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The lesson of the Shirah

By Rabbi Benjamin Stone

Sometimes a question is so strong, it is almost unanswerable.

“And it shall be when (the Jewish people) encounter many evils and tribulations and this

shirah (song) will testify  before them as a witness – because it will not be forgotten from

their offspring”. (Devarim; 31:21)

This verse teaches us that when troubles befall klal yisrael (G-d forbid), our first point of

reference should be the shirah in this week’s parasha which serves to remind us of why

those troubles have occurred and that, at some point, redemption will kick in.

Now the question is as follows; in three thousand years of our troubled existence, has any

communal leader or saintly individual ever quoted the shirah in times of suffering?

Even if our leaders might have, on occasion, referred to the shirah, it is clear that the

shirah is not considered the “go to” document in difficult times, as prescribed in this verse.

How could that be?

If we look a little at the content of the shirah the answer to this question begins to reveal

itself. At the outset the shirah tells us the exact point at which everything starts

to go wrong. After being meticulously cared for in the desert and then lavishly provided for

in Eretz Yisroel:

“Yeshrun became fat and kicked,” (32:15)

meaning that the Jewish people over indulged in material pleasures and rebelled.

According to the Sforno it was not simply the uninitiated, simple Jew who was

enticed by material success. The term “Yeshurun” refers to those who were the shield

bearers of the Torah, those capable of learning to a high standard. Their immersion in

luxury and their hedonistic leanings served to dull their intellectual sensitivities, weakening

their ability to grasp the subtleties of fine halachic argument.

To return to our question; although the Torah, at face value, does instruct us to refer to the

shirah when we meet troubled times, that is not its precise intention.

A few verses earlier, Moshe is instructed to

“Write for yourself the shirah and teach it to the children of Israel; make them fluent in

it…so that it can be a witness”.

The shirah is to be the mini-blueprint of the future which every Jew needs

to carry with them into exile. The shirah is the letter of advice a mother places in a

locket and gives to the child she might not see again and is to be the mantra of our

survival in galut. It is a song which every man, women and child is supposed to

know so well that when difficult times set in, it will not be necessary to positively consult

the shira; at that point the shira will in fact “testify itself”. (Devarim 31:21)

It is too late to look to the shirah once we begin to experience trials and distress. We need

to be proactive. When times are good we need to check that the lesson of the shirah is

absorbed into our bones; that whilst we may enjoy the pleasures of this world, we must not

allow those pleasures to divert our focus away from our avodat Hashem.

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