Commentary for Ha’azinu

16 Oct

This week’s parshah is notable for the unusual format in which most of it is written. The first six aliyot are a long poem by Moses, prophesying the future of the Israelites, and as such is written in a special format. What would usually be one column in the Torah is split into two, thinner columns with blank space in the middle, although it is still read as if it were all one column (with the reader continuing from the top line of the first column over to the top line of the second and then to the second line of the first column and so on).

This poetic format also lends itself to making the beginnings and ends of the verses very easy to find, as each verse ends at either the end of the full line, or at the end of the right-hand column, in the middle of the “full” column, causing the next verse to start with the first word of the line in the left hand column, also in the middle of the line. Sefer Tagin notes that this poem can be split up into three sections based on this: 32:1-14, which all start at the beginning of the line, speak of the Israelites obey God’s will and reaping the rewards. 32:14 ends in the middle, and the second section, 32:15-39, all start in the middle of the line, and all talk about the Israelites spurning God and suffering the consequences for it. 32:39 ends at the end of the line, and the third section, 32:40-44, which all talk about God showing mercy to the Israelites and punishing their oppressors, all start at the beginning of the line again.

While 32:39 contains a clear transitional element from punishment to mercy (“I put to death and I bring to life. I struck down and I will heal”), no such transition is obvious in 32:14 at the end of the first section. 32:14 does, however, end with the very unusual phrase “you drink the blood of grapes like delicious wine.” While “the blood of grapes” obviously seems to be a fancy figure of speech to describe wine, it begs the question why the verse adds in the phrase “like delicious wine,” seemingly explaining its own expression in a very dry and un-poetic way. At the same time, the rest of the verse is fairly plain, simply listing the various foods the Israelites will enjoy with God’s favor, with no poetry at all until the penultimate phrase describing “wheat as fat as kidneys” and then the extremely odd final phrase.

Upon closer examination, it becomes clear that these phrases are the transition. Our simple list of foods becomes flowery and poetic, first innocuously, and then in a unusual simile that is almost jarring in its barbaric description of the normal act of drinking, setting the stage for the next verses excoriation of the Israelites for becoming “fat” and “corpulent” and forgetting that God is the source of their sustenance. This veiled transition reflects the way that we ourselves fall into sinful behavior. No one wakes up in the morning and randomly decides to go rob a bank. We start with small, little, things that don’t even feel off the course, and yet we soon find ourselves spiraling further and further until the point where we find ourselves never getting to our intended destination- always stopping in the middle of the line. But if we keep this lesson in mind we can be on the lookout for warning signs and stop ourselves before we wander too far off course.

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