Thursday, October 27, 2005

Ve-Zot Ha-Berachah - To Begin Again


Torah tzivah lanu Moshe – morashah kehillat Ya’akov.

“The Torah that Moshe commanded unto us – an inheritance for the congregation of Jacob.”

The Torah that Moshe commanded unto us? Is it not G-d who commanded the Torah to us? And does not G-d give the Congregation of Jacob its inheritance? In the ambiguity surrounding the authorship of Sefer Devarim, it is possible that Moshe chose to sing his own praises, to emphasize his own role as a member of the two-partner team that brought Torah to Am Israel. The ambiguity, rather, regarding the method of authorship. There are many shadings of interpretation as to just how Moshe “wrote” Sefer Devarim, but nearly all major Meforshim seem to agree that Moshe had more input into this Book than the other four. But, to magnify the praises heaped on Moshe in this final Parasha, the Midrash removes from Moshe all initiative in setting down these words and puts the action all in G-d’s hands.

We shall return BS”D at the end of this section to the matter of praising Moshe. First, we shall discuss what some Meforshim have focused on as the Missing Berachah.

The Torah always enumerates the sons of Ya’akov as Twelve. IN various configurations, and at various times and for varied purposes, the text chooses among the Tribes to come up with a listing of twelve. Generally, Menashe and Ephraim replace Yosef. In this context, they are referred to as “half-tribes”, so that the listing of thirteen names does not violate the integrity of twelve tribes being listed. In today’s Parasha, however, the list is configured differently. Shimon is missing, completely excluded from mention. Why is this? We shall touch on a few of the traditional explanations, then attempt to delve into this matter ourselves.

As yet another aside, let us also observe a few oddities about this Parasha: It is the only Parasha that does not have a Shabbat named for it, as it is never read on Shabbat. Presaging the Rabbinic holidays – Purim and Tisha Be’Av – it is the only Parasha read at night. True, the text is repeated the following morning, but like Megillat Esther and Eichah, the crux of the reading is the night. Although the holiday is one of rejoicing, the day is introduced with the reading of the death of Moshe. The transfer of authority to Yehoshua is a poor substitute, yet one we must learn to not only live with, but embrace fervently.

Is this, then, what we celebrate? That Moshe dies, punished – and G-d rubs his face in it one last time in the concluding verses – by being prevented from entering the Land? The majestic gift that G-d grants G-d’s great and cherished Servant, the panoramic view of Eretz Israel, is spoiled by G-d then mentioning to Moshe that he is forbidden entry because he sinned.

The Midrash tells us that, in this moment, G-d showed Moshe not only the entire Land of Israel, but also the entire future history of the People. We shall return to this shortly.

The history of Blessings in the lineage of Abraham is instructive, to say the least. Abraham, constrained to keep the son he did not want, and to banish the one he desired, dutifully allocates the blessing of the father to the firstborn. The text tells that he gave Ishmael gifts, which Rashi explains means that Abraham taught Ishmael the secret arts of magic.

Yitzhak, constrained to give the Blessing of the Firstborn, unburdens himself of the full blessing in the Name of G-d. When he realizes that he must give a second blessing, he gives certain of the key elements this second time as well – the dew of the heavens and the fat places of the earth – and this time he blesses in his own name only. Yitzhak, the most loving of the Avot, gives the first blessing as required – for he is also the most accepting – he gives the second out of pure love. Indeed, let us remember that the text, at Bereshit 25:28, explicitly tells us that Rivkah loved Yaakov, while Yitzhak loved Esav.

When Yaakov calls his sons to his bedside to be blessed, he is, for the first time, including all the family in the blessing. Now there will be no more exclusion. Ready or not, everyone in the Family of Jacob inherits the Blessing of Abraham. It is perhaps fitting, because there appears to be an evolving link between Blessing and Exile. And all the sons of Yaakov ultimately go into exile in Mizraim. Thus, perhaps for this reason, if no other, they merit the Berachah.

Yaakov stole the Blessing, then was promptly exiled from his home. Ultimately, he will die in exile, in Mizraim. Yosef and his brothers inherit the Blessing, and all of them die in Mizraim. Now, finally, at the end of the Torah, the Blessings are about to be handed on to the new generation. This time it is Moshe, the giver of the blessing, who will die in exile, while those who receive it shall march on to dwell in the Land.

How does Moshe react to this? One might imagine he would be depressed, perhaps angry that, at the end of his mighty task, G-d could not overlook a minor infraction. But the text does not bear this out. The Parasha begins “Ve-zot ha-berachah…” – “And this is the blessing…” The word Zot – This – is one of the words in Torah that can either separate or connect. Similar to the word Eleh – These. These are words that, when they begin a section, separate that section from what has come before. However, when these words are preceded by the conjunction “And” – Ve – they serve to connect the sections, rather than to differentiate. G-d has just finished telling Moshe that he will not live to enter the Land. That he will die here, in the Midbar, within sight of the Promised Land. And Moshe’s reaction? Ve-zot – unhesitating, with neither anger nor resentment, but with a pure exuberance at the knowledge that ‘Am Israel is about to enter the Land, Moshe launches into his own Blessing on the Tribes. Of all the People of Israel, Moshe is now the only one who shall not cross over. For the dying of the years of wandering is over and done. The punishment of the Spies has been played out, the toll exacted in full measure. And Moshe, knowing all this, accepts his lonesome and lonely fate.

