As a high school teacher guiding my students in the art of essay writing, I often stress the importance of a strong conclusion. “You can’t just leave everyone hanging,” I tell them, “or wrap things up too quickly. You need to tie up loose ends and leave the reader with a sense of satisfaction. Or, if you do deliberately choose to leave everyone hanging, you need to give your audience some guidance about what they should do with the loose ends. In either case, your conclusion needs to be intentional, with some closure, a call to action, and/or something for your reader to consider.” This week’s parashah, Haazinu, does all of that.
Haazinu is the second to last parashah in the Torah, and it wraps up just about everything in the Torah with intentionality. It employs a format that visually draws attention to the text because it is very pleasing to the eye. It uses verse that is very agreeable to the ear. But, most importantly, it leaves the people with a call to action and a lot of food for thought. The unique format is not the only way that this parashah stands out, though.
In a good conclusion, the writer returns to a theme or themes from earlier in the work to bring the reader around full circle. Haazinu presents the theme of God as the giver of both life and death. At the beginning of the Torah, in Bereshit, God creates the world and gives life to its inhabitants. As the Torah begins to conclude, this parashah contains God’s last words to the children of Israel, which include some rebuke, a call for reflection, and commands for obedience.
To top everything off, God’s last words to the people are presented in the form of a song that Moses writes down and presents to the people of Israel before they die. The song serves both as God’s witness and God’s warning for the people. It asks them to look back and remember the days of old use their history to inform their future. It recounts the many blessings that God has bestowed on the children of Israel, as well as their wicked deeds and the punishments they have received from God. It reflects on the dichotomies and dualities of God, both being portrayed as a nurturing mother who has brought forth the land of Israel and is also described as the wrathful God who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. Ha’azinu discusses how God both heals and wounds. It also describes God as a rock five times (out of eight mentions of a rock) in Moses’s song. If we think of the qualities we associate with a rock: strength, stability, steadfastness, permanence, but also hardness, solidity, stubbornness, and inflexibility, we see more evidence of a dichotomy or duality of both positive and negative qualities.
A good conclusion can also include a proposal of a course of action, which Haazinu does as well. As translated in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, all the people of Israel are told to “Take to heart all the words with which I have warned you this day. Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching.” Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) does just this by having board members write commentary for WRJ Voices on Torah portions each week. We are learning about each parashah, discussing and reflecting on Torah, and passing on words of Torah to each generation. We are continuing a legacy of teaching and learning as we fulfill the parts of WRJ’s mission statement about fulfilling personal and spiritual growth, furthering the teachings and practices of Judaism, and supporting religious and family education.
We live on through our legacies. In some ways, this song is Moses’ legacy. Despite Moses being known as a man who struggled with spoken language, stuttering, and being slow of speech, he expresses God’s words in a song. This is one of the first incidents of a stutterer using this singing technique to express himself fluently. What an example for anyone with speech difficulties! The song format in which Moses expresses God’s words in this parashah solidifies the strong and solid legacy Moses is able to leave behind.
In addition to looking backward and reviewing the themes established earlier in the Torah, Ha’azinu also looks forward. God speaks to Moses, telling him to go up to Mount Nebo and look over the land of Canaan, which they are giving to the children of Israel as a possession. However, God tells Moses that they will die and not ever enter Canaan as punishment for lack of faith. In this parashah, the children of Israel are told to learn history from their parents and teach their children to observe God’s laws. This instruction struck a particularly meaningful chord with me. First, as an adult child, it is incumbent on me to learn about and carry on the history of my family and the Jewish people. As a parent and grandparent, it is important for me to instruct my children and grandchildren about my heritage and pass on my Jewish values to the next generations. But, even more so, I find the directive in this parashah compelling in my professional life and have taken it a step further. I have taken on the obligation to teach my students about the relevance and importance of history. The call to action from our ancient Torah is still truly relevant today, particularly for this high school history and English teacher.
Carol Schuster is a past president of the Sisterhood of Temple B’nai Torah in Bellevue, Washington, the 1st Vice President of the WRJ Pacific District, and serves on the Women of Reform Judaism board. She is also a high school teacher and the Social Studies Department Leader at Yellow Wood Academy on Mercer Island, WA.