V’zot Hab’rachah 14 Replies You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at V’zot Hab’rachah.
From Reconstructing Judaism
Moses Died With A Promised Land
By Ellen Dannin
Why was Moses barred from entering the promised land? It upsets our sense of fairness. There must be a reason for this disentitlement, for how else to explain why the great leader, the one who brought his people from Mitzraim to the ecstasy of Sinai and maintained their sense of purpose through the desert to the very border of the Land could only gaze at it and never enter. Is this the reward for one who had sacrificed power and privilege for the complaints and burdens of a stiff-necked people, who endured forty years with them?
Could it have been this or that fault, something so serious that Moses, so faithful should suffer, while the faithless, stiff-necked people who complained their way through the desert marched in. Could it have been his impatience, his disobedience, his lack of perfect faith. But if so, then why only he?
The more one searches, the more possibilities one can conjure. The more one searches, the more there emerges before one the life of an ordinary extraordinary man. The more one searches, the more we see a person we all can recognize, a person we are.
If Moses was a man of impatience, doubt, and occasional disobedience, so too are we. We have done all these things and without the great virtues of Moses—the ability to recognize the face of God, to talk to God, to dare to do the will of God, no matter how difficult, to get up day after day and keep trying to do the will of God as our only motive.
The more I think about Moses, the more I see a person who is an almost perfect example of humanity, not just an example for humanity. A leader who has felt doubt but persisted nonetheless is a person I can turn to for inspiration in my difficult times. A person who grows impatient and despairs is one I can understand. A person who has the courage to argue with God about what is just, what is prudent. If only I dared do more than just accept.
This Moses, seen in this way, is transformed, and his failure to enter the promised land is redolent with meaning for us. We spend our lives wandering in the desert, aiming towards ever receding goals. No doubt, most of us end our lives with regret for what we have not accomplished, for what we have not understood, for the ways in which we have not been understood.
Moses is a perfect representation of these regrets. Moses alone speaks to us as we envision him in his last moments, gazing at the never to be attained. The image is poignant and understandable. Moses didn’t fail to reach the promised land because of a punishment inflicted on him. He failed—if failure it can be called—because he was human. We are all Moses at our best, striving, going forward, hoping for but never attaining perfection.
I see Moses. I see a person who has been saddened by the events of life. The people he has lived among have failed to understand him. The most important events of his life have been ones they were unable or unwilling to take part in, which they deprecated. Life asked the impossible of him—walk out from everything you are and know and go into a place of uncertainty and discomfort and spend your life there guided by the intangible.
But there is another side to this Moses who died outside the Land. Moses died possessed of and by the promised land. He did not reach it, but it was still there in his last moments, there to be seen with his last gaze.
What do we know of the history of the Hebrews after they entered their promised land? They remained fractious, quarrelsome, difficult, faithless. Their entry into the land became only an entry to a place to continue to be as they were.
Moses, only Moses, died with a promised land.
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Unfinished Symphony (Vezot Habracha 5779)
Each year, as we near the end of the Mosaic books and Moses’ life, I find myself asking: Did it really have to end that way, with Moses denied the chance to even to set foot on the land to which he led the people for forty tempestuous years? In the Heavenly Court, could Justice not have yielded to Mercy for the few days it would have taken Moses to cross the Jordan and see his task fulfilled? And for what was Moses being punished? One moment’s anger when he spoke intemperately to the Israelites when they were complaining about the lack of water? Can a leader not be forgiven for one lapse in forty years? In the words of the sages: Is this the Torah and this its reward?
The scene in which Moses climbs Mount Nebo to see in the distance the land he would never enter is one of the most poignant in all Tanakh. There is a vast midrashic literature that turns Moses’ request “Let me cross over to see the good land beyond the Jordan” (Deut. 3:25) into high drama, with Moses mounting argument after argument in his defence only to be met by unbending refusal from Heaven: “Enough from you; do not speak to me of this matter again”. (Deut. 3:26) Why?
This is the man who, eighteen times in Tanakh, is called “God’s servant.” No one else is so described except Joshua, twice. His own obituary in the Torah reads: “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses” (Deut. 34:10). Why was he treated so seemingly harshly by God among whose attributes are forgiveness and compassion?
Clearly the Torah is telling us something fundamental. What, though, is it? There are many explanations, but I believe the most profound and simplest takes us back to the beginning of beginnings: “In the beginning God created Heaven and Earth.” There is Heaven and there is Earth, and they are not the same.
