Taking place on the very last day of Moses’ life, Ha’azinu reveals Moses’s conflicted embrace of his own mortality. Moses knows his days are numbered. Despite his passionate, persistent appeals to God, Moses is told that he will not enter the Promised Land with the Children of Israel.
Framed as a poem, Ha’azinu resembles an ethical will in which Moses implores the people to follow the Torah, fulfilling God’s vision for what they can become. Equally important, our greatest prophet concedes that the people’s process of growth will include bumps along the way.
At the beginning of the poem Moses asserts: “May my teaching drop like the rain, may my utterance fall like the dew; like storm winds upon vegetation and like raindrops upon blades of grass” [Deuteronomy 32:2].
Moses’s rain imagery immediately catches the attention of the commentators, who understand rain as an allusion to Torah. Ibn Ezra, a Spanish rabbi of the 12th century, explains that Moses yearned that his Torah-infused message would penetrate the people’s hearts and souls, just like rain and dew seep into the earth.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th-century German sage, focuses on the beneficial nature of rain itself. Like rain, Torah will nourish the people, enabling them to grow and “bear fruit.”
The water metaphor Moses employs seems drenched in significance, perhaps even a Freudian slip. So much of his life is associated with water. Moses is saved by the Nile, he rescues the Israelites by splitting the Red Sea, and he repeatedly satisfies the people’s thirst in the desert. His leadership ultimately ends because of a misplaced effort to generate water from a rock.
There may be more to this aquatic analogy. His use of falling rain may be an allusion to another type of water — tears. That Ha’azinu takes place on the last day of his life, perhaps it’s not rain, but cleansing, cathartic tears that punctuate the significance of this moment, not just for Moses but for the entire people.
When life hangs in the balance, one can only expect that tears and prayers are not far behind. We can imagine these tears are a mixture of regret and pain as well as joy and fulfillment.
Twenty years ago I sat beside my father during High Holiday services. What made that year different from all other years was that my father had pancreatic cancer and was fighting for his life. My father was a young man of 60, but the voracious cancer had already eaten away more than 100 pounds of my dad’s body, and it was not yet satiated.
When the congregation reached the Unetaneh Tokef prayer that asks, “Who will live and who will die,” my heart sank. Until that year, these questions had always been hypothetical.
I was so scared I could not even look at my father. My gaze locked forward or straight at my machzor, but not at him. I was scared that the next time I read these words my father would not be standing next to me.
The prayer continued: “Who will die at the right time, and who will go before their time?” As the congregation prayed for life, I prayed for this uncomfortable moment to end.
Still unable to look at my dad, I peeked over at his Machzor and noticed the pages were wet. Gazing at my father’s face, I understood why. Teardrops landed on his prayer book. The tears communicated his yearning for life, love for our family and regret about tomorrows we would not experience together.
Despite his speeches about beating cancer, despite his never-ending jokes, despite his fervent prayers and moments of silence, he knew. He knew he was going to die.
As Moses speaks to the Jewish people in Ha’azinu, he understands acutely that his life is quickly coming to an end. With this realization, our greatest teacher models for us how to share our hopes and dreams with those we care for most.
While the message of the rain may be tinged with remorse and pain, Moses understands that the waters of Torah have the eternal power to nourish, inspire and lead us toward a strong future together. With these messages in our hearts, the spirit of our parents and teachers live on with us forever.
Rabbi Charles E. Savenor serves as the director of congregational education at Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan.