Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Parshas Haazinu and Rosh Hashana: A Song and Holiday of the Future

Haazinu is one of the Torah's songs. And yet it's different from what we think of as a song.

Consider the Shirat Al HaYam, the song after the splitting of the sea, or the song that King David sings in an alternate haftorah for the Parsha (if it wasn't read between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) in gratitude to G-d for His salvation. Haazinu is quite different. In two ways.

Rosh Hashana is different from all other Yomim Tovim, holidays, in the same two ways that Haazinu is different from the Torah's other songs.

Yom Tov means, literally, a good day. And that's what holidays generally are. They are days on which we celebrate G-d's goodness, His past miracles and what they mean for our lives and our religion.

Rosh Hashana is rather less celebratory. It has its holiday aspect, but it is also a time of judgment when Sifrei Chayim U'Meitim, the books of life and death are open, and when our fate for the year is determined. It is a time of feasting and celebrating, but also of atonement and repentance.

And there is some discussion as to how much Rosh Hashana should tilt toward happiness or sadness.

Haazinu may be a song, but it too shares that ambiguous duality. Its poetry is offset by the grimness of its prophecies. Like Rosh Hashana, it ends with an ultimate salvation, but not before fear, trepidation and difficulty.

Rosh Hashana and Haazinu are not unambiguously happy. Instead they are both mixed. Why is that?

The second unique aspect of Rosh Hashana is that it is about the future. Jewish holidays generally look to the past for meaning. Pesach celebrates our exodus from Egypt, Shavuos reflects the giving of the Torah, Succos, the sheltering protection of G-d after the exodus, Purim and Chanukah also commemorate historical salvations.

Rosh Hashana (like Yom Kippur) however is a holiday of the future. We may look back at our deeds, but we are really looking forward to the year to come. We look to the future.

Haazinu likewise looks to the future. Most songs celebrate a salvation that already took place. However Haazinu looks forward to the challenges and difficulties of a time yet to come. Its salvation, like that of Rosh Hashana, takes place in the future.

And that explains their ambiguity.

It is easy to have a clear view of the past. Most of our holidays and fasts are unambiguous, either celebrating a miracle or mourning a tragedy. Rosh Hashana contains a little bit of both because the future is uncertain and unresolved. And even when, as Haazinu, it can be foretold, there is both tragedy and triumph in an unexperienced future that has not yet been resolved by our selective memories into either an unambivalent celebration or mourning.

The future contains both tragedy and triumph, home and despair, pain and joy. We don't quite know the outcome. But we know that we will have to live through it.

It is with this trepidation that we face the future. This is the power of Rosh Hashana and Haazinu.

We often look to the past. But it is the future that resolves our lives and our history. And to live out that future, we turn to G-d. The past can be known, but it is the unknowns of the future that remind us of our limitation. The future is the essence of mortality. It goes on. It is often beyond our control.

And though we can wholeheartedly celebrate or mourn the past, we turn to the future with hope and dread. We turn to the Author of the future asking Him for a better year and a better song.

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