Parashat Ha’azinu is described by the Torah as a “Shira,” “song” (Devarim 32:44). Typically, songs in Tanach like Az Yashir or Shirat Chanah reflect a genuine reason to sing, whether it is joy, gratitude, praise, or all of the above. Upon studying the Pesukim of Parashat Ha’azinu one can’t help but notice that the language is not one of joy, thanks, or praise; but rather, one of rebuke. Indeed, Rashi characterizes Shirat Ha’azinu as entirely rebuke:
“Ve’Ani Omeir Divrei Tochechah Heim…” “And I say there are words of rebuke…” (Devarim 32:12 s.v. Ve’Ein Imo Eil Neichar)
How can we reconcile this apparent dissonance between content and form? And why did Moshe see fit to add on to the two Tochechot already recorded in the Torah?
Rav Yechezel Sarna writes in his Seifer Dali’ut Yechezkel that there is a fundamental difference between the nature of Moshe’s Tochechah and those that are recorded earlier. The Tochechah in Bechukotai and Ki Tavo are really Britot, covenants, expressed as Tochechah. These covenants can be understood based on the principal of Ramban’s famous principal in Parashat Va’eira (Shemot 13:16) that the Jewish people aren’t subject to nature; rather, that our destiny is a function of our performance within the guidelines of the Brit with HaKadosh Baruch Hu.
In which case all of the Berachot and Kelalot described in the Torah, which encompass all aspects of our life, depend upon whether we listen and perform the Mitzvot or not.
The Tochechah in Parashat Ha’azinu is entirely different. There are no conditions presented and no challenges offered; rather, the Tochechah in the Parashah is entirely descriptive. It encompasses elements of the past, details of the present, and predictions of future outcomes. The message of Shirat Ha’azinu is to observe the facts and learn from them: “Zechor Yemot Olam Binu Shenot Dor VaDor,” “Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past” (Devarim 32:7). Moshe instructs us to witness the great heights we achieve when we perform the will of Hashem and terrible calamities that befall us when we don’t. We are meant to take heed from this Tochechah and aspire to the greatness that it predicts for the future of Am Yisrael. This Tochechah, indeed a Shirah, is the rollercoaster of Jewish history that demonstrates the direct relationship between our actions and our future and lest we think that all is lost, the Shirah presents the greatness we are destined to experience as the result of our fulfilling our potential as the Am Hashem. This is what Rashi means in the concluding statement of the commentary cited above:
“VeChol Ha’Inyan Musav Al ‘Zechor Yemot Olam Binu Shenot Dor VaDor,’” “The entire matter is inscribed in ‘Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past’” (Devarim 32:12 s.v. Ve’Ein Imo Eil Neichar)
This approach also explains Ramban’s critique of Rashi’s explanation of the phrase “Yimtza’ehu Be’Eretz Midbar,” “He found them in a desert region” (Devarim 32:13). Rashi interprets this phrase as praise of the Jewish people for their faith in Hashem (Ibid. s.v. Yimtza’ehu Be’Eretz Midbar), but Ramban challenges that the whole Shirah is Tochechah so how can Rashi read this phrase as praise? Within our approach, Rashi is not problematic at all. Rather, Rashi and Ramban differ in the way they understand the Shirah. For Ramban, the Shirah is all Tiochechah in that it describes that benevolence of Hashem and the Jewish people disappointing behavior in return. For Rashi, the Shirah expresses the profound message of “Zechor Yemot Olam” detailing the ups and downs of Jewish history.
In light of Rashi’s approach, the Shirah is a beautiful, albeit cautionary song that bears repeating on a regular basis. It emphasizes the greatness of man in the past and the future and reminds us to strive for greatness despite the challenges we face.