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Parshas HaAzinu - Understanding the Song!   6 Tishrei 5781

10/16/2020 11:57:52 AM


I recently watched a podcast presented by Rabbi Efram Goldberg about shul life. The question asked was, “What is the biggest religious intimidation that you have experienced?” There were a few cute answers, but one I related to was, “I am intimidated by a Baal’ Korei/Torah reader who is able to change tunes in the middle of the reading.” For example, in the Megilas Esther we use the tune for that Megilla and change for just a few words to the tune from Megilas Eicha, or in Parshas Devarim, we switch from the regular Shabbos niggun of leining to the niggun for Eicha. There are even Haftoras that change the tune being sung in the middle.

I have prided myself for many years to successfully teaching adolescent boys, preparing them for their Bar Mitzva. Although reading from the Torah or Haftorah is not a prerequisite to become a Bar Mitzva, it is a part of our rich tradition to learn at least a small section. One of the major challenges is transitioning from the Torah tune to the Haftorah tune.  Every student is different; with some I start by teaching the Haftorah while with others I begin with teaching the Torah reading. Some students adjust to the nuanced change immediately while others never get it. But even the ones who mastered both tunes have a hard time, at least initially switching gears, making that subtle change from the end of the Parsha to the beginning of the Haftorah. What is the basis for reading the Haftorah and when did it begin?

The earliest mention of reading the Haftorah  is found in Sefer Avudraham, a commentary on the prayers written by R. Dovid Avudraham in the early 14th century. Another early source states that reading from the Prophets was a part of the decree of Ezra the Scribe to read from the Haftorah on various occasions (Sefer HaMachria 31, by R’ Yeshaya di Trani, of 13th century Italy). A more recent suggestion is that reading from the Prophets was instituted in response to heretical sects such as the Samaritans, which denied the sanctity of the prophetic books (R. Hirsh, R. Reuven Margolios). No reason is given in any Talmudic-era source. The most well-known suggested reason is that during the era of Greek oppression (leading up to the Chanukah story), the public reading of the Torah was forbidden. Therefore, due to being forbidden from reading from the Torah, Jews began reading from the Prophets instead. The decree, was limited to the Five Books of Moses, so the sages instituted that a section of the Prophets be read instead, incorporating an idea that was related to the Torah reading which should have been read that week. Later, the decree was relaxed, but the Jews maintained their new custom to read from the Prophets as well as from the Torah. Sometimes the connection between the Torah portion and the Haftorah is clear, but sometimes the connection is obscure. This week’s Navi (Prophets) portion designated, for Ha’azinu, is replaced due to the calendar having Shabbos Shuva.  Therefore, we read a section relating to repentance. But, if Haazinu were to be read between Yom Kippur and Sukkos then a different Haftorah would be read, since Haazinu is a song, another song is used for the Haftorah.

There are a total of ten songs in Tanach - five major songs that are written differently than the other four, while the tenth song will be sung by Moshiach. Rabbi Menachem Liebtag beautifully laid out a wonderful explanation of these songs. Shiras Ha'azinu" is one of five 'songs' found in the Tanach. Each song marks the end of an important time period. The following diagrams will greatly enhance our appreciation of what a Shira is, specifically for this week. For the purpose of today, a 'song' is defined as a parsha in Tanach written on the Torah scroll in a special pattern. Two songs - Ha'azinu and Yehoshua - exhibit the pattern of two columns: --  --  --  --  --  --  while three others- HaYam, Devorah, & David - exhibit the pattern of: ---  --  ---  --  ---  --  ---  --  ---  --, a 'brick like' structure. The Gemara in Megillah 16b states: “All the songs in Scripture are written in the form of a half brick over a whole brick, and then a whole brick over a half brick, with the exception of the names of Haman's sons and the list of the kings of Canaan, which are written in the form of a half brick over a half brick and a whole brick over a whole brick. What is the reason? So that the sons of the Canaanite kings and the sons of Haman should never rise again from their downfall.”. Rabbi Liebtag suggests Shiras Ha'azinu and Yehoshua mark the end of historical periods which fell short of their original expectations. On the other hand, the songs following pattern B - Shiras HaYam, Devorah, & Dovid - relate to more ideal situations.

With this in mind, "Shiras Ha'azinu," which follows pattern A, begins with the Jewish people’s past and then foretells its future destiny. The Navi describes God's pessimistic forecast of what will happen after Bnei Yisrael enter the Land. This could be viewed negatively, and is therefore very disheartening, especially after the Jews were forced to wander in the desert for an extra forty years due to bad behavior. In contrast, Shiras Dovid also follows pattern B, as it describes Dovid’s thanks to Hashem for His assistance in achieving the most complete conquest of Eretz Canaan. Dovid praises Hashem for having granted him victory over his opponents throughout his life. But there is one glaring commonality between the two - both songs repeatedly describe Hashem as “the Rock”, the foundation of all existence and the ultimate Protector and Savior.

This notion of Hashem as our Rock is always critically important for every Jew to remember, especially during the Aseres Ymei Teshuva, the Ten days of Repentance. The Parsha represents our feelings of despondency - that our year was not the best and we find it difficult to change. The Haftorah then comes with an emotional high, claiming the success of Dovid HaMelech through all of his challenges, meeting and surpassing all of them in turn with the help of our Rock. Whether through dark times or the bright times, Hashem is always there for Klal Yisroel and Dovid. HaKadosh Boruch Hu is always with us during our challenges and will always be with us, helping and guiding us to succeed. The two songs of Haazinu and Shiras Dovid are symbolic of the history of the Jewish people and the diary of every Jew’s life. May we merit to experience the “Rock” in the difficult challenging times as well as through the times of gratitude and celebration. Let us make this transition from the Parsha to the Haftorah in a smooth and uplifting manner and be able to compose our own Shiros V’Tishbachos, our own songs and praises of the One ultimately we all truly rely upon.

Tue, October 19 2021 13 Cheshvan 5782