In the history of civilisation, one question has proved hardest of all. In the words of Psalm 8: “What is man that you are mindful of him?” What is it to be human? We are an infinitesimal speck in an almost infinite universe of a hundred billion galaxies each with a hundred billion stars. We know that our lives are like a bare microsecond set against the almost-eternity of the cosmos. We are terrifyingly small. Yet we are also astonishingly great. We dominate the planet. We have ever-increasing control over nature. We are the only life form thus far known capable of asking the question, ‘Why?’
Hence the two temptations that have faced Homo sapiens since the beginning: to think of ourselves as smaller than we actually are, or greater than we actually are. How are we to understand the relationship between our mortality and fallibility and the almost-infinities of space and time?
Civilisations have regularly blurred the line between the human and the divine. In myth, the gods behave like humans, arguing, fighting and contending for power, while some humans – the heroes – are seen as semi-divine. The Egyptians believed that pharaohs joined the gods after death; some were seen as gods even during their lifetime. The Romans declared Julius Caesar a god after his death. Other religions have believed that God has taken human form.
It has proved exceptionally difficult to avoid worshipping the human founder of a faith. In the modern age, the blurring of boundaries has been democratised. Nietzsche argued that we would have to become like gods to vindicate our dethroning of God Himself. The anthropologist Edmund Leach began his Reith Lectures with the words, “Men have become like gods. Isn’t it about time that we understood our divinity?” As Jews we believe that this is too high an estimate of our, or anyone’s, humanity.
In the opposite direction humans have been seen, in myth and more recently in science, as next-to-nothing. In King Lear, Shakespeare has Gloucester say, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.” We are the easily discarded playthings of the gods, powerless in the face of forces beyond our control. As I pointed out in an earlier essay, some contemporary scientists have produced secular equivalents of this view. They say: there is nothing qualitatively to distinguish between Homo sapiens and other animals. There is no soul. There is no self. There is no freewill.
Voltaire spoke of humans as “insects devouring one another on a little atom of mud.” Stephen Hawking said that “the human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate size planet, orbiting round a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a billion galaxies.” Philosopher John Gray wrote that “human life has no more meaning than that of slime mould.” In Homo Deus, Yuval Harari states that, “Looking back, humanity will turn out to be just a ripple within the cosmic data flow.”
Judaism is humanity’s protest against both ideas. We are not gods. And we are not chemical scum. We are dust of the earth, but there is within us the breath of God. What is essential is never to blur the boundary between Heaven and Earth. The Torah speaks only obliquely about this. It tells us that there was a time, prior to the Flood, when “the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were lovely, and they married whomever they chose” (Gen. 6:2). It also tells us that, after the Flood, humans gathered in a plain in Shinar and said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower that reaches heaven, and make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11:4). Regardless of what these stories mean, what they speak of is a blurring of the line between Heaven and Earth – “sons of God” behaving like humans and humans aspiring to live among the gods.
When God is God, humans can be human. First, separate, then relate. That is the Jewish way.
For us as Jews, humanity at its highest is still human. We are mortal. We are creatures of flesh and blood. We are born, we grow, we learn, we mature, we make our way in the world. If we are lucky we find love. If we are blessed, we have children. But we also age. The body grows old even if the spirit stays young. We know that this gift of life does not last forever because in this physical universe, nothing lasts forever, not even planets or stars.
For each of us, therefore, there is a river we will not cross, a promised land we will not enter and a destination we will not reach. Even the greatest life is an unfinished symphony. Moses’ death on the far side of the Jordan is a consolation for all of us. None of us should feel guilty or frustrated or angry or defeated that there are things we hoped to achieve but did not. That is what it is to be human.
Nor should we be haunted by our mistakes. That, I believe, is why the Torah tells us that Moses sinned. Did it really have to include the episode of the water, the stick, the rock and Moses’ anger? It happened, but did the Torah have to tell us it happened? It passes over thirty-eight of the forty years in the wilderness in silence. It does not report every incident, only those that have a lesson for posterity. Why not, then, pass over this too in silence, sparing Moses’ good name? What other religious literature has ever been so candid about the failings of even the greatest of its heroes?
Because that is what it is to be human. Even the greatest human beings made mistakes, failed as often as they succeeded, and had moments of black despair. What made them great was not that they were perfect but that they kept going. They learned from every error, refused to give up hope, and eventually acquired the great gift that only failure can grant, namely humility. They understood that life is about falling a hundred times and getting up again. It is about never losing your ideals even when you know how hard it is to change the world. It’s about getting up every morning and walking one more day toward the Promised Land even though you know you may never get there, but knowing also that you helped others get there.
