These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[PCJE] Vezot HaBeracha: His Last Bow

Posted on October 15, 2014 by Binyamin Cohen

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Night Seder Chevrutas Binyamin Cohen and David Wallach
join together to reflect on this week's parshah.

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 9.51.44 AM

א  וְזֹאת הַבְּרָכָה, אֲשֶׁר בֵּרַךְ מֹשֶׁה אִישׁ הָאֱלֹהִים–אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:  לִפְנֵי, מוֹתוֹ

ב  וַיֹּאמַר, יְהוָה מִסִּינַי בָּא וְזָרַח מִשֵּׂעִיר לָמוֹ–הוֹפִיעַ מֵהַר פָּארָן, וְאָתָה מֵרִבְבֹת קֹדֶשׁ; מִימִינוֹ, אשדת (אֵשׁ דָּת) לָמוֹ

  1. “This is the blessing that Moses, the man of God, bestowed on the Children of Israel before his death.”
  2. “He said: ‘The Lord came from Sinai, shone forth to them from Seir, and made an appearance from Mount Paran; from the holy myriads, He brought the fire of religion to them from His right Hand.”

Author’s note: Typically, in translating verses, we have used Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s Living Torah translation, with some of our own modification. These verses pose a particular challenge, and for the first time I feel somewhat uncomfortable with Rabbi Kaplan’s translation, because it is very challenging. I have still used it, as matter of form, but in the following discussion the JPS Translation, as well as that of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, will be used to aid Rabbi Kaplan’s.

Vezot HaBeracha, the very last parshah of the Torah, is also Moses’s last words. It is also the only part of the Torah that does not come from God; it comes wholly from Man, specifically from Moses. Moses is here called “the man of God”. This is the only occurrence of this phrase in the Torah, and while it does appear elsewhere in Tanach, it lends a certain power to Moses that is critical in this situation. If we believe that the Torah is God’s word, how can any part of the Torah come from anyone other than Him, let alone a lowly man? Moreover, how can this blessing, something that will define the fates of the tribes, come solely from a man? What power or right does Moses have to give such blessing? The answer lies in the fact that it is not just Moses who is giving this blessing; rather, it is Moses, the Man of God. Moses, who spoke with Him face to face. It is from Moses’s heart that this blessing arose, and it is by his great merit that God deemed this blessing worthy of fulfillment, and worthy of inclusion in His Holy Book.

A challenging phrase these verses, both in Hebrew and English, is אֵשׁ דָּת. Rabbi Kaplan translates this as “the fire of religion”; JPS translates it as “lightning flashing”; and Rabbi Hirsch translates it as “Fire become Law”. On top of this is the peculiarity of the “כתיב” of these words, or the way it appears written in the Torah scroll: is written as one word, אֵשׁדָּת. What does this mean? How is it translated so many different ways, and what do those different translations/interpretations mean? One possible reason for these words being written together is that they represent a single idea. These two words combine to encompass all of the ideas presented in the various translations.

דת, Law, is the Torah; אש is the Fire of the universe, the “dark invisible fire” that emanates from God to all his creations. This Fire dictates the unconscious laws of nature, the laws the governing the functioning of the universe. Combined with the Fire, the Law, the Torah, takes on a new power: the Torah is Man’s way of “consciously and of free-will” accepting the Fire. The Torah allows us to fulfill the role that we as human beings were created for. While all the rest of creation is simply acted upon by the Fire, through the Law, the Torah, Man is able to act upon it, rather than be acted upon. In a sense, this אשדת represents our partnership with God. Through the Law, the Torah, we become active participants with and in the Fire of the universe.

