The Book of Devarim consists mostly of Moses’ departing address to the Israelites before they enter the land of Israel. Moses has spent the best part of this Book reviewing history, restating law and warning about the future. He does this in standard format until this last chapter in which he literally uses poetic licence and delivers much of his closing message in verse. Maybe Moses realises it has been a lot to listen to, and he needs to change the emphasis, pace and delivery to keep attention. Maybe he needs to depart from the direct and instructive prose for a more etherial, nuanced poem which can have multiple meanings and uses a more expressive and emotive style. Maybe Moses requires this part to be more easily memorable. Or maybe verse is used because this message, which is Moses’ second attempt at a poem, the first being the Song at Sea, is critical and bitter, mournful and resigned, recounting God’s redemption of Israel and Israel’s corresponding unfaithfulness. Punishments, past and future, are detailed. But it ends on a note of hope: eventually Hashem will take vengeance on Israel’s enemies and vindicate Israel. Maybe this is an attempt to ensure the Israelites actually ‘listen’, which is what Ha’azinu means.
Moses says: “Remember the days of old, understand the years of the generations” (Deut 32:7). Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein, a late 19th century Hassidic rabbi living in Poland, explains the word “years” used in this verse in Hebrew is ‘shanot’ picking up on a notion by the medieval scholar Ibn Ezra, R. Bornstein relating this to the root of the word for “changes”, which in Hebrew is ‘shinui’. So the verse could read “…understand the changes throughout the generations.”. My dear late grandmother used to say “nothing stays the same for ever” and we do not always cope well with change, it may feel unsettling, unfamiliar and unnerving. But in Judaism we teach that as a people we are never stuck in a spiritually dismal place – there is always the possibility of change, of growth, forgiveness, reconciliation, and a return to our best selves. Which is an appropriate message for this time of the New Year and with it new beginnings. The turn of another year will undoubtedly bring changes for us as individuals, as families and as a community. Since nothing stays the same for ever, we need to embrace change and see it as an opportunity.
Wishing everyone a safe and easy fast, and a sweet and successful New Year of positive and meaningful changes.