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The Rock Song (Yom Kippur/Haazinu)

Rabbi Eliezer taught: Repent one day before you die. His students asked him: But does a person know on which day he will die? He replied: All the more reason that he should repent today, lest he die tomorrow; and thus, he shall spend all of his days engaged in repentance (T. Bavli Shabbat 153a).

It was Moshe’s one hundred and twentieth birthday, the day on which he achieved that age which in Jewish tradition is associated with a life lived to its fullest. It was also the day on which Hashem had told him he was to die. He had much to be proud of: cast away by his mother at birth, persecuted by the Pharaoh as a young adult, and still looking to start a family in middle age, he had managed to overcome much adversity in his personal life and emerge as the unlikely savior of a nation whom he had rescued from slavery, taught Hashem’s Torah, and delivered to the border of the land promised to their ancestors centuries ago.

Yet he would never merit to see his efforts reach full fruition. Though he had served his people and its God with tireless devotion over the past forty years, he had, in a moment of weakness, displayed uncharacteristic disobedience; Hashem had instructed him to end a drought by ordering a rock to issue forth water, but Moshe voiced skepticism with this plan—“Now listen, you rebels, can we draw water for you from this rock?” (Num. 20:10)—and, rather than speaking with the rock, he chose to strike it with his staff. The waters emerged, but the opportunity to instill within his flock that purity of faith in Hashem for which they thirsted no less had been irretrievably lost. Hashem could not allow this blunder to go unpunished: “Since you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the land which I have given them” (ibid. 12).

We do not usually think of it in these terms, but one way to read our Parshah, Haazinu, is as an account of how Moshe performed teshuva for this sin on his last day of life. At the simplest level, his public submission to Hashem’s decree served itself to atone for having defied Him before the eyes of the nation years earlier. Thus, at the end of our Parshah, Hashem points explicitly to Moshe’s actions at Merivah by way of reiterating why he must die on this side of the Jordan river:

And the Lord spoke to Moses on that very day, saying: Go up this Mount Avarim [to] Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, that is facing Jericho, and see the Land of Canaan, which I am giving to the children of Israel as a possession, and die on the mountain upon which you are climbing and be gathered to your people, just as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his people. Because you betrayed Me in the midst of the children of Israel at the waters of Merivath Kadesh, [in] the desert of Zin, [and] because you did not sanctify Me in the midst of the children of Israel. For from afar, you will see the land, but you will not come there, to the land I am giving the children of Israel (Deut. 32:48-52).

Yet there may be other, subtler ways in which the memory of Merivah weaves itself through Moshe’s final hours. Let’s take a step back. Moshe’s last day of life begins not in this week’s Parshah, but in last week’s, Vayeilech. This is how Hashem orders him to spend it:

And the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, your days have come to die. Call Joshua and stand in the Tent of Meeting, and I will command him. So Moses and Joshua went, and stood in the Tent of Meeting. And the Lord appeared in the Tent, in a pillar of cloud. The pillar of cloud stood at the entrance to the Tent. And the Lord said to Moses: Behold, you are [about to] lie with your forefathers, and this nation will rise up and stray after the deities of the nations of the land, into which they are coming. And they will forsake Me and violate My covenant which I made with them. And My fury will rage against them on that day, and I will abandon them and hide My face from them, and they will be consumed, and many evils and troubles will befall them, and they will say on that day, ‘Is it not because our God is no longer in our midst, that these evils have befallen us?’ And I will hide My face on that day, because of all the evil they have committed, when they turned to other deities. And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths, in order that this song will be for Me as a witness for the children of Israel. When I bring them to the land which I have sworn to their forefathers [to give them], a land flowing with milk and honey, they will eat and be satisfied, and live on the fat [of the land]. Then, they will turn to other deities and serve them, provoking Me and violating My covenant. And it will be, when they will encounter many evils and troubles, this song will bear witness against them, for it will not be forgotten from the mouth of their offspring. For I know their nature, what they do today even before I bring them into the land which I have sworn [to give them]” (Deut. 31: 14-21).

desert-rainHere is Moshe, about to breathe his last while his people marches on without him. And yet, Hashem warns, those people will inevitably succumb to sin the way that he once had—and, when they do, they, too, will be cast out of their ancestral land. So Moshe must prepare them: he must provide them with the theological perspective required to recognize the presence of Hashem even in difficult moments such as these.