As Yaakov included all his sons in his Blessing, Moshe goes one step further. For he gives one blessing to the nations. Ve-zot ha-berachah – and this is the blessing. Not multiple blessings, as Yaakov apportioned to his sons, but one blessing that changes form to fit the personalities of the tribes on whom it rests.

And so we return to our question: Why is Shimon excluded from the Blessing? The traditional explanation seems to rest on the historical notion that the Tribe of Shimon actually settles in the portion of Yehudah and, as the Torah always wants to list only twelve names, this was the most appropriate one to leave out.

But what else do we know about Shimon?

At Bereshit 42:24, Yosef takes Shimon from his brothers as a guaranty. He sends the other brothers away and locks Shimon in jail. (In the text, he is in the “pit” – “bor”) According to Rashi, it was Shimon who spoke up and suggested to his brothers that they throw Yosef down the pit. On the simplest level, Yosef is giving Shimon tit for tat, added to which is the common Biblical twist that, with Shimon out of the picture, his younger brother Levi supplants him.

But what else do we know about Shimon? What we know about all the brothers – and which Yosef knows only too well – is that they abandon one another. They have yet to learn the lesson that Yehudah will ultimately learn from Tamar, one of the great teachers in Biblical literature. They have yet to learn to stand for one another. The only brothers among the brethren who have shown evidence of sibling love are Shimon and Levi. If there is ever a chance that the brothers will return, Yosef knows only too well, the only brother who might care enough to come back is Levi. And, though ultimately their return to Mizraim is forced by famine, it is Levi who becomes the savior of the nation, through Moshe, Aharon and Miriam.

And, like Shimon, who has no portion in the Blessing, Levi has no portion in the Land. When will they be reunited? This unresolved tension in the apportioning of both physical and spiritual plenty is the underlying metaphor of the Jewish Nation. We are the People of Torah. It is our task and duty and blessing and burden to live by Torah – not behind closed doors, but to bring Torah out into the day-to-day world and transform the world and ourselves. Only when we fully live in and through and for and by Torah can we ultimately re-unite the physical with the spiritual. Only then will the separated halves be rejoined, and the unity restored. Only then can we ever hope to become whole.

And so to the death of Moshe.

And let us not dwell on the great and profound and poetic and moving poetry of the Midrash – the poignancy of death, of loss, of leaving behind this sad and beautiful world. But to give Moshe one final farewell.

G-d tells Moshe that he must die, for that is the fate of all living. Very well, says Moshe, but when I die, let the heavens and the deep open up and proclaim the unity of G-d, saying Ein ‘od – There is no other.

G-d says, I will do you better than that, Moshe. With your own words, I shall bless you. And so it is that we read, at Devarim 34:10, that there never arose again a Navi in Israel such as Moshe – ‘Od – never again.

But no, says Moshe. No, G-d. You’ve got it wrong. Moshe pleads, desperate to make G-d see his urgent meaning. For Moshe desires, not so much the praise of G-d, as to deliver a permanent and resounding message to ‘Am Israel that there is no other besides G-d. For Moshe still fears – nay, he knows – that we will break away from Torah and go lusting after other gods. Very well, Moshe says, if you will not announce Your greatness from the depths of Creation, then please promise me that you will prevent Israel from ever straying from your Torah.

But, G-d gently replies, they have Free Will.

On one level, Moshe is begging for a final affirmation. Will we leave the path he has striven to carve out for us? Now that he is leaving us, will we abandon Torah and follow our own whims? Now, in the final moments of his life, Moshe desperately asks for affirmation that he has not lived and striven in vain. And G-d – all G-d can do is gently and lovingly admonish Moshe that, just as G-d had to learn to accommodate the vagaries of Free Choice, so too, Moshe must have a certain faith in the Nation of Israel. And, beyond that, he must… let go.

Now, at the end of our tale, G-d is the teacher who gently reminds G-d’s finest pupil: These are the Consequences of Creation. These People you have led from slavery to nationhood, from agony to plenty, from deprivation and debasement to spiritual royalty. From blind and desperate obedience to the Rule of Law, from animality to the creation of a just society. These people, G-d reminds Moshe, they are only human. Some will follow, many will strive and struggle, but many will fail. All you can do, Moshe, is place your Torah before them and pray that, in whatever measure they are able, they will embrace it.

And so, as a final farewell to Moshe, and a final and powerful attestation of his greatness, Rashi quotes one last Midrash – that, upon the moment that Moshe dashed the first set of stone tablets to the ground, shattering them, G-d responded Yishar kochacha sheh-shibarta! – Good for you that you broke them!

For surely, if we have learned anything about Truth, about Wisdom, about Justice – indeed, about Torah – it is that we must each struggle with it, that each of us must wrestle with Torah and make it yield its meaning. Only then can we truly be said to possess Torah.

Torah can be won, Chazal say, only if we are willing to kill ourselves in the struggle to attain Torah. Through Chochmah – the flash of insight – and Binah – the rigorous intellectual struggle to understand – through Da’at – the contemplative and active process whereby Torah becomes ingrained in our very being, becomes internalized, becomes inseparable from us, and we from it – through total dedication, we can bring Torah into this world day by day, moment by moment. One life at a time.

It is up to us. For, if we have learned anything at all about Torah, it is this: It is not carved in stone.



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