Maimonides writes in his law code that, “Every human being can become righteous like Moses our teacher or wicked like Jeroboam.” That is an astonishing sentence. There only ever was one Moses. The Torah says so. Yet what Maimonides is saying is clear. Prophetically, there was only one Moses. But morally, the choice lies before us every time we make a decision that will affect the lives of others. That Moses was mortal, that the greatest leader who ever lived did not see his mission completed, that even he was capable of making a mistake, is the most profound gift God could give each of us.
Hence the three great life changing ideas with which the Torah ends. We are mortal; therefore make every day count. We are fallible; therefore learn to grow from each mistake. We will not complete the journey; therefore inspire others to continue what we began.
 Berakhot 61b.
 Covenant and Conversation, Chukkat 5778.
 Hilkhot Teshuvah 5:2.
From Rabbi David Kasher
THE LAST LETTER – Simchat Torah (Parshot V’zot HaBeracha & Bereshit)
I had a dilemma this week.
For not only do we read the last parsha of the year this week, we also read the first parsha of the coming year. On Simchat Torah we conclude the reading of the Torah with Parshat V’Zot HaBeracha, and then on Shabbat we begin the Torah again with Genesis, Parshat Bereshit.
So I had to somehow write about them both.
It is fitting that I found the solution to my dilemma in the commentary of Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, the Kli Yakar. For if you have been following this blog, you know that the Kli Yakar is a particular favorite of mine – perhaps the favorite of all the commentators (though I am reluctant to pick just one). I have quoted him many, many times over the course of this four-year journey. But I have not done so in a while. So it feels right to end with him.
And how does he end things? In his very last piece of commentary on the Torah, his final question may surprise you. For he is wondering – of all things – why the Torah ends with the letter ‘lamed’ (ל) – as we see in this line:
…and for all the great might and awesome power that Moses displayed before all Israel. (Deuteronomy 34:12)
וּלְכֹל הַיָּד הַחֲזָקָה, וּלְכֹל הַמּוֹרָא הַגָּדוֹל, אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה מֹשֶׁה, לְעֵינֵי כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Now, that may seem like an absurd inquiry. Does the last letter of the Torah really have any particular significance? Surely, no one has been seriously curious as to why ‘Romeo and Juliet’ ends with the letter ‘o.’ Or why ‘The Great Gatsby’ ends with the letter ‘t.’ The choice of the last sentence is probably worth analyzing; maybe even the last word. But the last letter?!
Yet, if you are familiar with the interpretive methods of the rabbis, you know that one of their foundational assumptions is that not only every word, but every single letter of the Torah is chosen with intention and laden with meaning. Indeed, if you think they treat the last with great importantance, just turn to the beginning of a collection of rabbinic commentary like the Torah Shleimah, and you will see pages and pages of interpretation of the first letter of the Torah: ‘bet’ (ב). Why bet? Why not aleph? What exactly is the significance of that first letter?
Well, the Kli Yakar actually has an answer to both questions: Why the last letter? And why the first? And so he takes us – as our cycle of reading does – from this last parsha right back to the first.
His interpretation – as usual – indulges in the wildest forms of wordplay and symbolism. Bear with him here, for he leans heavy into some particulars of Hebrew language:
…before all Israel – I have heard them say that the reason that the Torah begins with bet (ב) and ends with lamed (ל), is that all the letters that make up the Great Name [of God] are: yud (י), vav (ו), and hei (ה). And if you join any one of them to either a bet or a lamed, together they form a complete word. And these words are: בי (on me), בו (on him), בה (on her), לי (for me), לו (for him), לה (for her). This kind of combination is not not possible with any other letter in the alphabet, such that it will form a complete word with every one of the letters of God’s name.
לעיני כל ישראל. שמעתי אומרים טעם על מה שהתורה מתחלת בבי“ת ומסיימת בלמ”ד, לפי שכל אותיות השם הגדול יו“ד וי”ו ה“א אם תסמוך אחת מהם אל בי”ת או אל למ“ד יהיה ממנו תיבה אחת שלימה והם בי בו בה לי לו לה מה שלא תמצא כן בכל אלפא ביתא שיהא תיבה שלימה מכל השלשה אם יסמכו לאיזה אות…
That all may sound rather technical, but it happens to be true. There are twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet, and only bet and lamed – the first and last letters of the Torah – happen to form complete words when combined with the three letters used in God’s name: yud, vav, and hei. There are other letters that combine with one, or two of the three. But only these two work with all three.
