In this week’s Parsha, Moshe says his final goodbye to the Jewish People, hands over the mantle of leadership to Yehoshua, and leaves his nation with some final harsh words. Included in his last words are stern warnings that if during the years to come, the Jews stray from the path of the Torah, they will be exiled and punished severely by God.
Concerned that the Jews will one day deny that they deserve to be punished for their sins, Moshe goes so far as to call three witnesses – Eidim – to testify that the Jews were duly warned. The witnesses are Shirat Ha’azinu (see 31:19, 21), Moshe’s original Sefer Torah (see 31:26), and the heavens and earth (see 31:28 as well as 30:19).
What is the significance of these three ‘items’ being designated as witnesses against the Jewish people?
The Sforno explains that the Sefer Torah will serve as a witness against later generations because it was placed next to the Aron HaKodesh in the Kodesh HaKodashim, totally inaccessible to anyone who might wish to twist the Torah’s stern words of warning. This is similar to the Midrash Rabbah on our Parsha, which claims that Moshe wrote thirteen Sifrei Torah: one for each tribe, and one to be hidden in the Holy of Holies as the ‘final word’ on any debate as to the authentic words of the Torah.
The heavens and earth are called witnesses simply because they are always accessible to everyone, in every place and every time. The heavens and earth witness all that has ever happened and are always there to testify.
Perhaps we could suggest that these two witnesses were chosen as two contrasting images for the Jewish People to remember. The warnings of Moshe’s Torah are undeniable and unmistakable. They are written black-on-white and are not open for debate. But they are not available to anyone who wishes to view them.
On the other hand, the heavens and earth are available and open for all to view. But their message to future generations is ‘cloudy’ and open for interpretation. Those who see God’s influence in nature are constantly reminded of His warnings, and those who see the heavens, earth and nature as a products of a theologically neutral chain of events see no messages or warnings at all.
These opposite imageries capture a great challenge we have been facing lately as faithful Jews in a modern world. We sense God’s unmistakable voice in the political and natural events that surround us, yet we struggle to figure out exactly what that voice is saying.
Perhaps this challenge is captured in third witness, the Shirah, the song. Unlike prose, whose message is clear and unambiguous, poetic lyrics convey one message yet leave space for the reader to interpret and debate. They are accessible to all, yet all do not perceive the same message in their words. The Shirah, then, bridges the gap between Moshe’s Torah and the heavens and earth, thereby capturing our great challenge.
May we all be Zocheh to appreciate the inspiring yet humbling message of the Shirah during these Yamim Noraim.