Something interesting comes after the song is done. At the very end of Ha’azinu comes a short story. God tells Moshe that he will ascend Mount Nebo in the middle of the day where he will view the Promised Land which he will subsequently pass away without seeing.
Rashi says that this is one of three places in the Torah where the phrase “be’etzem hayom hazeh”— in the middle of this day — is used with the same connotation.
The first was where the Torah says Noah entered his ark in the middle of the day. Rashi explains: Before the flood people said they would try to block what seemed inevitable. God had Noah enter the ark in broad daylight, showing that no one could stop the deluge nor could they prevent Noah from escaping.
The second occasion was when the Jews were miraculously taken out of Egypt. There were those who wanted to prevent the exodus. So then, too, God had it happen at high noon to make clear that no one could stand in the way of this act of God.
In our portion, says Rashi, the use of the phrase signifies that the Jews thought that they could somehow stand in the way of Moshe’s dying. God therefore said that it would happen right before their eyes.
The people did not want to let go of their beloved leader. He had done so much for them and they couldn’t imagine continuing their own lives without Moses being alive. Moses must have known this, which only made it harder for him to go. And yet it was his time to go and the people had to not only accept this, they had to let him go.
There is a fourth time that this phrase appears: When Abraham and his son Ishmael are circumcised we’re told that it happened “be’etzem hayom hazeh”— in the middle of this day. The Da’at Zekeinim commentary addresses why this case is omitted by Rashi by explaining the word means something different in this instance. He says that the word etzem here means strength and it refers to the great fortitude that it took for Abraham to allow himself to be circumcised on that day.
There is yet another place in the Torah where the phrase, “in the middle of this day” is used. When we are told to refrain from all work on Yom Kippur this phrase is employed. This may have been omitted by Rashi because it is a case of acerbic abstention while the other examples are cases of grand action.
The five stories which feature the same phrase share the common denominator of being about moving into a new world stage. Noah would start the world all over again. Abraham would change the world by entering a covenant with God. When the great Egyptian civilization was decimated and the Jewish People were chosen by God it was another new beginning. The death of Moses marked the end of one era of history and the beginning of another. Yom Kippur provides the opportunity for atonement and a fresh start on life as we know it.
These episodes are also all about letting go. The generation of the flood had their chance to repent and had to accept that now it was too late for them. In moving forward Abraham had to leave his past behind. In letting the Jews go the Egyptians had to let go of their illusions of grandeur. As they each moved on in different worlds Moses and the Jewish People had to let go of one another. Yom Kippur is the day on which we must finally embrace life and detach from our errant ways.
Each of these stories represents a sea change that could only have been enacted by God. This Shabbat, Shabbat Shuvah, is dedicated toward our returning to God. Just as God facilitated the major shifts brought on by the flood, Abraham’s circumcision, the exodus from Egypt, and Moses’ death, He will be there with us as we return to Him.
Rabbi Fleischmann is a guidance counselor, teacher, and director of Torah guidance at the Frisch School in Paramus.