This week’s Torah reading, Ha’azinu, consists mostly of a song that Moses teaches to the Israelites as he prepares to leave them and this world. This song holds Moses’s final words to the people, whom he has guided for so long, as they are about to enter the Promised Land without him.
Through much of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses has been concerned with the people’s future. He exhorts them to remember the covenant they and their ancestors have made with God. He encourages them to listen to God’s voice and to follow God’s path of justice and kindness, for their own good as well as for the good of the world.
Moses reassures them that they are capable of great things and that the blessings of this life are within their grasp. Like a parent sending a child out into the world, he includes a hundred last-minute instructions, warnings and reminders. But he ends with a song. Why? What is so important and significant about a song?
Moses is worried. Despite all that he has taught the Israelites, despite all that they have witnessed and gone through together, he is worried that very soon, they will forget him, forget God, and even forget the Torah itself and all of its commandments. He has tried lecturing, he has tried scolding, he has tried pleading. He has poured thousands of words into their ears during the 40 years that they wandered in the wilderness. Now, he hopes that this last effort — a song — will succeed in reminding the people of their commitments and their destiny, even if all of his previous words may have failed.
Scientists tell us that music engages a different part of our brains than speech, and we have all experienced the special emotional and psychological pull that songs can have on us. We feel it during the High Holidays, when the melodies of special prayers like “Unetaneh Tokef” or “Kol Nidrei” take us to places in our hearts and souls where nothing else can reach. Even songs that we have not heard for years can transport us back in time and revive memories that we may rarely have recalled. What is more, sometimes the words of songs we have learned early in our lives can take on new meaning for us when we remember them years later.
Moses is hoping and praying that his final song to the people will do all of these things. He commands the people to place this song in their mouths and in the mouths of their descendants, to memorize the words and to pass them on to succeeding generations. If they forget everything else, this song will take them back to that golden time when they followed God and Moses into the wilderness on the strength of a promise. If their hearts become closed, this song will open them. If they lose track of the meaning of the words, they will carry the lyrics with them so that when the times come, they can reinterpret them and find new meaning there.
As the New Year begins, we, too, are once again sent out into the world. May this song — and the songs and melodies of the Jewish people from times past — stay with us and guide us. May they stir our memories and open our hearts. And may we find new strength and new meaning in them as we turn our faces toward the future.
Rabbi Adam Zeff serves as the rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. Email him at: [email protected] .