Okay, fine. Interesting connection. But what in the world does it mean? Here is what the Kli Yakar says:
The explanation is that all this hints to us that the world and everything in it depends on and is for the Blessed One… Therefore the Torah begins with bet and ends with lamed, to teach us that the Name of the Blessed One opens and closes everything, and that everything depends on it.
והביאור לזה הוא שבזה נרמז שתבל ומלואה הכל תלוי בו יתברך ושלו הכל… ע”כ פתח התורה בבי“ת ומסיימת בלמ”ד להורות כי השי“ת הפותח והסוגר והכל תלוי בו בשמו יתברך כאמור.
Let’s be clear on exactly how the Kli Yakar is forming this idea, because it’s complicated. Bet can function as a preposition meaning, “on” – so the fact that it combines with the letters in God’s name tells us that the Torah begins by hinting that everything depends on God. Lamed can function as a preposition meaning, “for” – so the fact that it combines with the letters in God’s name tells us that the Torah ends by hinting that everything is for God.
Now you may or may not like that interpretation. And even if you like it, you may or may not buy it. If you thought the original question of why the Torah begins or ends with a particular letter was absurd, surely you find such an esoteric answer even more preposterous.
But beyond the fact that this piece helped me write on both the first and the last parsha of the Torah, there are several other reasons why I found it meaningful to conclude with. So let me leave you with three thoughts, prompted again by this interpretation of the Kli Yakar, that I think have been central to the ParshaNut project all along:
1. We are always asking, in the study of parshanut: What are the limits of reasonable interpretation? The original rabbinic style of interpretation, ‘midrash,’ was wildly creative and expansive. From the rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash we first inherited the notion of playing with the letters of the Torah to find deeper meaning. But this kind of play can easily begin to seem to some outlandish, and to have drifted too far from the real meaning of the text. So, in the medieval period emerged the champions of the ‘pshat’: the simple, straightforward meaning of the text. They were singularly concerned with a clear understanding of the words in front of them. None of this funny business with letters, and symbols, and hints. But then there is a counter-reaction to the constricting nature of this mode of interpretation. For shouldn’t a divine text contain more than just the words on the page? Isn’t there a deeper level of meaning, beyond the pshat? The Kli Yakar, in the 17th century, was part of this counter-reaction. The history of parshanut is constantly oscillating between these two interpretive poles.
These questions remain today, for every reader of the Torah: How do I make meaning of the text? How far can I go in search of this meaning? What are my limits?
I believe the study of parshanut, which is essentially a study of how we read, is the finest way to find the answers to such questions.
2. The Kli Yakar implies, when he says that the first and last letters teach us, “that the world and everything in it depends on and is for the Blessed One,” that the world and everything in it can be found in the Torah. And there he is echoing a classical rabbinic maxim, that “everything is in the Torah,” (דכלא בה) (Avot 5:22). The genre of parshanut, I think, does an excellent job of proving this claim – not metaphysically, but as a matter of variety. The vast corpus of Torah commentary contains narrative, grammar, theology, cosmology, law, ethics, philosophy, history, psychology, mysticism, polemic, and even the occasional attempt at science. All the thoughts and dreams and fears of Jewish thinkers for thousands of years, packed in between the letters of the Torah. Everything is in it.
3. Finally, and on more a personal note, as the Kli Yakar attempts to connect the letters of the Torah to the letters in God’s name, he reminds me of what the study of the Torah has always been about for me – that is, the attempt to find God through language. The rabbinic emphasis on Torah study as a central – perhaps the central – Jewish spiritual practice, implies the radical proposition that through words and letters, through speaking, writing, and reading, one can come into contact with the Holy One – Who, after all, is said to have created the world with words.
I do not mean to suggest that this is easily done. In fact, the Kli Yakar admits that only two of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet can fully form a meaningful connection to God’s name. Just so, perhaps only one out of every ten, or eleven, or a hundred of our encounters with the Torah will manage to connect us to its Source. But when we make that connection, with our own words, we are taken back to the beginning, back to those first words: “Let there be light.” And we realize that we have been in conversation with God, and with each other, ever since.
So with that, I will conclude this journey with the final words in the commentary of the Kli Yakar:
Thus is completed the Book of Deuteronomy, with the help of the Creator of all things.
