temple emanu-el
top border
Torah Commentary
Haazinu (September 26, 2015)

Bettijane Eisenpreis

AS WE NEAR THE END of our Torah reading for the year, we come to one of the three poems attributed to Moses...and arguably the greatest — Shirat Haazinu. It is a remarkable work of art and literature, and I strongly recommend studying it in depth. A clear and compelling summary of Haazinu can be found in The Torah: A Woman’s Commentary, published by Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) — and I am NOT saying this because I am a woman. I have a number of Torah commentaries on my bookshelf, and because I know very little about Haazinu, I looked at several before deciding that A Woman’s Commentary gave a clear analysis of this complex song.

A Woman’s Commentary divides the Song into six sections: 1. Introduction; 2. Recollection of God’s early relationship with Israel; 3. Accusation of insubordination and idolatry; 4. Punishment proposed; 5. Punishment reconsidered; and 6. Concluding invocation. In this beautifully written and structured poem, Moses tells the Israelites that God chose them and made them great but that they have transgressed and should be punished. In the end, however, Moses sounds a note of hope.

That’s what I call “the Reader’s Digest version” of this beautiful, frightening yet inspiring song. I recommend reading it and looking at some of the commentaries on it — A Woman’s Commentary being only one. In the space remaining, I would like to concentrate on one image that the author of this poem uses repeatedly: The Rock.

According to the Women’s Commentary, the word tzur (rock) is used eight times in this poem and more than 30 times throughout the Bible. God is portrayed as Israel’s “rock” in the sense of “support” or “fortress.” Growing up, I have a vivid memory of the picture of the Rock of Gibraltar, the trademark of the Prudential Insurance Company. Prudential was supposed to be “as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar.” I just Googled Prudential to be sure it still exists and it does — now called “Prudential Financial.” So that rock is still standing.

When I was a child, I remember the ultimate insult was that someone had “rocks in his head.” There was a stretch of highway near my home in Pennsylvania that my father always likened to “the Rocky Road to Dublin,” because it was so bumpy. Later, however, Baskin-Robbins came out with a Rocky Road ice cream that was quite tasty.

Are rocks good or bad? Let’s look at it this way: Capital “R” Rocks are usually good; lower-case rocks are more like stones or pebbles and can be a nuisance. When we say “the Rock,” we mean God. When we finish our silent meditation in Temple, we pray to “our Rock and our Redeemer.” Those two descriptions of God often are used together. God is a Rock — steady, supportive, enduring. We can depend on that quality. But God is also “our Redeemer.” God doesn’t just stand there, supportive but unyielding. “Our Redeemer” is active — guiding us out of trial and tribulation, helping us find salvation.

Haazinu (Give ear, hearken, listen) comes at the end of Moses’ life and the end of the Book of Deuteronomy. But it is only the beginning of the story of Israel’s trials and triumphs. We will finish reading the Torah in a few weeks, and we will start again immediately. Moses — or whoever wrote this long, scary and majestic poem — knew or sensed that the story would go on.

What better symbol to give the people, as they approach the Promised Land without Moses, their trusted leader, than a rock? Whether it be a cliff rising out of the ocean, a craggy outcropping providing shelter from the storm or a natural fortress, it is comforting. Yes, the journey would not be smooth. Yes, they would need comfort from the Eternal Comforter and justice from the Judge of All. But through it all they could lean on “The Rock! — whose deeds are perfect,” or, as we sing every Shabbat, “our Rock and our Redeemer.”

Bettijane Eisenpreis, a freelance writer, is a long-time member of Temple Emanu-El
and a regular participant in our Saturday morning Torah study group.

Join the conversation and post your thoughts. »

Back to Torah Study
photo of temple
One East 65th St., New York, New York 10065. Phone  212-744-1400
One East 65th Street, New York, NY 10065    (212) 744-1400 horizontal rule Member Log In | Calendar | Site Map | Contact Us | Text Size [+] [-]