Moses is running out of time. Even before he is told (in verse 14 of our one-chapter parashah) that his life is nearing its end, he feels it in his bones. “I can no longer sally forth and come in,” he says. No wonder he can no longer lead the Israelites in battle: he is 120 years old. His rhetoric in the previous chapter, imploring the Israelites to choose life over death, has already hinted at his awareness of his impending end.
We remember the dramatic moments in Moses’ career: the seemingly magical signs and wonders inflicted on the Egyptians, the production of water from rocks in the wilderness. Our strongest impression of Moses, though, comes from the torrent of words he has issued. Despite his initial demurral that he is “no man of words… heavy-mouthed and heavy-tongued,” he has demonstrated his expertise at exhorting, imploring, cajoling, castigating, and even manipulating his listeners—including the very One who had appointed him.
Like many an orator, at the end of his life Moses turns from the oral medium to the written. He gives instructions that his “teaching” (Torah) be read aloud to the Children of Israel in a mass assembly every seven years. “Assemble the people, the men and the woman and the little ones and your sojourner who is within your gates, that they may hear and so that they may learn.” He repeats the inclusion of the children: “And your children who know not will hear and learn….”
The Torah, then, is the memoir and the ethical will that Moses leaves behind for the coming generations. Having spent most of his life leading his people, running an administration and acting as prophet and lawgiver, he has more recently been a crotchety old man, his speeches more fulmination than inspiration. Repeatedly in Deuteronomy, Moses has excoriated the Israelites for the sins their children and grandchildren are all too likely to commit once they conquer Canaan and settle its towns and farms. A sad sight it is to see Moses like this, fallen so far from the peak of his political prowess. It is all the more gratifying now, then, to see that as the end of the road is literally in sight—Mt. Nevo is ahead—he gathers his wits, musters his pedagogic skills, and institutes the ceremony, known as Hak-hel, that is to ensure his legacy. His words from the past will resound into the future.
Then, in a surprise last-minute move, in the last three verses of the chapter he summons the inspiration to say he will offer yet a few more words. This time, wisely, he will issue not a speech or laws but a song (or poem; shirah can mean either.) The written word is strong and stable, but a memorized song will be more effective than a long text heard only once in seven years, only a few times in a lifespan. With its appeal to the ear, its rhythms encoded far more indelibly in the mind than mere prose, the poem will be with us at all times—every last word. We are enticed to come back in seven days to hear the song, Ha’azinu, that is next week’s parashah.
Rabbi Peretz Rodman, head of the Bet Din of the Masorti Movement in Israel, has been the guest of a number of Masorti congregations in the U.K. He and his family live in Jerusalem.