נשלם ספר אלה הדברים, בעזר יוצר כל יצורים.
And thus begins the Book of Genesis, with the help of the Creator of all things.
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
And this is the blessing
He said, let me I pray cross over and see the good land
on the other side of the Jordan that good hill country and the Lebanon.
A Divine voice said the time has come for you to depart from the world
he drew a circle around himself and said, Master of the Universe, please.
He begged the heavens and the earth he went to the stars and the planets the mountains and the hills he went to the sea he went to the Great Angel he lifted both his hands, placed them over his heart, he said –
Behold the end of flesh and blood.
He rose and washed his hands and feet and became as pure as an angel from the highest Heaven the Holy One came down to take his soul and the three angels.
Then G*d took his soul saying, my daughter the time is fixed a hundred and twenty years now your time to depart has come do not delay.
G*d said I will take you to the highest Heaven of Heavens and will set you under the throne of glory next to the angels, in that instant the Holy one kissed him
and took his soul with a kiss G*d drew out his soul with a kiss.
We grieved for him in the plains of Moab for thirty days until the time of weeping and mourning was over, this the end and this the beginning.
[Deut. Rabbah 7:10, 11:10]
From the Maqam Project
From Susan Diamond
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson,z”l taught that Moshe’s being at Mt. Nevo is very important on the mystical level. The gematria of Nun is fifty, and it has been said that the fiftieth gate is the highest gate. Psalm 8 poses the question, “What then is man that you remember him? and the son of man that you are mindful of him?
Yet you have made him slightly less than the angels.
However, when Moshe reaches the fiftieth gate, Mt.Nevo, he is a little lower than the angels. And the Rebbe taught that all of us have a spark of Moshe’s energy within us. So if we connect with that spark than we are little lower than the angels and we are holy as Moshe was holy.
Gamar ha timah Tovah, Sept.19,2013.
From Melissa Carpenter
Vezot Habrachah: Face to Face
October 11, 2011
And no other prophet arose in Israel like Moses, whom God knew face to face; for all the signs and the miracles that God sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all who served him, and to all his land; and for all the strong power and all the great awe that Moses carried out before the eyes of all Israel. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 34:10-12)
That’s the ending of this week’s Torah portion, Vezot Habrachah (And this is the blessing); of the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim; and of the Torah proper (the first five books of the Jewish canon).
In one sense, this passage is a eulogy for Moses, who died at age 120 “by the mouth of God” after liberating the people from Egypt and shepherding them for forty years until they were ready to cross the Jordan River into “the promised land” of Canaan.
But the passage also tells us something about God.
panim = face; indicator of mood; identity
panim el panim = face to face, directly, without an intermediary
The first place that the Torah uses the expression “face to face”, is at the end of the mysterious account of Jacob wrestling all night with an unnamed “man” who blesses him with a new name (Israel) at dawn.
Jacob called the place there Penieil (Face of a god), ‘Because I saw Elohim face to face, and my life was saved.’ (Genesis/Bereishit 32:31)
eil = God, a god
elohim = God, gods
The next place we see the phrase “face to face” is after the golden calf incident, when Moses pitches his tent some distance from the camp. Whenever Moses returns to the tent, now called the Tent of Meeting, everyone can see the pillar of cloud descend and stand at the tent opening. Then, the Torah says,
God spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his neighbor. (Exodus/Shemot 33:11)
This verse uses the personal, four-letter name of God, so there is no ambiguity about whether the speaker is a god or the God. Moses is able to hear God’s speech “face to face”, as clearly as one man can hear his neighbor speak. Moses is able to hear God directly at the burning bush, and according to the Torah, this straightforward communication occurs repeatedly for the rest of Moses’ life. The ability to hear God is not unique to Moses; the Torah reports that many of the characters in Genesis, as well as all true prophets, also hear God speak. But Moses hears God’s voice much more often than anyone else, and only Moses can count on initiating a conversation with God.
Yet despite their close relationship, when Moses asks to see God’s kavod (glory, heaviness), God tells Moses:
You will not be able to see my face, because no human can see Me and live. (Exodus/Shemot 33:20)
Then what about Jacob, who said he saw God’s face and lived? I think Jacob neither saw nor wrestled with God’s real identity, but only with a few aspects of God, which he called elohim. He was grateful to live through the experience of beholding even one divine aspect, or angel, or god.