Now try to enter into Moshe’s headspace for a moment. Where is Moshe right now? He is in the “Tent of Meeting.” And what has Moshe just heard? Hashem announced that today is the day that he is going to die. Does this scene trigger any memories for us, if we’re Moshe? Does it remind Moshe, perhaps, of the last time Hashem had met him in the Tent of Meeting with directives for how to handle a national spiritual crisis—back at Merivah, when the people clamored for water; at Merivah, where Moshe’s temporary lapse of judgment had originally prompted Hashem to pronounce his death sentence?

And recall what Merivah means in Hebrew: “quarrel.” The place, often translated in English as “Waters of Strife,” received its name because it was there that the people “quarreled” with Hashem by accusing Him of having forsaken them (Num. 20:13). Well, is it not this sort of quarreling which Hashem hopes to preempt by “teach[ing] to the Children of Israel” a song which shall “act for Me as a witness against them” on that day? Indeed, pay close attention to the specific claim which Hashem predicts that the people will level against Him upon Moshe’s death: “God is no longer in our midst” [אין אלהי בקרבי]. Does this complaint ring any bells? Yes, it is the exact same one which Moshe had heard long ago, at the first water crisis over which he presided—not the one at Merivah, but at Massa U’Merivah, decades prior—”Is God in our midst, or not?” [היש ה’ בקרבנו אם אין] (Exod. 17:7). Hashem had actually commanded Moshe to hit the rock at that time, and he did, and waters came out, and the people drank, and it seemed like their doubts had been put to rest for good. But then, at Merivah, Moshe hit the rock without Hashem commanding him to do so, and implied incredulity in Hashem’s ability to repeat the miracle. Thus, the doubts resurfaced: Is God in our midst, or isn’t He?

Granted, we could just attribute these connections to random coincidence. On the other hand, consider how Moshe reacts to his conversation with Hashem:

And it was, when Moses finished writing the words of this Torah in a scroll, until their very completion, that Moses commanded the Levites, who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, saying: “Take this Torah scroll and place it alongside the ark of covenant of the Lord, your God, and it will be there as a witness. For I know your rebelliousness and your stubbornness. Even while I am alive with you today you are rebelling against the Lord, and surely after my death! Assemble to me all the elders of your tribes and your officers, and I will speak these words into their ears, and I will call upon the heaven and the earth as witnesses against them.” (Deut. 31:24-28).

Listen carefully to how Moshe addresses the people as he introduces Hashem’s song to them: “I know your rebelliousness [מריך];” “even while I am alive with you today you are rebelling [ממרים] against the Lord.” This charge of “rebelliousness,” as we saw earlier, is the very same one which Moshe invoked against the people at Merivah—“now listen, you rebels [המרים]”—and it is the very same charge which, in a twist of irony, Hashem invoked against Moshe in referring back to that episode: “you [and Aaron] rebelled [מריתם] against My orders at the waters of Merivah” (Num. 20:24). Moreover, just as these “rebels” had “assembled [ויקהלו] against Moses and Aaron” at Merivah (Num. 20:2), and just as Hashem had, at that time, advised Moshe and Aaron to “assemble [והקהל] them” (Num. 20:8) so that He could rebuff their protests, here again, in our Parshah, Hashem orders Moshe to “assemble [הקהילו]” the nation so that He may testify against them.

With that, the song commences:

Listen, O heavens, and I will speak! And let the earth hear the words of my mouth! My lesson will drip like rain; my word will flow like dew; like storm winds on vegetation and like raindrops on grass. When I call out the name of the Lord, ascribe greatness to our God (Deut. 32:1-3).

Think about the dynamic at play in these opening lines: Moshe is calling out to nature and summoning it to produce water in response to the words of his mouth. Does this sound at all familiar? Of course it does—it is precisely what Moshe was supposed to do at Merivah. By neglecting to do so then, Moshe had desecrated Hashem’s name; that is why, as he attempts now to right that wrong, he “calls out” in that very “name of the Lord,” beckoning his audience to join him in “ascrib[ing] greatness” to it.

So that covers the “waters” of Merivah. Now what about the “rock” from which those waters gushed forth? Well, for starters, we have this unmistakable (if poetically adapted) allusion to the rocks of Merivah, and possibly to their precursor at Massa U’Merivah:

He made them ride upon the high places of the earth, that they would eat the produce of the field. He let them suck honey from a boulder, and oil from the flinty rock (Deut. 32:13).

