need to consider all this and decide what path to take. Because, Moses concludes, if they make the right decision and return to God, He will vindicate His people. He will deliver them; He will protect them, as He has done so often in the past. God has chosen the Israelites as His people. They need only remember “There is no god beside Me” and do better.

Past, present and a promise for the future: Haazinu is a masterfully constructed speech, put in the heightened language and rhythm of a poem so that all hearing it will know it is something special and important, and that they must remember it if they wish to endure in the land they are about to possess when they cross the Jordan.

There is a poignant ending to Haazinu, once Moses has finished conveying God’s words to the Israelite people. Moses’ work is done. And so, “when Moses finished reciting all these words to all Israel, he said to them: 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.” (Deuteronomy 32:45-46)

Moses will die on the mountain of Nebo, on the wrong side of the Jordan River. I like to think that he, too stands upon a high place, seeing the sinners below, as he delivers this powerful poem, this call to action. Perhaps from where he stands he can see the river Jordan and the land beyond, the place he will never reach. But his words — God’s words — have reached the people of Israel, as they reach us today. And whether or not we are like the “many devils/Running, leaping/and carousing in sin,” Haazinu promises us that with a little effort, we may look forward to God’s blessing in the future.

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