“Seeing” God’s face is different from having a face-to-face conversation with God. Like English, Biblical Hebrew often uses the verb for “see” to mean “understand”. If one’s “face” is one’s identity, then nobody can know God that intimately and live.
Two humans in an intimate relationship often watch one another’s faces for clues about what the other person is thinking and feeling inside. Yet anyone who has had a loving partner for decades knows that we can still get it wrong. The expressions on a well-known face indicate a fleeting mood, but the observer can only guess at the thoughts behind the face. Experience over time makes the guesses somewhat more accurate. Yet the innermost person is still inaccessible, unknowable.
In fact, we cannot even fully know ourselves, or even predict what choices we will make in every circumstance. Watching our own faces in a mirror is not much help. The face itself is an intermediary between the soul and the observer; a person’s inner identity is still hidden.
Does the conclusion of the book of Deuteronomy tell us that Moses finally saw God’s true “face” at the moment of his death? Not really. The Hebrew says that God knows Moses face to face, not that Moses knows God that way.
Since God knows Moses’ true “face”, his inner self, God knows that Moses has the potential to carry out all the signs and the miracles, and to demonstrate all the strong power that creates all the great awe, and moves the religion forward.
Whatever our notions about God are, if we are wise we know we can never see God’s “face”, as long as we live. But maybe it’s more important that God can see us.
UNIVERSAL TORAH: VE-ZOS HABRACHAH
By Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum
Torah Reading for Simchas Torah, Thursday 20 October (Israel) & Friday 21 October (elsewhere):
VE-ZOS HABRACHAH, Deuteronomy 33:1-34:12
Additional reading: Genesis 1:1-2:3
Maftir: Numbers 29:35-30:1
Haftara: Joshua 1:1-18
AND THIS IS THE BLESSING
After the succession of stern rebukes to Israel in the preceding parshahs, we finally come to the conclusion of the Torah, which is all goodness and blessing. VE-ZOS HABRACHAH: “And this is the blessing with which Moses, man of G-d, blessed the Children of Israel before his death” (Deut. 33:1).
The last of the Torah’s fifty-three parshahs thus completes the circle to make the perfect garden: 53 is the gematria of the Hebrew word GAN = “garden”. The Torah began with the creation of Adam, recounting how he was placed in the Garden of Eden, only to fall and be driven out. Similarly Abraham, Isaac and Jacob planted themselves in the Land of Israel, which is intended to be a garden of a land. But their children fell into exile in Egypt, and the glorious redemption and the Giving of the Torah at Sinai were followed by the making of the golden calf and the other sins in the wilderness. The purpose of all Moses’ labors instilling G-d’s law into the hearts of the people of Israel was to bring about the complete rectification of Adam’s sin in order to enable his children to come back into the garden and enjoy goodness and blessing in their land forever.
The Kabbalah explains that G-d brought about the creation through the concealment of His infinite light and perfect unity, leaving a seemingly separate, finite realm of lack and imperfection. This provides man with an arena of challenge where he can earn higher levels of connection with G-d through his own efforts. The flaw in the creation is man’s rebellious streak. When he succumbs to it, he intensifies the darkness and evil in himself and the surrounding world. But he is also vested with the power to repent and to overcome the evil. In tracing how man became separated from G-d and teaching him the pathways he must follow in order to reconnect, the Torah provides the complete remedy for the whole of creation.
Having recounted man’s sins and the resulting tribulations — imperfection and disunity — and having set forth the code of law through which man repairs himself and the world, the Torah ends with rectification and unity. “And this is the blessing. And there was a King in Yeshurun when the heads of the people were GATHERED and the tribes of Israel TOGETHER” (Deut. 33 v. 1 & v. 5). All the different pieces finally come together again and everything returns to unity. The name Yeshurun refers to Israel in the aspect of Yosher, straightness and rectification. VE-ZOS HABRACHAH speaks of the greatness of Israel and their destiny — each tribe individually and all together collectively. “Happy are you, O Israel! Who is like you?. a nation saved through HaShem” (ibid. v. 29). Nothing in the world can stand between G-d and Israel. Not only was He revealed to them at Sinai. He is even revealed to them out of Se’ir and Paran — Edom, Ishmael and the other forces of concealment: “HaShem came from Sinai, from Seir He shone to them.” (v. 2). Through the power of the Torah, even that which seems furthest from G-d can be brought back and reconnected with Him.
