V’Zot HaBracha: Moshe’s Tears, Moshe’s Legacy

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: V’Zot HaBracha

Moadim l’simcha [joyous holidays] ! As the wind blows and the rain falls, the
final days of
our holiday season are fast approaching. Shemini Atzeret, the “Eighth Day of
Assembly,” is
a holy day unto itself; we recite both Hallel and Yizkor, the prayers of praise
and
remembrance, but unique among Jewish holidays it has no special ritual nor
symbolism.
The second day of of Shemini Atzeret is called Simchat Torah- the “Joy of our
Torah,”
when we conclude the yearly cycle of readings and begin again in Bereshit/
Genesis.

The final parsha of the Torah is called V’Zot Habracha; it contains Moshe’s
final blessings
to each tribe, and the story of his death. Moshe is allowed to see the Promised
Land from
across the valley, but not allowed to enter. He dies, is buried, and the people
mourn and
cry before continuing their journey under the leadership of Joshua (the story of
which is in
the book of the same name.)

The story of the death of Moshe raises an interesting theological problem for
the ancient
rabbis: since they believed that the Torah was given whole on Mt. Sinai, how
could the
Torah contain words not written by Moshe, describing his absence? For modern
university
scholars, this is no problem, because the Torah is seen as a text which evolved
over time,
far after the events it purports to describe.

Our teacher Rashi clearly sees a tension here, and offers two possibilities: one
easy, and
one not so easy. The easy answer is that the final few verses of the Torah were
written by
Joshua. Since he was Moshe’s appointed successor, and the Divine Spirit was upon
him, it
really doesn’t present a huge theological problem for Joshua to have a hand in
the
transmission of the Torah.

The other possibility that Rashi mentions is more difficult: in this view, the
Torah was, in
fact, given whole (every word!) at Mt. Sinai, before the Israelites ever left
the mountain
towards the Land. With this presupposition, Rashi posits that when Moshe got to
the final
few verses, describing how he died and was buried without seeing the Land, Moshe
had to
write it with tears in his eyes.

That’s a tragic and dramatic image, especially when one considers the
implications for our
understanding of the Torah narrative from Sinai up till this point. In Rashi’s
second view,
Moshe knew- in advance- that he wasn’t going to see the Land, but he led the
Israelites
anyway!

For today, let’s leave aside the obvious questions about moral accountability in
a world of
predestined action- that’s a debate for another day. Rather, let’s imagine what
it must
have felt like for Moshe to know that the Israelites would turn from God, again
and again;
reject his leadership, again and again; make him angry, again and again, and
that for all
his efforts with this “stiff-necked” people, he wouldn’t even get to enter the
Land of Israel.
Not only that- remember the putative reason that Moshe could not enter the Land,
which
was his lashing out and striking the rock (instead of speaking to it), way back
in Numbers
20. Thus, in Rashi’s midrash, Moshe knows that someday he’ll get so angry that
God will
keep him from entering the Land of Promise, and yet he chooses his path of
servant
leadership regardless of the reward.

This is an astounding thing for Rashi to propose, and yet I think these images
sum up the
most basic teachings of the Torah itself. Moshe struck the rock- knowing that it
would
cost him the reward of the Land- but was so emotionally involved in the life of
the people
that he could not help but be vulnerable (and thus angry) when they disappointed
him.

Moshe never gave up on the people, never stopped caring, never stopped teaching,
never
stopped allowing himself to feel emotionally and spiritually connected to
others- and it is
precisely this emotional tie to the welfare of others which is the entire
orientation of Torah
and Judaism.

Moshe- our first rabbi, our greatest leader- didn’t just write the Torah; he
embodied the
Torah’s ideal of passionate involvement in the bettering of the world. He gave
up the Land
because he could not hold himself aloof. This is a deep truth: caring about
others
inevitably leads to disappointments, tears, pain, and grief, and yet is the very
definition of
our humanity. Moshe’s tears were his greatest legacy: in his tears was the pain
of making
the choice to stay involved, to pay the price of grieving for the privilege of
serving. To me,
making that choice is the essence of Torah.

hag sameach,

RNJL

PS: As usual, you can find the text of the parsha here:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/index.shtml

And if you want to look up the story of Moshe striking the rock, you can do so
here:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/jpstext/hukkat.shtml

PPS: Several years ago, I explored these same images in a different way; you can
find that
here:

http://www.kolel.org/pages/5760/vzot_habracha.html

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