הַלְה’ תִּגְמְלוּ-זֹאת עַם נָבָל וְלֹא חָכָם הֲלוֹא הוּא אָבִיךָ קָּנֶךָ הוּא עָשְׂךָ וַיְכֹנְנֶךָ
“Do you thus requite the Lord?!… Is not He the Father who created you, fashioned you and made you endure?” (32:6).
This passuk appears to underscore BNY’s lack of gratitude toward Hashem; their abandoning and rejecting the “Father” who turned them into a nation and gave them all that they possessed.In the middle of this verse, the shira describes BNY as an “am naval ve-lo chacham” – which roughly translates as, “a despicable and unwise people.”
BNY is called out on on two matters: moral depravity (נָבָל – despicable) and foolishness (וְלֹא חָכָם – unwise). Read in context, the first adjective seems a more fitting description of BNY’s behavior than the second one. As stated, the verse seems to highlight BNY’s ungratefulness to G-d – as expressed by their rejection of Him – in spite of the ongoing kindness He showered upon them. Such ungratefulness clearly warrants the description of “despicable.”
But why does the verse also describe the nation as “unwise”? How does the lack of demonstrating gratitude make a person unwise?
The Ramban, expounding Targum Onkelos, associates the word “naval” with a term found earlier in the Torah, in Sefer Shmot (18:18) - “navol tibol” – which refers to fatigue, or weariness. The description of BNY as an “am naval” refers to them having “wearied themselves in intense fulfillment of the commandments of the Torah,” in the words of the Ramban; the perceived burden that G-d’s laws had become on their shoulders, prompting them to resort to other, new, foreign modes of religious worship. The Ramban says that were we wise, we would recognize that casting off Hashem only hurts us, not Hashem.
יִזְבְּחוּ לַשֵּׁדִים לֹא אֱלֹהַּ אֱלֹהִים לֹא יְדָעוּם חֲדָשִׁים מִקָּרֹב בָּאוּ לֹא שְׂעָרוּם אֲבֹתֵיכֶם
They sacrificed to demons, no-gods, gods they have never known, new ones, who came but lately, whom your fathers never feared. (32:17)
The verse emphasizes the novelty of these idols; the fact that Am Yisrael had not previously discovered these false deities. At first glance, this emphasis is meant to underscore the gravity of the transgression – that BNY substituted Hashem, with Whom they had a unique relationship with for centuries – with foreign deities with whom they had never previously associated. But in light of the explanation of the Ramban, we can interpret this verse as explaining why BNY resorted to new, foreign religions: specifically because they were new and foreign. BNY grew tired of their relationship with the one, true G-d and the mitzvot He commanded; they felt the time had come for the latest fad, something new, something different, something seemingly innovative.
Historical continuity is a central theme of Shirat Ha’azinu, as it says: “Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past… ” (32:7). New is not necessarily better. In contrast to most everything else in existence, Torah does not lose its value with time; it is only our appreciation of Torah that often diminishes with time.
Shirat Ha’azinu implores us to be chacham – intelligent enough to retain our perspective and sense of priorities and recognize the magnificent gift we have been given, to be the Am HaNivchar and to study and practice Hashem’s Torah.
If we are able to accomplish this, then, with Hashem’s help, we will avoid religious and spiritual fatigue, and not fall victim to the temptation to search for new (and ultimately unfulfilling and transitory) substitutes for mitzvot.
Rosh Hashana is a time of rebirth/renewal/hischadshus. A huge portion of the Rosh Hashana service is dedicated to proclaiming Hashem as Supreme King of the Universe – past, present and future.
May we be privileged in the coming year to feel the excitement of learning His Torah, and serving Hashem with gratitude, with intelligence and with passion.