Although the twelve tribes of Israel are all unique, each with their different qualities — multiplicity — they all share a common destiny: to lead the world back to G-d — unity. Thus it says of Zevulun and Issachar, “They will call nations to the Mountain [= the Temple Mount], they will slaughter offerings of righteousness.” (v. 19). Of Joseph it says, “He will gore the nations, TOGETHER even the ends of the earth” (v. 18). Finally, all the scattered sparks will be gathered back together again. In the end, after all their struggles and suffering — “And Israel will dwell securely, the fountain of Jacob alone, in a land of corn and wine. Indeed, his heavens will drop down dew” (v. 28).
Everything is in its proper place. Everything has been rectified. Moses’ mission has been fulfilled, and as a mortal man, he too must die. We cry when we read of the death of Moses — we cry over our own mortality. Yet we must know that eventually we have to die, for only through the death of the self can we be merged with the All-encompassing One. There are no exceptions to G-d’s immutable law, not even in the case of Moses, who was the greatest of all the prophets. For failing to sanctify G-d one time in the wilderness (Numbers 20:1-13), Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. Yet selflessly, he brought the Children of Israel — his children — to the borders of the land, and all that was left for them to do was to enter and make their conquest.
Moses comes to the end, yet it is not the end, because life continues, and where the older generation leave off, the new generation pick up and carry on. After the death of the old comes the birth of the new. It is never the end, because as soon as we reach the end of the Torah, we immediately go back to the beginning and start all over again! This very continuity is the Joy of the Torah, SIMCHAS TORAH, the day on which we complete the annual cycle of the Torah and begin again. Just as G-d is Eyn Sof — NO END — so, the Torah has no end. When you reach the end of the cycle, the circle is complete and you start again from the beginning. For the end is seamlessly attached to the beginning, and the circle goes around and around.
Thus on SIMCHAS TORAH the Children of Israel take all the Torah scrolls out of the ark and dance around and around the reader’s desk in circle after circle, to indicate the endlessness of the Torah. You might have thought it would be impossible for finite man to have any connection with the Infinite G-d. Yet in His compassion, G-d has given us a way to connect with Him: through cycle after cycle of Torah study. Through each circle and each cycle, we expand the horizons of our knowledge of G-d, drawing down His all-encompassing light around and inside ourselves, becoming steadily more and more suffused with His unity, love and peace.
May we have the merit of studying the entire Torah time after time, cycle after cycle, until “the earth will be full of the knowledge of HaShem as the waters cover the seas” (Isaiah 11:9).
Shabbat Shalom!!! Chag Same’ach!!!
Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
From Rabbi Gershon Winkler
THE POWER OF DYING WORDS
A Teaching from Gershon…
When we left Egypt, some 3400 years before the current uprising, we somehow knew our tribal heritage, each of us aware of which tribe we belonged to. Somehow, the identity of all twelve tribes, of all the descendants of Jacob’s twelve sons, remained intact in spite of a 210-year period of oppression and slavery. Not only did each of us know which tribe we belonged to, but once we were in the desert and completed the construction of the Mishkan, the Ark of the Covenant and all of its implements, we somehow knew automatically where to station ourselves in relationship to the Mishkan, and what emblems and colors to apply to our tribal banners.
Nowhere in the Torah’s narrative of our 40-year sojourn in the desert is there any mention whatsoever of any of this being instructed to us. Somehow, without any information from Moses or God, we knew our place, our totem, and our emblem. All the Torah says about it is: “And God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, ‘When the Children of Israel make camp, every man shall arrange his camp surrounding and facing toward the Tent of Gathering in accordance with the banner and symbol of the house of their ancestors’” (Numbers 2:1-2). The narrative that then follows describes how they arranged themselves in proximity of the Mishkan: Judah, Yisas’char and Zevulun to the east; Reuven, Shim’on and Gahd to the south; Efraim, Menashe and Benjamin to the west; and Dan, Asher, and Naftali to the north. But no mention of their being instructed to arrange themselves this way, only a recounting of which of the four directions were occupied by which tribe. Period. Granted, that the narrative concludes with: “And the Children of Israel did as God instructed Moses” but also continues with: “Thus did they arrange their camps, according to their flags, and thus did they journey, each in accordance with his family and with the house of his ancestor” (Numbers 2:34). In other words, God only told Moses to tell the people to camp and journey around the Mishkan in the formation as indicated by their tribal banner, and this they did, “according to their flags” and tribal affiliation. But exactly which direction each tribe was to situate itself in relationship to the Mishkan, was not told to them. The narrative implies that they knew this information on their own. They knew automatically, and just did it.
