In last week’s portion, Vayeilech, we read:
“Then Moses recited the words of the following poem to the very end, in the hearing of the whole congregation of Israel.” (Deut. 31:30)
This verse concludes last week’s portion, Parashat Vayeilech, and in doing so, creates one of the most dramatic cliffhangers in our entire Torah. Surely this forthcoming poem, Moses’ actual last words to the Israelites, will be emotional, inspirational, and transformational. Although the translation above from The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. ed. (p. 1,390) uses the word “poem,” the Hebrew text is shirah, which can mean “poem” or “song.” And in fact, this week’s portion, Parashat Haazinu, is most commonly known as Shirat Moshe, the “Song of Moses;” a beautiful way for Moses to musically frame his leadership experience with the Israelite community. Moses initially cemented his connection with this community in song with Shirat Hayam, the “Song of the Sea” (Exodus 15), and he will now conclude his relationship with the Israelites in the same powerful medium.
The perception of this song as magnificent and significant is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. The Song of Moses is included in a list of 10 songs that occur at important moments in the life of the nation of Israel:
There are 10 songs of the Israelites…The first was in Egypt, as is said: You shall have a song as in the night when a feast is hallowed (Isaiah 30:29). The second was at the Red Sea, as it is said: Then Moses sang (Exod. 15:1). The third was at the well: Then Israel sang this song (Num. 21:16). The fourth took place when Moses said: And it came to pass when Moses had made an end of writing (Deut. 31:24) … (Midrash Tanchuma, Beshalach 10:3, 11)
Maimonides maintains that some communities recite the Song of Moses daily in their morning prayers:
“In some places, it is the custom, after the blessing beginning, “Praised by Thy name,” to read daily “The Song of the Red Sea” (Exodus 15:1-18), and then the blessings before the Shema. In other places, the custom is to read Haazinu (Deuteronomy, Chapter 32). Some individuals read both Songs … “(Mishneh Torah, Prayer and the Priestly Blessing 7:13)
Given the weight of the expectations established for the Song of Moses by both the Torah and subsequent Jewish texts, we might logically imagine that Haazinu contains a song that is musically majestic, lavish, unique, and unequivocally supreme.
Surprisingly, the actual music of the Song of Moses is extraordinarily simple and repetitive as dictated by the cantillation (trope) marks we use to chant the Torah. Of the 13 common musical phrases used throughout the rest of the Torah, the majority of the 43 verses of song in Parashat Haazinu (Deut. 32:1-43) employ only three of them. Moreover, those three phrases are, musically, the most unadorned phrases of the entire trope system: they are basic building blocks that contain very short musical expressions and barely deviate in pitch degree from the tonal center, the “home feeling,” of the musical structure. Finally, the verses of Haazinu combine these three musical phrases in repetitive patterns that become highly predictable very early in the song. These patterns continue throughout the remaining 37 verses, so that more than half of the verses of this song sound exactly the same from a musical perspective.
What has happened to Moses’ last, great musical performance? The text of the Song of Moses is full of drama and deeply artistic imagery:
“… May my discourse come down as the rain…
Like an eagle who rouses its nestlings,
Gliding down to its young …
Nursing them with honey from the crag, …
For a fire has flared in My wrath,
Has consumed the earth and its increase,…
Wasting famine, ravaging plague,
Deadly pestilence, and fanged beasts
Will I let loose against them …
I will make My arrows drunk with blood—
As My sword devours flesh.”
These excerpts display just a small sampling of the evocative language found within this song – each one potentially arousing ornate and operatic musical expressions in our minds. Why would Moses choose a modest melody full of replication as the sound of his parting words to the Israelites?
In the award-winning book, On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind, Princeton Professor Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis uses the fields of music theory, psycholinguistics, neuroscience, and cognitive psychology to explore the purpose and power of musical repetition. Among the many theories that Margulis articulates around the practice of repetition are four observations that can connect to the conundrum of constant musical reiteration in the Song of Moses.
Repetition enables understanding
While discussing the similarities between fixed expressions in music and formulaic expressions in language, Margulis supports an established conclusion that “formulaic expressions are processed more quickly than similar-length sequences generated creatively” (Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, On Repeat, [NY/London: Oxford University Press, 2014)] p. 6). That is, expected and familiar melodies help us understand and internalize content more efficiently. As Moses’ time to depart draws near, he knows that he must convey his message economically and effectively.
Repetition yields implicit participation
By the time we reach the end of the sixth verse of the Song of Moses, most contemporary listeners have already digested the repetitive musical pattern and can anticipate much of the rest of the song. Margulis argues that this reality, a direct result of the musical repetition, draws the listener into the experience and empowers us. She observes that with repetition, “part of what makes us feel that we’re a musical subject rather than a musical object is that we are endlessly listening ahead, such that the sounds seem almost to execute our volition, after the fact … repetition … encourages embodiment” (Margulis, p.12). Through musical recurrence, Moses engages the Israelites as implicit participants, drawing them in to connect to this song in a more active way. As Margulis notes later on, “repetition can serve … as an expressive aid to virtual participatory involvement in presentational music where there is a clear divide between the active performers and the passive listeners (Margulis, p.144).”
Repetition highlights deviation
“Once an occurrence has been identified as a repetition, the potential for meaningful upheaval emerges … musical repetition often serves precisely to make such disruption possible” (Margulis, p. 170). Throughout the 43 verses of the Song of Moses, there are only two major musical deviations – in Deuteronomy 32:14 and 32:39-40. These two instances utilize dramatically different trope symbols and briefly explode the melodic pattern. While verse 32:14 calls attention to the imminent shift in the story line – from God’s love to Israel’s ingratitude – verses 32:39-40 emphasize one of the main themes of the text – God is omnipotent and singular. The attention that these two phrases command is made possible only by the musical contrast: Moses awakens the Israelites to the important ideas in his song by using melodic repetition punctuated only very occasionally.
Repetition creates a lasting impression
Finally, and perhaps most importantly for Moses, consistent musical repetition can create a neurological and emotional imprint on those listening, such that each of the listeners can then replicate the song on their own once the initial performance has ceased. Repetition enables the music, and therefore the message, to live on. As Margulis notes, “the notion of ‘the singing that never ends’ traces the song’s path from the sounding, external world of the co-participating community across the silence into ‘the heart.’ The song’s presence in the interior, subjective, felt world of the individual when he is ‘alone again’ is described as the most powerful part of the experience” (Margulis, p. 141).
Reflecting back on the entirety of the Song of Moses, we discover that Moses uses musical repetition here as a purposeful tool to deepen and accentuate the profundity of this moment. As he prepares to depart from their presence, Moses employs a haunting, recurrent chant to ensure that the Israelites will understand, feel connected to, recognize the contours of, and eternally remember the wisdom he has gleaned from his life’s work. In this instance, simplicity itself is what breeds strength and staying power.