Hebrew Insights into Parashat Ha’azinu – D'varim (Deuteronomy) 32
Parashat Ha’azinu, which consists almost in its entirety of the so-called ”Song of Moshe” and called Shirat Ha’azinu in Hebrew, is the crescendo that the Dvarim (Deuteronomy) account has been building up to. It is a recitation which summarizes the Israelites’ history and predicts future situations, and continually revolves around a central pivot - YHVH, as the Almighty and as the loving father of His people. In the past two weeks we pointed out that Shirat Ha’azinu (the Ha’azinu song or poem) was to bear testimony for future generations (ref. 30:19). Last week, and the week before, heaven and earth were also summoned as “witnesses”, as they are, indeed, here too: “Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak; and hear, O earth, the words of my mouth” (italics added). The imperative “ha’azinu” (“listen”) is a derivative of “ozen” – “ear,” and would therefore be best translated “give ear.” You will notice that many of the verses are made up of couplets, where the same point is stated once and then repeated with a slight variation. The first two verses of the poem serve as a good example of this poetic device, which is so typical of biblical poetry:
Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak;
And hear, O earth, the words of my mouth.
My doctrine shall drop as the rain;
My speech shall drop down as the dew,
As the small rain on the tender plant,
And as the showers on the grass;
YHVH’s love and care for Yisrael form the backdrop against which Yisrael’s past and future are respectively described and cast. According to the poem, the people’s relationship with and toward YHVH appears to be a primary cause of the events (past, present and future) which befall them.
Verse 4 exclaims that YHVH is “the Rock whose work is perfect.” The word here for rock is “tzur.” This word is repeated a number of times in our song, and thus we read in verse 13, in reference to YHVH’s benevolence toward Yisrael, “He made him suck … oil out of the flinty rock.” In response, Yeshurun (Jeshurun) – rooted in y.sh.r. “straight,” acts more like a Ya’acov (which is “crookedness”), and “scorned the Rock of their Salvation” (v. 15). Verse 18 reads thus: “You forgot the Rock who birthed you.” The verb used here for “forgot” is “teshi,” of the root n.sh.h (noon, shin, hey), which is also the root for the name Menashe (Manasseh). The imagery of the “rock,” a substance that one would not associate with tenderness, much less with motherhood, is juxtaposed with metaphors related to birthing and suckling. We encounter this type of unusual imagery also in 1st Corinthians 10:4, where we read: “Our fathers….all drank of the spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Messiah.”
In verses 30 and 31 there are several more references to “tzur,” while in verse 37 the “rock” is the one in whom “refuge is taken” (“chasayu”, ch.s.h., chet, samech, hey – to “take refuge”), being a more conventional usage of the rock metaphor. Because the idols of the peoples were many a time made of stone, or carved into a rock, “tzur” is also used here in relation to the gods of the pagans (e.g. verse 31). This is in contrast to Yisrael’s Elohim, who is totally detached from literal substance of the rock.
Other parts of our text appear to highlight different attributes of Elohim, one in particular is found in verse 27. In our reading let us include also verse 26. YHVH says about His treacherous people: “I will make an end of them, I will make their memory cease from among men: 27 Were it not that I dreaded the enemy’s provocation, lest their adversaries should misconstrue, lest they should say, ‘our hand is exalted and not YHVH has performed all this.’” “This verse  contains a very daring anthropomorphism [personification-humanization of YHVH] indeed, attributing to Him the sentiment of fear, as it were… and has no parallel in the Torah.” In this commentary Nechama Leibowitz includes other instances where Moshe expresses concern over the desecration of YHVH’s name among the nations and concludes: “This concern over desecrating the Divine name… assumes a much more intense and extreme form in our sidra [Parasha]. Here it is the Almighty Himself who is, as it were, “concerned” over the world being misled and diverted from the path leading mankind spiritually forward. He is filled with apprehension lest His name be brought into disrepute instead of sanctified and His sovereignty universally recognized and acknowledged, which is the ultimate goal of all creation.”
“I will make an end of them…” is couched here in a very unique term, which appears nowhere else in the Tanach (O.T.), “af’ey’em.” Several possible interpretations of this term have been extrapolated. Most “have traced its meaning to the word pe’ah – “corner,” others to af (“anger”).” Rashi breaks up the word into its three syllables, and comes up with: “af ey hem,” which is a question that reads as follows: “In anger (“af”, meaning YHVH’s anger), where are they?” Thus implying that YHVH’s anger has reduced them to non-existence. Da’at Mikra offers another interpretation, with the same “pe’ah” – “corner, edge” in mind: “I will not leave of them as much as an edge.”
Another verse that requires some attention is 5, where it says: “They have corrupted themselves: they are not His sons; it is their blemish; they are a crooked and perverse generation.” And although the Hebrew there is somewhat obscure, according to Da’at Mikra it should read, “His sons’ blemish is theirs” (literal translation), that is to say: “their perversion is of their own making, and therefore they are “lo-banav,” “not-His-sons”. This is similar to what was said of Ephraim “not-My-people” (“Lo-Ami”, Hos. 1:9).  In contradistinction, verse 6 names YHVH as “your father, the One who purchases you” – “kone’cha.” Quite often the term “koneh” (k.n.h, kof, noon, hey) – to “buy, or purchase” – is synonymous with redeeming, and lends the latter act its graphic meaning, as the role of the redeemer is primarily to pay for, and buy that which is lost (such as freedom or property). Many years later, in 1st Corinthians 6:20 and 7:23, Shaul (Paul) reminds the redeemed community: “You are bought with a price.” “Kone’cha,” with its similarity to “ken” (a “bird’s nest”), inspired Rashi to suggest that this is a reference to the nest that YHVH is making for Yisrael (see also verse 11).
