Archive for V’zot Habracha

V’zot Habracha: Breaking Tablets

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Simchat Torah/ Vzot Habracha

Greetings on this beautiful Hoshana Rabbah ! We’re about to go into the home stretch of the fall holidays, concluding with Simchat Torah, the festival of concluding the yearly Torah reading and immediately starting the new one. In just a few days, we’ll conclude the book of D’varim/ Deuteronomy with these verses:

“Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses — whom the Lord singled out, face to face, for the various signs and portents that the Lord sent him to display in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his courtiers and his whole country, and for all the great might and awesome power that Moshe displayed before all Israel.” (D’varim 34:10-12)

It’s fitting that the book of D’varim concludes with the death of Moshe, the story of his burial, and final words of praise: these three verses are like a concise summary of the narrative from the beginning of Exodus through the end of the Torah, covering 40 years of sojourn. Our friend Rashi explains each piece of the last verse: the “great might” is receiving the tablets of the Torah by hand (the phrase “great might” is literally “strong hand.”) “Awesome power” is miracles in the wilderness, and “before all Israel” is. . . . . the breaking of the tablets of the law at Sinai, when Moshe came down the mountain to find the Israelites dancing before the golden calf. (Cf. D’varim 9:17 for the prooftext.)

Now, this is interesting. Of all the praises for all the great works of Moshe, the Torah concludes- according to Rashi, basing himself on an earlier midrash– with a reference to his angry breaking of the tablets at Israel’s not-finest hour?

I think Rashi wants us to remember Moshe not for his meteorological marvels but for the moral miracle of willingness to confront idolatry in all its forms- even, or perhaps especially, among his own people. Commentators suggest that these broken tablets were also carried by the Israelites from Sinai, perhaps as a reminder that the medium of Torah is not stone, parchment, or paper- but people. Moshe’s signature act of leadership, in this reading, is not his conflict with Pharaoh but his prophetic pursuit of truth even among his friends and community.

Here is Moshe in a moment of great risk: he sees his own people losing their way and breaks the very symbol of their sacred covenant if it will shock them back to consciousness. That is, indeed, a mighty miracle, but not one that comes from God- it’s one that comes from a brave heart and passionate spirit. Most of us will not encounter a burning bush, nor call forth manna from the heavens: but all of us have the opportunity to break tablets, speak bravely, and act from prophetic ethics. That, to me, is why we should always remember that Moshe’s greatest miracle was not from above, but from within: because such miracles are possible today, and perhaps needed more than ever.

Hag sameach and Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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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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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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V’zot Habracha and Simchat Torah 5761

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 5761 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, 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 Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said. God buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is”. (Deuteronomy 34:5-6)

PSHAT

Moshe was punished for his sin of striking the rock, way back in Numbers 20. He somehow disobeyed God’s instructions, and as a result was not allowed to enter the Land of Israel with the people. He is buried on the other side of the valley- in what we now called Jordan- in a deliberately obscure grave.

DRASH

The fact that the Torah ends with Moshe’s death presents a big problem for many commentators, because there is a line of thinking in some traditional Jewish theologies that says the Torah was dictated word for word to Moshe on Mount Sinai. If so, how could the Torah say that Moshe died? Who then wrote the last few lines of the Torah?

The Talmud records an argument about this problem from the very earliest days of post-biblical Judaism:

    The Master has said: Joshua wrote the book which bears his name and the last eight verses of the Pentateuch. This statement is in agreement with the authority who says that eight verses in the Torah were written by Joshua, as [It is written], “So Moses the servant of the Lord died there.”

    Now is it possible that Moses being dead could have written the words, ‘Moses died there’? The truth is, however, that up to this point Moses wrote, from this point [onwards], Joshua wrote. This is the opinion of R. Judah, or, according to others, of R. Nehemiah. Said R. Simeon to him: Can [we imagine the] scroll of the Law being short of one word ?!?. . . .

    No; what we must say is that up to this point [where Moses dies] the Holy One, Blessed be God, dictated and Moses repeated and wrote, and from this point God dictated and Moses wrote with tears, as it says of another occasion, “Then Baruch answered them, He pronounced all these words to me with his mouth, and I wrote them with ink in the book.” (Jeremiah 36:18)

    (Taken from Talmud, Bava Batra 15a, Soncino translation, some interpolations mine.)

For the moment, let’s leave to one side any modern-era questions about the Torah’s origins and authorship, and just try to understand these arguments on their own terms. The “Master” of the first argument- identified as R. Judah- has a straightforward and sensible solution to the problem: Moshe wrote the whole Torah up until the verse “and Moshe died”, at which point Moshe’s successor, Joshua, takes over.

R. Simeon [Shimon, in Hebrew] can’t accept this viewpoint; he believes that God dictated the entire Torah to Moshe on Mount Sinai. According to this view, when God got to the verses pertaining to Moshe’s death outside the Land, Moshe wrote even those, weeping as he recorded his future fate. Perhaps R. Shimon attributes every single word of the Torah to Moshe in order to defend the Torah’s status as a unique sacred text, or in order to link later rabbinic teachings to the earlier revelation. Whatever his motivations, R. Shimon brings a prooftext to defend his position, where he points out that other scribes took “dictation” of holy texts in their entirety (in this case, the prophecies of Jeremiah.)

R. Shimon’s midrash presents an emotionally moving image, compelling us to imagine that Moshe was the ultimate selfless soul, giving his life to lead the people even with full knowledge of disappointments in the future. Yet at least one commentator makes an even more dramatic midrash on the midrash. R. Shlomo ben Aderet, an early medieval commentator from Spain (also known as the Rashba), takes R. Shimon’s interpretation even further, by understanding the words “and Moses wrote with tears” in the most literal sense. The Rashba says that Moshe used his own tears as the ink with which he wrote the last few verses of the Torah.*

Adding the Rashba’s twist to R. Shimon’s midrash takes us in a whole new direction, making Moshe into the exemplar of not only communal service, but of the creation of Torah itself. To me, the image of a person writing words of Torah with their very own tears suggests that Torah may be learned “by dictation,” but in order to really make it complete- to add the final few verses, as it were- we have to invest ourselves in it, bringing to our religious lives our emotions, our spirits, our most intimate experiences.

Not only that, but the Rashba’s image also suggests that in sorrow is opportunity. “Turning one’s tears into Torah” is a powerful reminder that we can learn from our troubles, even make the inevitable pains of life into something holy, something transformative. Moshe may have been the original teacher of Torah, but his life experience is something with which we can call identify- we too know, in advance, that life will bring joys and sorrows, triumphs and some unavoidable disappointments. Unlike Moshe in these midrashim, we don’t know when those times will be- but we do have the same choices: to serve others as selflessly as possible, to invest ourselves fully in spiritual pursuits, and to learn Torah from each experience.

*Quoted in Ha’gaot B’Parshiyot HaTorah, by Yehuda Nachshoni.

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