As we will soon see in Parshat Bereshit, free will is an essential component of Man and Creation. The Torah, is a gift from God to allow us to fulfill that purpose, and that is a tremendously powerful thing.  This certainly satisfies Rabbi Hirsch’s translation. And it is easy to see how Rabbi Kaplan’s “fire of religion” is connected to this idea of Torah as the fire. But how does the JPS’s “lightning flashing” connect to this interpretation? Because it was through flashing lightning at Sinai that the Fire became Law. At Sinai, God appeared to Israel with “noises and lightning” to present them with the Law. Furthermore, Rashi says that Torah appeared before God as words written in fire. So not only did the lightning herald the Law, the lightning changed the Fire into Law.

Translation conflicts satisfied, we return to Moses: his great blessings for our future are the capstone of the Fire and Law. It is in many ways fitting. Moses, who was God’s humble servant, who stood amongst the lightning as the Fire became Law. Moses, our greatest prophet and teacher, who had to leave his life work unfinished, to see it finished by others. Moses, who tolerated Israel through forty years in the desert. He, and only he is allowed the last word in God’s “Fire become Law”. And his last word is of love, is of blessing. While the message in his words may in some ways be confusing and hard to understand positively, it is ultimately a blessing. It is introduced as such, and is concluded with Moses reaffirming this with the words (Deut. 33:29):

אַשְׁרֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל מִי כָמוֹךָ, עַם נוֹשַׁע בַּיהוָה, מָגֵן עֶזְרֶךָ, וַאֲשֶׁר-חֶרֶב גַּאֲוָתֶךָ; וְיִכָּחֲשׁוּ אֹיְבֶיךָ לָךְ, וְאַתָּה עַל-בָּמוֹתֵימוֹ תִדְרֹךְ

“Happy are you Israel, who is like? You are a nation delivered by God, the Shield who helps you, and your triumphant Sword; your enemies shall come cringing to you, and you shall crush their high altars underfoot.”

We who have merited to be the recipients of God’s Fire and God’s Law, what have we to worry about? God created the world with a purpose, and we, the actors upon his Torah, are helping to fulfill that purpose. As long as we remain devoted to that, remain devoted to the teachings of Moses, we will always be happy, and always find blessing.

There is something even more powerful in this idea. If Man, through his free will, in helping the Fire become the Law, we are not only an important part of Creation, but an essential part of Creation. And Moses’s blessing is an essential component of God’s essential Law. The Torah is God’s book, but it also fundamentally Moses’s book; and this parshah is Moses’s. Moses is given a sliver of the Fire, and a section of the Law. We often think he is punished unfairly for his mistakes, but when we look at his reward as a share in Creation, Moses’s greatness becomes all the greater.

Like Moses, we are each given a sliver of the Fire, a section of the Law, a share in Creation. The Ishbitzer Rebbe posits that each and every Jew has their own mitzvah, one that they in particular must fulfil. In this sense, we each have a share in the Torah, and each have a particular way of bringing the Law into the Fire. The blessing of Moses, the blessing of Torah, and the blessing for each of us is to find our sliver of Law, and, like Moses, transform it into Fire. Through this, we each have the power to truly be partners in and transformers of Creation. May we all find our sliver of Fire, and our unique Law.

Simchat Torah, the holiday on which we read Vezot HaBeracha, is not the only day on which we celebrate the Torah. On Shavuot, we celebrate the giving of the Torah, through learning and an appreciation of knowledge. Just like Moses, when he ascended the mountain, spoke to God and learned his Law, so too on Shavuot we engage and immerse ourselves in Torah. But Simchat Torah is a different kind of celebration. We dance and sing and drink with the Torah. We barely even open it up; we celebrate the Living Torah, the Fire. Moses, with his final blessing, became part of the Torah, part of the Fire. He became part of our celebration, part of the Simcha of the Living Torah. Moses dedicated his life to the Torah in a way that no one has or can since. On Simchat Torah, let us remember that Vezot HaBeracha is not only the conclusion of God’s Torah, but also the Five Books of Moses, a man without whom our Simchat Torah could not be.

Based on Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah commentary, and Lev HaShamayim, based on the teachings of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.