Parshios Netzavim & Vayeilech
Rebirth of a Nation 1
Now write this song and teach it to the Bnei Yisrael. Place it in
their mouth, so that this song may be a witness for me against the Bnei
Yisrael. When I will have brought them to the Land…and they will eat, and be
sated, and become fat, and they will turn to other gods and serve them, and
they will mock me and break my covenant. Many oppressing evils will befall
them. Then this song will testify before them as a witness, for it will not
be forgotten out of the mouths of their descendants.
Getting half the picture can be completely unsatisfactory. So it is in our
parshah, describing the reaction of the Bnei Yisrael to the calamities that
befall them. “Is it not because my G-d is no longer in my midst that these
misfortunes happen to me?” Arguably, the statement is true. The calamity
took place because HKBH withdrew His beneficent Providence. But it is only
half the picture. This explanation is completely and woefully inadequate to
arrest the downward turn in the fortunes of the Nation.
It is convenient to be able to blame G-d when things go wrong. “He should
have been there for us. He should have bailed us out, just as He did when
the Patriarchs found themselves in trouble. If He had not withdrawn His
assistance, we would not be suffering the ninety-eight curses of the
Tochechah.” It is more painful to ask, “Why did He say ‘no?’ Why didn’t He
respond? Why did He withdraw into silence and distance when we needed Him?”
Not always, but sometimes, we can take an educated guess, based on what He
has taught us: a long, persistent record of misdeeds has driven away His
Shechinah. He told us that this would happen, that He could not abide living
among us if we became mired in sin. The blame is with us, not Him. Failing
to take this extra step – in other words, noting Hashem’s withdrawal without
understanding why He withdrew – is a grave error.
The Torah here predicts that the Bnei Yisrael will find themselves in such a
rut, and tells us precisely how they will get there, and what will lead to
the first – even if mistaken – assessment of G-d’s role in their predicament.
“They will eat, and be sated, and become fat.” The culprit will be a life
style incompatible with the demands of the Torah mission. Living with
abundance and luxury, of eating not only to the point of satiety but of
growing fat, does not lead to a life of sanctifying the mundane and
material. It comports quite will with pagan licentiousness, with the turning
to other gods and serving them that our pesukim speak of. Interestingly,
Hashem counters this abundance with “many oppressing evils.” The word
tzaros/ oppressing really means limiting, confining. The antidote to
defection from Torah because of possessing too many choices is to have that
field narrowed down and restricted to too few.
How will Klal Yisrael extricate itself from this two-fold error – mediocre
performance, coupled with faulty theology? Our pesukim tell us that the
Shirah of Haazinu will provide the witness to answer the complaint of the
people. We don’t instantly understand how this will happen. Certainly, the
Shirah removes the element of surprise and shock. In a few dramatic lines,
it recounts all of history. It predicts the dire straits in which the people
find themselves. They will not be able to say that they were not
forewarned. But what about it prevents them from going half way – accurately
seeing G-d’s withdrawal as the immediate reason for their misfortune, but
not following up and determining the reason for His distance?
The gemara extends the narrow meaning of “shirah” to include the entire
Torah. (In other words, the mitzvah of “write for yourselves this shirah”
means the entire Torah, not just the Song of Haazinu that follows.) This
makes sense. The antidote to recognizing G-d’s withdrawal while remaining
clueless as to the reason can only come from a grasp of the entire Torah.
Studying all of it, the Bnei Yisrael can take note of their failure to
observe the fullness of all His commandments.
But how does this make any sense at all? Can it be that the guarantee that
Jews will remember that they have forgotten the Torah is the Torah that they
have forgotten? Had they stayed fully engaged with the Torah’s dictates,
they would not find themselves in such a perilous state. Now that they are
there, can the very Torah they rejected lead them back?
Surprisingly, the Torah says, “Indeed.” The Shirah – including its broader
understanding as the totality of the Torah – will be able to help heal the
spiritual malady of the people, even though it will fail to prevent it.
“For it will not be forgotten out of the mouths of their descendants.” In
the worst of times, in the blackest times of history, when the spiritual
trajectory of the people seems to have turned irreversibly away from Hashem,
our parshah testifies that the Torah itself is the guarantor of teshuvah and
progress. No matter what, the Torah will not be forgotten from the mouths of
Bnei Yisrael. Something of Torah consciousness will endure and lead the
people back. Klal Yisrael will remain the People of the Book till the end of
time. Rebirth is assured.
The gemara sees the pasuk, “You will lie with your fathers and arise
[the people and stray]” as somewhat indeterminate in meaning. The
arising, on the level of the plain meaning of the text, refers to a future
generation rising up in rebellion against Hashem’s demands. The position of
the word “arise” in the pasuk allows it (and therefore demands) that it be
read with the words that precede it. In other words, those to whom Moshe
speaks will die, but they will arise again at the time of techias ha-meisim.
The gemara sees this as a clear allusion to the resurrection of the dead.
The elegance of placing such an allusion here is overwhelming. Resurrection
means that death is not final; something of a person endures that can be
teased back to mortal life. The upshot of our parshah is that the nation can
plunge itself into a spiritual death, but that death, too, is not final. Our
pesukim, the run-up to the Shirah, promise that the nation as well will
bestir itself from its sleep, and come back to life. What techias ha-meisim
offers the individual, our parshah guarantees will happen to the Nation.
1. Based on the Hirsch Chumash, Devarim 31:19-21
2. Nedarim 38A
3. Sanhedrin 98A
4. Devarim 31:16