Nitzavim – Vayelech
Song of Witness
King James: Now therefore write ye this song for you, and teach thou it the children of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for Me against the children of Israel.
JPS: Therefore write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this poem may be My witness against the people Israel.
Pseudo-Jonathan: And now, write you this hymn, and teach the children of Israel; put it upon their lips, that this hymn may be before them, for a witness against the children of Israel.
PSHAT/plain text and context:
‘Here You Stand’ and ‘There He Went’ are the two Torah portions that team up this coming Shabbat to form the lengthy weekly storytelling installment. The ‘You’ in the first portion – ‘Nitzavim’, refers to the entire nation of Israel, from first class to economy, and all foreign workers included. The ‘He’ in the second portion – ‘VaYelech’ talks about Moses and his departure in slow motion from leadership and from life.
The last speech of Moses to the people continues in these chapters before turning into next week’s epic poem. And as the old man raises his voice in admonishment and threat to the errant children of Israel who will surly worship everything under the sun, including the sun, and forget the invisible force of divinity and deliverance – our verse of the week pops up:
31:19 Therefore write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this poem may be My witness against the people Israel.
There is a model of learning in this passage (write, teach, and put it their mouths) that suggests what we mean when we ask someone to learn something “by heart.” Originally to “learn by heart” meant to record deeply in one’s spiritual archive. As opposed to “learn by rote,” which suggests merely the ability to recall.
REMEZ/a hint at more
The curious image here is SONG, or is HYMN, or POEM as the various translations show us. Between that first song and this last one, an epic journey has been undertaken, and a “song line” has been inscribed on the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan. The British anthropologist Bruce Chatwin, studying aboriginal mapping methods in Australia, described songlines as “…the labyrinth of invisible pathways which meander all over Australia and are known to Europeans a ‘Dreaming-tracks’ or ‘Songlines’; to the Aboriginals as the ‘Footprints of the Ancestors’ or the ‘Way of the Law’.
DRASH/ a twist on the original
What does it mean for a Song or poem to become a witness? Presumably in bad times, when forgetfulness takes over gratitude – the song will remember the beauty of what once was. Not the Law – the Song. We all have fragments of memories lodged inside of us – often bits of songs – lullabies, musicals, and prayers. Secret reservoirs of hope for dark times of despair. Even in harsh times, the song will be there to witness, remind, and revive. As High Holidays approach – a high tide of familiar haunting tunes and melodies that stir the soul – this image resonates strongly for me. To quote ABBA (from my secret reservoir of 70’s childhood inspiration, and I remembered these words by heart!) ‘Thank you for the Music… who could live with out it, I ask in all honesty, what would life be, without a song or dance, what are we?’
What is the song your soul sings? Is it an anthem, a torch song, rockabilly, blues, rap, or a gospel wail? What are the words of your soul’s song: praise, rage, gratitude, and blessing? And to what in the world does your soul’s song bear witness: suffering, joy, despair, love, and community?
Once an entire segment of a generation sang: “We shall overcome.” In our I-pod world of a billion songs, will there ever again be a song that can unite a community?
Perhaps it is time, as David wrote, to “sing a new song. ” Psalm 144