Most years on Shabbat Teshuva (‘The Shabbat of Repentance,’ between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) we read the parashah of Ha’azinu. Contained in its words are exhortations to serve God and to follow His ways. There is a particularly unique element, though, to this Torah reading that perhaps makes it especially fitting to read on this auspicious Shabbat. Ha’azinu contains one of only two portions in the entire Torah which is written in poetic form (the other is Az Yashir).
Therefore, reading Ha’azinu on this week strikes me as especially fitting, as it is during these days of repentance, more than during any other days, when our liturgy contains poems, or piyutim. That is true in both the Sephardic and in the Ashkenazic traditions. In Spain, however, poetry had particular meaning and contained extra significance for its Jewish population.
Similar to the ruling Muslim courts, Jewish nobles created their own courts and became patrons of the arts. Jews, through Hebrew poetry, demonstrated with unmatched zeal that Jewish tradition contained great linguistic beauty. Jewish poets wrote about all subjects, drawing from Jewish sources and sensibilities. They also wrote many liturgical poems to introduce the different parts of prayer. These Spanish poems are celebrated for their complex structure coupled with their simplicity of meaning. Their beauty is accessible.
Nowhere are these poems more often used than during the High Holidays. The penetrating words of Shelomo ibn Gabirol, Yehuda Halevi and others don the pages of the siddur. Poetry forces our brains to think and process differently than when reading prose. Surely, this time of year requires that we think creatively about our actions and our choices. We search for different paths to take, and for new routes to follow to allow us to change. During the ebb and flow of the year we can settle into rote patterns of behavior instead of living our lives decisively and with conviction. The Ten Days of Repentance are intended to break that cycle. Poetry from the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry helps us to do it.