Reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel Education Department
Let us begin our study of this sidra with Nahmanides’ summary of the contents and significance of the Song that Moses taught the people:
This song constituting for us a true and faithful witness, plainly tells us all that will befall us, opening first by describing the kindness God bestowed on us since He chose us for His people, followed by a record of His bounty towards us in the wilderness, and how He disinherited mighty nations for us. Indeed, from an overabundance of good things, our rebellion against God is foretold – how we would descend to worshipping idols. Then it is recorded how we would consequently incur Divine wrath, being finally expelled from the land and dispersed, as has indeed befallen us. Subsequently the Song relates that the Lord will ultimately repay our enemies and wreak His vengeance on them. For their hatred and persecution of Israel were not motivated by the fact that Israel did commit idolatry like themselves but that Israel did not commit such deeds, preferred to be different, refusing to eat of their sacrifices and spurned their heathen cults and strove to eradicate them as it is written: “For thy sake are we killed all the day long” (Psalm 44:23).
Consequently, they maltreat us out of hatred of God and He will avenge such insult. It is plain that the Song speaks of our ultimate redemption … testifying that we will suffer Divine reproof, accompanied by the promise that our memory will nevertheless not be blotted out, but that God will forgive us our sins and repay our enemies for His name’s sake. This is as the Sifrei has it: “Great is this Song, as it embraces the present, the past and the future, this life and the Hereafter”. Were this song merely to constitute our horoscope as foretold by an astrologer, it were ment for us to believe in it, since all its contents up till now have been confirmed by events, with not the slightest deviation: how much more so should we wholeheartedly believe in and await the fulfillment of the words of God through the mouth of His most trusted prophet!
Note what Nahmanides says regarding our incurring of Divine wrath” and how we would experience his reproof, in spite of which, however, he would not completely blot out our memory, but would, on the contrary, forgive our sins and repay our enemies for His name’s sake. This change over from Divine wrath being vented on us through the medium of the enemies of Israel to the latter’s punishment by that very same hand, for His name’s sake is the theme of the following verse in the sidra:
I thought I would make an end of them, I would make their memory cease from among men: Were it not that I dreaded the enemy’s provocation, Lest their adversaries should misdeem, Lest they should say, Our hand is exalted, and not the Lord hath performed all this. (32:26-27)
This verse contains a very daring anthropomorphism indeed, attributing to God the sentiment of fear, as it were: “Were it not that I dreaded the enemy,’, and has no parallel in the Torah. Ibn Ezra’s attempt to weaken its force by stating that the verse speaks in human terms is totally inadequate to explain away the unusual boldness and starkness of the expression, when applied to the Sovereign of all mankind.
It is the Divine purpose to raise the spiritual standards of His creatures, improve heir well-being in all respects till the stage is attained when as recorded in the familiar Aleinu prayer: “All the inhabitants of the world will acknowledge and know that it is to Thee every knee must bend, and by Thee every tongue must swear.” In our sidra, the Almighty, as it were, expresses concern and apprehension that this ultimate purpose would be obstructed and undermined, that, on the contrary, mankind would become further estranged from God by the effects of His vengeance on Israel for their misdeeds. “Were it not that I dreaded the enemy’s provocation, lest their adversaries should misdeem, lest they should say, Our hand is exalted and not the Lord hath performed all this.” The Divine judgment on Israel is therefore annulled for fear of desecrating the name of God. This same concern is expressed by Moses when he sought to avert the Divine decree on Israel when they sinned with the Golden Calf:
Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, and say, For evil did he bring them out, to slay them in the mountains. (Exodus 32:12)
It is again the subject of Moses’ intercession with God after the sinof the spies:
Now if thou kill all this people as one man, Then the nations which have heard the fame of Thee will speak saying: Because the Lord was not able to bring this people to the land … Therefore He hath slain them in the wilderness. (Numbers 14:15-16)
This concern over desecrating the Devine name – hillul ha-shem – assumes a much more intense and extreme form in our sidra. Here it is the Almighty himself who is, as it were, “concerned” over the world being misled and diverted from the path leading mankind spiritually forward. He is fulfilled with the apprehension lest His name be brought into disrepute instead of sanctified and His sovereignty universally recognized and acknowledged, which is the ultimate goal of all creation:
Were it not that I dreaded the enemy’s provocation lest they should misdeem, lest they should say our hand is exalted and not the Lord hath preformed all this.