Ha'azinu: Behind the Song

JointMedia News Service presents biblical commentary with a new-age spin in the monthly “Torah Unplugged” column. This is the first edition.

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A quick glance at the Torah scroll reveals that this coming week’s Torah portion, Ha’azinu, is one of two places in the Torah that contains a different visual configuration of words than elsewhere in the scroll. Chapter 32 of Deuteronomy, the poem ofHa’azinu, is written in two parallel columns to better display the poetic parallelism, the connections between the two halves of the verse, and to intensify or complement the ideas in each half of the verse.   

This name of this portion means literally “give ear” (from the Hebrew root “ozen” for ear) or “listen.” If the whole book of Deuteronomy is about retelling the rest of the Torah, what is different about this poetic section from what has come earlier? This is the penultimate portion of the Torah, and, depending on the year, is usually read on the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, so this section is a crucial part of the Torah’s finale.

Rabbi Yair Kahn of Yeshivat Hat Etzion in Jerusalem explains that the retelling of Deuteronomy is for teaching purposes, as the traditional Jewish name for Deuteronomy Mishneh Torah, is not just “retold Torah” but “teaching Torah.” If the restatement of much of the history and many of the laws is not to tell a history but to tell the accounts of the past in such a way that people will have certain values inculcated in them, how does this poetry function within this book?

Shirahis the Hebrew word for both and we are told that to write a Torah we should write a song. According to the Sefer HaHinuch, a 13th-century enumeration of what the 613 commandments are and which portions of the Torah they derive from, the last mitzvah in the Torah is to write yourself a Torah. This is based on the verse from the portion of Nitzavim, read last month, “And you should write down this poem/song and teach it to the people of Israel.”(Deuteronomy 31:19) The Torah should be, ideally, written in the individual’s own hand and if one is unable, one can hire someone to perform the task.

What then is it about poetry that lends it a role of such significance? One of the roles of poetry in a culture is to intensify and clarify experience and create a sense of underlying meaning not possible without its focused attentive language. Poetry has been central to the existence of many cultures because it removes language from its ordinary skin and elevates it to a higher plane, to create fuller and richer understandings in the world.

The Torah is both written and oral, on a variety of levels, for Jews. We have a written printed text, yet we also have a system of cantillation notes, which enable us to sing the text for others in a communal setting. This unique system allows for the multiplicity of interpretation—a word can have one meaning written yet another entirely when sung. For example, the shalshelet is acantillation note that conveys doubt and hesitation. It goes up and down and physically looks like a lightning bolt or zigzag to convey the back and forth nature of any word sung with it (there are only four of these notes in the entire Torah). 

When Joseph refuses Potiphar’s wife in Genesis 39, the listener understands from the way the word is sung that it is a refusal tinged with misgiving, not one given easily. One of the main purposes of the “Torah Unplugged” column, too, will be to convey textual meanings both written and sung, and how the two mesh with each other or do not.  

At the end of this portion, we are told that this Torah should “not be an empty matter for you.”(Deuteronomy 32:47) Interpreters parse this as an exhortation that readers must fill the text with meaning; it will only remain “empty” if readers resist the attempt to discover how to understand it (Sifre Deuteronomy 336 on Deuteronomy32:47). We have the choice to leave the text empty or to fill it with meaning. I look forward to filling the text with meaning and song this year, alongside all of my readers.



Beth Kissileff has taught Hebrew Bible and Jewish studies at Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College and for the Florence Melton Adult Mini School in three states. She is the editor of a forthcoming anthology of academic writing on Genesis, and is at work on a novel and a scholarly book of essays on the Bible.   


Posted on September 27, 2011 and filed under Torah Commentary.