(Courtesy: Rabbi Shimon Felix)
I would like to discuss both the parsha of Ha’azinu, which we will read on Shabbat, together with some aspects of Rosh Hashana. Parshat Ha’azinu (which means “listen”) is the penultimate portion of the Torah. Together with the final parsha, Zot Habracha (This is the Blessing) it contains Moshe’s last words to the Jewish people before dying. Both portions are poems, and are written in a difficult, highly literary, often obscure style. Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, one of the great Chasidic masters, asks why this is so: why, at the end of his life and the end of the Torah, does Moshe depart from the prose style which he has used for most of his life and speak, instead, in verse?
Rav Levi Yitzchak has an interesting, perhaps somewhat counter-intuitive explanation. Many of us might see the switch to poetry as an attempt to express more beautifully, more richly, more profoundly, the last things that Moshe has to say. After all, poetry is, well, poetic, whereas prose is, basically, prosaic. The final chapters of the Torah can be seen as a beautiful, artistic finale to the books of the Bible, a final farewell rendered all the more touching and inspiring for being put to verse. Rav Levi Yitzchak, however, says the opposite. At the end of his life Moshe was weak, neither the man nor the prophet he had once been. Therefore, he was forced to abandon the clear, direct, precise, and readily understandable prose style which he employed for most of his career and lapse, instead, into an obtuse, allusive, stylized and difficult-to-understand poetic style. According to Rav Levi Yitzchak, the poetic material which Moshe produce at the end of his life does not constitute a crowning artistic achievement but, rather, a falling off of his powers of communication, a lapse, brought on by his advanced age, failing powers, and impending death.
This interesting understanding is highly suggestive about language and its uses. I would like to suggest the ‘truth as opposed to beauty’ dichotomy as a possible framework for understanding some of the implications of this idea. Traditionally, many have placed Judaism, with its emphasis on the written and spoken word, at one pole, in opposition to the Hellenistic world, enthralled as it was (and is) by images and their representation, at the other: the Jews believe in and seek truth, the Hellenists worship beauty. In this way of looking at things, Judaism, with its prohibitions against the making and worshiping of images, and its emphasis on the legal and moral system given to us by an “invisible” God, stands in opposition to the centrality of the beautiful human figure and, in fact, all artistic representation, in Greco-Roman culture. Rav Levi Yitzchak sees the beautification of language by poetry as a weaker, less Jewish, less ‘true’ form of communication. He is, perhaps, suspicious of the beauty of such a text, afraid that its message, its truth, may be obscured or in some way slanted by its aesthetic aims and considerations. He prefers the clarity and directness, the less ambiguous tone, the simplicity and lack of ornamentation, of prose.
On Rosh Hashana we performed one basic Mitzva, which we will repeat again at the end of Yom Kippur: the blowing of the Shofar. The Rabbis understand the sounds which we are bidden to make with the Shofar, the notes which we traditionally play, as sighs and sobs; we imitate, with the Shofar, the sounds made by a person crying (according to the Rabbinic tradition, the sounds of a mother crying for her lost child). Although on the High Holidays we also recite thousands of words in both poetry and prose, the central communication, the basic message, is a wordless cry. This is the most simple, unadorned way we have of expressing ourselves on this Day of Judgment, when, as we examine what we have done and who we are, we realize that not only the aesthetic strategies of poetry, but even the straightforwardness of prose feel false, and we resort to our first, most intuitive, and least artificial method of communication – we cry.