The Jewish people are poised to enter the Promised Land and Moshe delivers his final message as a song that fuses past, present and future. He reminds the people of where they are coming from and offers sage advice for the challenges that they will face as an independent nation in their own land. He describes the misfortunes that they will face and the damage God will wreak on their oppressors.
When we read through this week’s sedra, Ha’azinu, the penultimate one in the Torah, we are treated to a history lesson like no other. As a student, it upset me to see how history bored some of my classmates to tears. Facts, figures, names and battles were to be memorised and regurgitated without much thought or analysis.
I have had the privilege to redress this by enabling thousands of young Jews to visit Poland to engage with their history first hand in a personal and meaningful way. One of the most powerful quotes they encounter, attributed to George Santayanam, is written at the entrance to Auschwitz block 4: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The Torah uses the word zikaron (memory) to teach us that history is our story, an ongoing narrative that is part of our lives.
Parshat Ha’azinu is a history lesson set to a song – in fact the Hebrew word for song is shir, which can also mean a chain (Mishna Shabbat 5:1). This evokes powerful images of seder night, where our epic story is set to song. When a family sings passionately about their identity this infuses history with life and safeguards thereby protecting our heritage for future generations like shiryon, a suit of armour (which in ancient times was made of chainmail).
It is no coincidence that this week’s parsha falls between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, when we also express our hopes, dreams and aspirations for ourselves, the Jewish people and the world at large through singing our prayers. May we all have an uplifting Yom Kippur, one where we unite as a people who sing of a better world and then go and turn that dream into a reality.
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