Archive for October, 2001

V’zot Habracha and Simchat Torah 5762

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: V’zot Habracha and Simchat Torah

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5762 and can be found in its archives.

Simchat Torah/ V’zot Habracha (Deuteronomy 33:1-34:12)

OVERVIEW

Moshe addresses the Israelites one last time, recounting the giving of the Torah and blessing them tribe by tribe. The Israelites are standing on a mountain overlooking the Jordan Valley from the east, but Moshe will not be allowed to enter the Land of Israel with the rest of the people. He dies, and is buried; the story of the Torah is now finished, and the story of the judges and prophets begins.

IN FOCUS

“And this is blessing by which Moshe, the man of God, blessed the Israelites before his death. ” (Deuteronomy 33:1)

PSHAT

The penultimate chapter of the Torah contains a very condensed history of the Israelites since Sinai, and a specific blessing for each of the 12 tribes.

DRASH

As my term of service as your darshan [explainer of the text] comes to a close, I want to return to where we started two years ago- with the subtle observations of the greatest darshan of them all, Rashi. I’ve tried to show over the past few years how close readings of the Torah text enable us to find layers of meaning that a quick glance cannot reveal- and nobody does this better than our friend from medieval France. Rashi notices every word: in the verse above, he seems to be picking up on apparently unnecessary phrase, “before his death.” (After all, could Moshe have blessed the people after his death?) Thus, Rashi’s explanation, based on earlier sources:

    “before his death” – “before” [Hebrew lifney] means close to his death, for if not now, when?

In his usual terse manner, Rashi hints at the urgency of Moshe’s blessing, imagining that Moshe felt that his death was imminent and this was his last chance to impart any final words of wisdom to the people he had shepherded for forty years. Moshe could no put off no longer any words which he longed to speak, for this opportunity was fleeting.

Now, if we stopped right here with Rashi’s midrash, we’d have a powerful reminder that words between intimates cannot be postponed indefinitely, for no one knows the day of his or her death. If you want to bless your loved ones, or say anything else of significance, do so now, for you might not have the warning that Moshe received that his days were soon ending. This is solid wisdom, often repeated, and still true for the repeating.

Yet Rashi hints at something else, as well. The phrase “If not now, when?” was almost certainly known to him as part of a larger statement in the name of Rabbi Hillel, from the section of the Talmud called Pirkei Avot [“Sayings of the Ancestors”]:

    If I am not for myself, who is for me? When I am for myself, what am I? If not now, when? (Pirkei Avot 1:14)

Now Rashi’s midrash takes on a different meaning, for it hints that Moshe’s blessing of the tribes was prompted by a whole philosophy of life, not just the urgency of imminent death. Moshe could have said nice things to everybody and died basking in the adoration of the people- but “what am I” if I don’t speak the truth, even if it’s not pleasant? After all, his blessing for the tribe of Reuven- that they “live and not die” – is rather lukewarm, probably recalling earlier prophecies concerning their forefather Reuven in Genesis 49.

On the other hand, Moshe is quite willing to mention his own role in the people’s history, claiming in verse 3 that the Torah was “commanded by Moshe,” although it came from God. Again, think of our saying from Pirkei Avot: “If I am not for myself, who is for me?” Even though he was called a very humble man, he had every right to remind the people of what he actually did. Perhaps this gave his blessings more legitimacy and his words greater power.

By linking Moshe’s blessing to Hillel’s mini-philosophy of self-examination, Rashi seems to be offering an interpretation of the entire chapter, not only of this one verse. According to this reading, Moshe spoke out of a sense of urgency, a sense of truthfulness, and a legitimate desire for recognition of his real contributions. Thus, Moshe’s final blessing also becomes his final moment of teaching us by the example of his life, a life dedicated to ideals, actions, and truth. That’s what makes him Moshe Rabbenu [“Moshe our teacher”], not just Moshe the leader.

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