Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites
This Shabbat, we will read Shirat Ha’azinu, a “song” written by Moses for the generations to come. It deals with the Jewish nation leaving its covenant with G-d, the exile that followed, and the return to both the covenant and the land. This song accompanied the Jewish people throughout its wanderings, as evidence of the wandering and suffering it was to endure as well as to the fact that G-d would not abandon His nation. The incredibly profound song is full of imagery and layers, as one would expect of a song for eternity.
At one point, the song turns to the Jewish people and asks it to examine the dawn of history, since the time of nations’ wanderings:
Remember the days of old; reflect upon the years of [other] generations. Ask your father, and he will tell you; your elders, and they will inform you. When the Most High gave nations their lot, when He separated the sons of man, He set up the boundaries of peoples according to the number of the children of Israel. Because the Lord’s portion is His people Jacob, the lot of His inheritance.
(Deuteronomy 32, 7-9)
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 19th century) was an incredible rabbi and commentator,. He explained these verses: Remember the days of old; reflect upon the years of [other] generations. Ask your father, and he will tell you; your elders, and they will inform you. He said that Moses was turning to the Jewish nation in days to come, asking them to examine the beginnings of history by turning to previous generations. When the Most High gave nations their lot, when He separated the sons of man – In this ancient time, G-d determined which lands would be for which nations in different places in the world, including the unique characterizations of each of these lands which had a physical, emotional, and cultural impact on each nation so that they each changed and developed their own unique characteristics.
At that time, a small family popped up on the map of history, a tiny but very special group of people – the family of Abraham. That family even got a land of its own; a land that at that time was still being held by other nations. He set up the boundaries of peoples according to the number of the children of Israel.
But there was a huge difference in the relationships the other nations had with their land as compared with the one between the Jewish nation and its land. This is how Rabbi Hirsch describes it:
It was not G-d’s will that the children of Israel will become a nation in the land intended for them, and will develop into a nation based on the conditions and influences of that same land. But… that they become a nation before inheriting the land…”Because the Lord’s portion is His people” – because this nation… is the nation of G-d…
What other nations get from their lands, the nation of Yisrael gets from its connection with G-d. The creation of other nations and their existence are rooted in the earth of their lands. They take control of the land and conquer it, and by working and developing it they turn it into the basis of their society’s development… The land’s climate conditions determine the physical, spiritual, moral and social development of their culture. Therefore, they idolize what they consider the forces that shape their culture… Not so Yisrael. The Jewish nation will bring to its land the physical, spiritual, moral and social culture that is already shaped by G-d. The Jews are not to enslave themselves and their national lives to the land; rather they should make the land enslaved to them and to the life of the nation as shaped by G-d…
When this nation was born, in terrible suffering, G-d first declared, “And I will take you to Me as a people” and only afterwards said, “I will bring you to the land” (Exodus 6, 7-8). Other nations are fundamentally part of their lands, but Yisrael, due to its origin and future, is “the Lord’s portion.”
According to Rabbi Hirsch, the verses of this song express the essential difference between other nations and the Jewish nation. While other nations develop and change under the influence of their land, the Jewish nation got its character outside the borders of its land, under the direct influence of G-d, and this divine character was what it brought with it to its land.
After two-thousand years of exile, we returned to our land, we can see how Shirat Ha’azinu has come true in its entirety. We can again be inspired by the verse “Because the Lord’s portion is His people” and reshape ourselves in our land through our intimate connection with G-d.