At this point, starting with verse 6 and through 14, the poem expounds very tenderly on the establishing of the Israelite nation, and on the care and love bestowed on it by its Maker. Of the fact that Yisrael had a major role in global affairs, much before it even came into being, we learn from verse 8: “When the Most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when He separated the sons of Adam, He set the bounds of the people according to the number of the sons of Israel” (italics added). When one takes into consideration the fact that the above separation took place after the Flood, and more particularly that YHVH scattered the people during the Tower of Ba’vel (Babel) era (Gen. 10:25, 11:8), this statement becomes all the more momentous.
A string of verbs, which follow one another in progressive intensity and describe YHVH’s involvement with Yisrael, is introduced in verses 10 & 11. “He found him…He compassed him about … He cared for him…. Like an eagle that stirs up His nest… He hovers… He spreads his wings… He takes him… lifts him….” The “desert land,” the “waste” and the “howling wilderness” mentioned here (v. 10), conjure up in the mind a lost entity wondering around, and thus these verbs appear as the solution and answer to the dire condition of the people. These verbs are replete with activity: “vay’vone’nehu” (root b.n.h, bet/vet, noon, hey), translated “cared,” but in actual fact could relate to “bina” – “wisdom,” and thus may read: “endowed him with wisdom”; or to “hitbonen,” which is to “look closely, watch.” Another possibility is the connection to “boneh,” “build, build up, or edify.” “Guarded him” is a translation of “yitz’renhu,” which is of the root n.tz.r, (noon, tzadi, resh), meaning to “keep, guard, watch, hide, protect.” It is from this root that “netzer,” the “branch” of Yishayahu (Isaiah) 11:1 is derived, and the “watchmen” – “notzrim” – of Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) 31:6. “Hovers” is particularly interesting, as it is “ye’ra’chef”, of the root r.ch.f (resh, chet, pey/fey), which is found in B’resheet (Genesis) 1:2 (in reference to the Spirit of Elohim). We also recall Parashat Va’era, in Shmot (Exodus) 6:7, 8 where we read YHVH’s promise: “And I will take you…. to the land concerning which I lifted up My hand…” (italics added). In Sh’mot (Exodus) 19:4, we also read YHVH’s address to Yisrael: “I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself.” Thus Parashat Ha’azinu echoes promises of the past, transferring them to the present day reality of the Israelite Nation on the threshold of the Promised Land.
Next is the enumeration of the goodness and plenty that Yisrael was endowed with, and with which she shall be blessed in the future (v. 13-14). Verse 15 witnesses a transition, and once again there is an inventory, if you will, of densely listed verbs. Unfortunately not all of them can be translated into verb form in English: “Yeshurun grew fat… kicked… put on weight… became thick… covered in layers… forsook Elohim his maker….” In Hebrew all these are in verb form and follow one another thus: “va’yishman… va’yiv’at… shamanta, avita, kasita, va’yitosh… va’y’na’bel,” almost as though stampeding over each other. Just as before, where YHVH’s intense activities around His people were depicted in verb form, so too here, the Israelites’ intent on turning away from Him is described in a chain reaction of fast moves.
The excerpt of verses 28-35 presents a controversy, which has been engaging the commentators for generations. Who is the subject of verses 28-29? Is it Yisrael, or is it the enemies? In verse 30, again, who is being chased, is it Yisrael, or the enemies? Verse 36: “For YHVH will bring His people justice; and He shall have compassion on His servants…” seems to indicate that the former section would have referred to the enemy. However, according to 30 and 31, it would appear that Yisrael is the subject of the section: “How shall one chase a thousand, and two put ten thousand to flight, unless their Rock had sold them and YHVH had shut them up? For their rock is not as our Rock, even our enemies themselves being judges.” Who is it that YHVH is “selling”? (Remember verse 6, where He was depicted as the Father and the “buyer”?) Does He not sell that which belongs to Him? And in verse 31, in the references to “their rock” and to “our rock,” is there not a distinction made between Yisrael and the other nations? Verses 37 and 38 present a similar dilemma. Again, is it Yisrael or is it the nations that are the subject of this brief portion? Having just read that YHVH will have compassion on His people, this could possibly refer to the enemies, whose rock and god (the rock being the "god" and not a mere metaphor for strength, unlike the Elohim of Yisrael who is symbolized by the rock, but is not the rock itself) is unable to help them. Conversely, this could also be talking to Yisrael, who had been leaning on false gods whom they trusted to no avail. What do you think?
“And Moses made an end of speaking all these words to all Israel. And he said to them, ‘Set your hearts to all the words which I testify among you today, which you shall command your sons to observe and to do, all the words of this law; For it is not a vain thing for you, because it is your life. And by this word you shall prolong your days in the land where you go over Jordan, there to possess it’” (vs. 45-47). Thus Moshe seals these most solemn words of the testimonial poem. The words, “for it is not a vain thing for you, because it is your life” are rendered in Hebrew, “for it is not an empty word for you, because…” and here it is possible to read, “He is your life”… ”I am the way, the truth and the Life,” were Yeshua’s words in John 14:6. And just as Shirat Ha’azinu was to bear a testimony, so did the Word-made-flesh (John 1:14) bear a testimony in His very being, “so that all might believe…” (John 1:7).
[] New Studies in Devarim, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner
Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc.,
 Da’at Mikra, A’ahron Mirski, Rav Kook Inst., Jerusalem, 2001