A reading of the song of Ha’azinu leaves us puzzled: while the song describes the future of the Jewish nation, there is almost no mention of the nation in the active voice. Everything is done by God; everything happens – or happened – to Am Yisrael, nowhere does the nation takes its fate into its own hands: “See, now, that I – I am He, there is no god together with Me. I cause to die and I cause to live; I wound and I heal…”. Where is the free choice, where is our ability to influence the course of events?
Let us add a further question: Moshe utters this song prior to his death, to serve as a testimony to Am Yisrael. Naturally, we would expect the song to be directed towards the nation and all its future generations, as Moshe declares at the beginning of parshat Nitzavim: “You stand today, all of you…”. But to our surprise, the song is not directed towards any such listeners: “Listen, o heavens, and I shall speak; let the earth hear the utterances of my mouth”! Moshe is talking to the heavens and the earth. Am Yisrael may, admittedly, be listed as a “bcc” – they receive a copy of the song – but why are they not the principal address?
A look at the song within the context of Sefer Devarim may provide the answer to our questions.
A study of the previous parshot, and their juxtaposition to the song of Ha’azinu, teach us a fundamental lesson in understanding man’s place and his ability to influence history. At major junctions along the time line, the nation is indeed given a choice: “I make witness to you today the heavens and the earth: I have placed life and death before you, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, in order that you may live – you and your descendants” (Devarim 30). But sometimes a single choice can lead the nation into processes that are self-generating, such that matters develop far beyond the reaches of human control.
In the behavioral sciences, the expression “fundamental attribution error” is used to describe a situation whereby a person mistakenly overestimates the role of personal factors in explaining the behavior of another individual or group, while underestimating the role of situational factors leading to that behavior.
The same type of error can occur on the national plane. A nation may be convinced that its fate is in its own hands, that it alone controls its affairs, while in fact it is rocked about like a small boat in a stormy sea of crises and conflicting currents, devoting all its energies to remaining afloat, with no ability to choose a direction or destination. “If only they were wise and would understand this, and would contemplate their ultimate fate. How shall one person chase a thousand, and two put ten thousand to flight, if their Rock has not sold them?”
The song of Ha’azinu comes to correct this mistake. Mortals very easily lose their control of the boat of history, and even more easily make the mistake of thinking that they are still in control. Fortunately, the arrival at the final destination is not dependent only on ourselves. Prior to his death, Moshe is pained at the path that Am Yisrael chooses; he foresees hundreds and thousands of years of chaos, wrong decisions, and trouble: “Many evils and troubles will befall them”. But, “Let us not despair,” says Moshe. God reveals that there is a back-up plan; there’s a different hand to steer the boat – the hand that was really steering it all along!
A person’s choices can bring him good or bad, but they cannot spoil the Divine plan. It is for this reason that Moshe addresses himself to the heavens and the earth. And for the same reason the song descends like “rain” and “dew” – like natural forces which man cannot control or stop.
We must understand this, so that the song can fulfill its function as testimony: “Through this word you shall prolong your days upon the land”.