Words as Witness

The song-poem in this parashah shows that words do more than narrate and describe.

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          "It is difficult
to get the news from poems
             yet men die miserably every day
                            for lack
of what is found there."

                   
~William Carlos Williams (from "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower")

The Pentateuch's penultimate portion, Parashat Ha'azinu, memorializes the "Song of Moses," canted by the great leader on the day of his death. An epic poem in six parts, Ha'azinu tells of God's enduring relationship with Israel, unfurling their stormy entanglements into both desert past and prophetic future.
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Its recitation is Moses' last pedagogic act, and the song-poem figures largely in the great leader's final preparations for death. Moses schools the entire assembly in its verses, satisfying God's command that Ha'azinu's words "not be forgotten from the mouths of your offspring." And on the day of his death, the relentless scribe writes out the poem in its entirety, instructing the Levites that it be placed in the Sanctuary, next to the Ark of the Covenant (Deut. 31:21-30).  

There is powerful emotional force to this song-poem. Arranged not in the Torah's typical textual format, Ha'azinu's verses instead are presented in columns--the better, one can imagine, to see their words quiver. Even our scrolls seem thus to acknowledge that Ha'azinu's power is drawn not from the narrative substance of its verses, but from their form; that the poem holds its audience in thrall through its couplets and cadences; its lurid imagery and outlandish metaphor; its esoteric language of "no-gods" and "no-folk."

Ha'azinu's verses are less sentences than incantations--a kind of magic that does the heavy lifting of the soul from a posture of attention to one of rapture, from interest to commitment. This is the mysterious work of poetry, rendering Moses' final recitation not a mere collection of words, but "a witness for the children of Israel" (Deut. 31:19).

And here is Ha'azinu's searing imprint: That words can be witness--to covenant and commitment, trauma and injustice; to the failures of history and to the future's promise. Words do not only narrate and recount: They also do. They rebuke indifference and instill commitment. They suspend bridges between worlds and gather people into communities. They compel action.

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Rachel Farbiarz

Rachel Farbiarz is a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law. Rachel worked as a clerk for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, after which she practiced law focusing on the civil rights and humane treatment of prisoners.