Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Simchat Torah / Vezot Habracha

Somehow, we never seem to learn Vezot Haberacha. Why?

Maybe we are busy learning other things about Sukkot and Shemmini Atzeret. Possibly we are turned off by the heaviness of the poetic language.

(Equally true is that we know far more about the beginnings of books than the ends of books. Compare your knowledge of Bereshit with your knowledge of Vayechi, your familiarity with Parashat Bamidbar as opposed to Parashat Massei. We know the start of books better than we know their conclusions!)

Whichever way, Vezot Haberacha gets a raw deal.

So let us look at the parsha and gain some basic familiarity. At first glance, we have two Chapters, two parshiot, with distinct topics and literary style. We can look at in the following way:

Ch.33 – Moshe's final blessing to Bnei Yisrael
Ch.34 – Moshe's final hour: Moshe viewing Eretz Yisrael, and his death.

If we may home in upon Ch.33. This chapter has a poetic, somewhat cumbersome style, with many cryptic phrases and therefore it presents many difficulties in translation. So how are we going to understand its content? A good place to begin is to realize that this chapter has a clear chiastic structure

33:1-5 Introduction
33:6-25 The blessings to the Tribes, Tribe by Tribe
33:26-29 Conclusion

The "middle section" of the berachot is clearly structured as the name of each Tribe is mentioned prominently at the head of each section (parshia). Exceptions to the rule are the Tribe of Shimon, who are omitted totally. Yissachar's blessing would seem to be absorbed into the blessing of Zevulun. But the pattern works for the majority.

It is evident that Moshe's berachot addressed to each Tribe have a preamble and an epilogue. Who is addressed in this section? What is the subject of these pesukim?

At a basic level this is a poem that describes the relationship between Am Yisrael and God. [For a detailed analysis of these passages, please see Rav Mordechai Sabato's shiur, sent out by the VBM 5764.]

33:1-5 (please look at the pesukim in a chumash)
These verses appear to take us back in time to Sinai. They develop the theme of the difference, or contrast between Israel and the surrounding nations. The backdrop to all this is clearly the Torah, which is the "heritage" or "inheritance" of the "Community of Jacob."

If this is true, then the Torah is stating here that it is Torah that gives Am Yisrael a special relationship with God, a relationship which does not exist for other nations. It should not be surprising then, that the Sifrei selects our passage as the source-text for the famous legend in which God offers the Torah to all the surrounding nations. In that Midrash, the nations all reject the Torah due to the contradiction between the high moral demands demanded by Torah Law and the chosen lifestyle of those nations. In this context we read the famous verse: Torah Tziva Lanu Moshe: "Moses instructed us in Torah; The heritage of the congregation of Jacob." More about this passuk in a minute!


These verses discuss God's salvation of Israel and the protection that He bestows upon them. It is as if God's own pride or honour is tied up with that of Am Yisrael (cf. parallel phraseology 25 and 29). The background here would seem not to be Torah, but rather the Land of Israel that will become the land of God's protection and ongoing care. This land will produce sustenance plentifully and God will take care of the enemies of Israel.

So we have the Berachot of the Tribes flanked by the two most central themes in Torah: Torah itself, and Eretz Yisrael.

TORAT YISRAEL; AM YISRAEL; ERETZ YISRAEL with God intertwined into every section.


Maybe, I should add one further reflection prompted by the Midrash. In these pesukim, God is ascribed considerable mobility and movement: Verse 2 uses at least 3 metaphors for God's spatial movement, God's feet in verse 3, God "riding the heavens" in verse 26. However in verse 27, we might witness a change. The Midrash comments upon these verses highlighting the meaning of the word "ma'on" as "habitation" or permanent residence. Might we suggest that reflecting the transition of Am Yisrael from Midbar to Canaan, the shift from wanderers to fixed dwellers, the Torah depicts God Himself as undergoing a metamorphosis from transience to permanent residence? Might this explain the focus upon God's movement as opposed to the term "maon?" Then, these pesukim are especially poignant as Am Yisrael take their first steps to creating a nation State. The nation are ending their 400 year long nomadic stage. They are now settling in their promised land. God apparently also settles with Am Yisrael.

[for further investigation of this topic, see the article by Nechama Leibowitz – "The Eternal God A Dwelling-Place," And the comments of the Netziv in particular, which to my mind reinforces this theme.]

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