Even more remarkable, however, is the spate of other contexts in which “rocks” crop up throughout the lyrics of our song:

The deeds of the Rock are perfect, for all His ways are just; a faithful God, without injustice He is righteous and upright (Deut. 32:4).

And Jeshurun became fat and kicked; you grew fat, thick and rotund; [Israel] forsook the God Who made them, and spurned the Rock of their salvation (ibid. 15).

You forgot the Rock Who bore you; you forgot the God Who delivered you (ibid. 18).

How can one pursue a thousand, and two put ten thousand to flight, unless their Rock has sold them out, and the Lord has given them over? (ibid. 30).

For their “rock” is not like our Rock. Nevertheless, our enemies sit in judgment (ibid. 31).

Then He will say, “Where is their deity, the “rock” in which they trusted? (ibid. 37).

All in all, “rocks” appear nine times in this song. Nowhere else in the Torah are they featured in such high concentrations. And nowhere in the entire Torah—not even once—are they used as a moniker for Hashem (or the false deities which He opposes). Yet the symbolism is most fitting here. At Merivah, Moshe profaned Hashem’s name by hitting a rock; now, in order to mend the damage done, Hashem appropriates the name “Rock” for Himself, and has Moshe sing praises to Him using that very name.

In particular, it is worth focusing on the very first instance of this term:

The deeds of the Rock are perfect, for all His ways are just; He is a God of faithfulness, without injustice He is righteous and upright (Deut. 32:4).

Needless to say, there is something quite powerful about Moshe chanting of the “justice,” “righteousness,” and “uprightness” of Hashem, the “Rock,” mere moments before Hashem exercises that justice by taking his life for having hit a rock himself. Yet even more poignant, perhaps, is the way that Moshe, at Hashem’s orchestration, lauds Him in this verse: “He is a God of faithfulness [אמונה].” By contrast, Moshe later in the song laments that Bnei Yisrael are “children of unfaithfulness [לא אמן]” (Deut. 32:20). This, of course, echoes the chief grievance which Hashem had lodged with Moshe at Merivah—“You did not have faith [לא האמנתם] in Me” (Num. 20:12)—and it in fact encompasses the main thrust of this song as well: Hashem is a faithful God; when He feels hidden from you, it is not because He has abandoned His faith to you, but perhaps because you have abandoned your faith in Him.

At Merivah, Moshe failed to transmit this lesson to Bnei Yisrael. He had violated his boundaries as a leader, and that is why “He who set the boundaries of peoples” (Deut. 32:8) insisted that Moshe, like his brother Aaron before him (Num. 20:23ff), would have to die outside the “boundaries” of the land of Israel. There was nothing Moshe could do to avert this fate. It was too late to undo what had already been done, and, despite Moshe’s most valiant efforts, Hashem would not be persuaded to overturn His ruling.

Yet while passage to the land of Israel had been denied him, the gates of repentance are never locked. To be sure, Moshe would not receive a second chance to speak water out of a rock; but, through the song which Hashem placed in his mouth, he was invited—if not literally, then at least literarily—to bring the people back to Merivah, as it were, and, at long last, to draw from the gaffes of his past that very message which those waters had been intended to impart. At Hashem’s conducting, Moshe’s personal journey to teshuvah became a loose framework of sorts for collective conversation about how deeply and dearly Hashem yearns to “atone for His land and His people” (Deut. 32:43). That is how Moshe redeemed, on his final day, his life’s darkest chapter: by utilizing its example to teach those whom he would soon leave behind that, yes, humans sin, and, yes, those sins carry consequences, but, no, when we find ourselves facing those consequences, it doesn’t mean that our relationship with God is at an end. All it means is that we must strive, through mended conduct, to carve anew that space within our lives in which He may dwell.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah, and Shabbat Shalom!


2 Comments

  1. insearch26 says:

    Beautifully done! Thank you for the insight and the uptake, Alex: it really moved me. Gmar chatima tova and Shabbat Shalom-

    Avraham Pesach (Daniel) Vinik

  2. Mike Shriqui says:

    Thank you for the excellent and timely essay. Gmar Chatima Tova to you and Blima.

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