Our ancient oral tradition, which fills in a lot of the spaces between the words and lines of the narratives of the Written Torah, further magnifies the question by describing Moses as arguing with God about this new commandment: “Great! Now they’re all going to break into squabbling and arguing. If I say, like, to the tribe of Judah, ‘You folks to the east!’ they’ll come back at me with, ‘East!? No way! We prefer the south!’ and so on. Every tribe is going to want something other than what I tell them.” God replies: “Moses! What’s it your business? They don’t need you in this case. They already know themselves where they are supposed to be. Their ancestors had already long ago instructed them as to the emblems on their banners and the direction they will be assigned to. I am not issuing any kind of new edict here. They already have the configuration handed down to them from their patriarch Jacob, who instructed each of his twelve sons – ancestors of the tribes – in which direction each was to situate himself when escorting Jacob’s bier back to Canaan after his death, and that is precisely the configuration they were to arrange in escorting the Mishkan as well” (Midrash Bamid’bar Rabbah 2:7).
But what was their secret? How can a tradition born of the last words of a dying man endure intact over of a period of 210 years of extreme hardship? Well, perhaps by the same secret that enabled the rest of this tradition to endure intact over thousands of years of even more extreme hardship, some of which would make slavery akin to a romp in Disney World in comparison. So, again, even more so, what is then the secret behind *both*?
A long long time ago, in a dilapidated Jerusalem yeshiva, I asked this question of my dear rebbe, Rav Eliezer Benseon, who now basks in the heavens above in the glow of the Divine and in the presence of the sages of the ages. He put down his glass of steaming tea, added another cube of sugar, watched it dissolve, and then lifted his heavy white eyebrows and said: “Ay, Gershon, Gershon, Gershon”, which had been his mantra for all the years I studied in his yeshiva. And slowly, like a crane at a construction site, his raised white eyebrows tugged at his aging eyelids until they were raised high enough for his weary, glowing eyes to meet mine. One more sip from the tea, and he began to explain, his raspy voice richly decorated with a style of Hebrew that was so unique to these ancient elders who had been transplanted from the so-called Old Country unto the soil of Modern Israel.
So, what indeed was the secret?
In both instances, you see — whether it was Jacob blessing his twelve boys with their totems and emblems and arranging them in the four directions around his bier, or whether it was Moses blessing us and gifting us with the Torah and its myriad instructions – there was one thing in common: They were the words of a dying man. Jacob gave his instructions while lying on his death bed, and Moses, regardless of how hard he tried to reach us, and regardless of how many decades he taught us, didn’t succeed until he tried one more final attempt – this time with his dying breath. Thus, the dying words of Moses – the Book of Devarim [Deuteronomy] — is considered the holiest section of the Torah. It is the only narrative of the Torah, other than Genesis, that does not begin with the word “And.” Genesis does not begin with “And” because Beginning has nothing behind it to link to, no previous context. And Devarim, the last words of Moses, does not begin with “And” because it too has nothing to link to from what was before, as it is a whole separate and distinct part of Torah that is not divinely or otherwise dictated but is Moses’ very own words, straight from his heart and gut. It is unique, the intro to Devarim tells us, “Because Moses now clarified this Torah with excellence” (Deuteronomy 1:5).
The words of a dying person, Rav Eliezer taught, are powerful, their impact replete with a potency not found in normative day-to-day speech. Their words reach deeper depths of our hearts because (1) their hearts are wide open, absent any inhibitions, and (2) the hearts of the listeners are wide open, absent any inhibitions.
“The lesson in all this?” I remember him stressing, taking a second sip from the steaming glass. “To remember always how fathomless is the capacity of our hearts. Why wait until someone is dying to truly hear them, to fully lend ear to their words? Why not swing wide open the gates of our hearts to one another now? Today! — while we are filled with the life force. If we listen to each other that way, as if each of us is speaking with our last breath, we will hear each other more fully, and will not forget what has been said, what has been expressed.”
Wow. No wonder the prophet Malachi called the Torah “The Torah of Moses” (Malachi 3:22). As the ancient sages put it: “But was it not the Torah of *God? Yes, but Moses struggled and stumbled all over Torah in his attempts to teach it to us, and so it is called by his name.” And I will add to this: “Thus does it say in Malachi, ‘Remember* the Torah of Moses.’ For the way he worked so hard to gift it to us in his last breath from his heart and in his own words — even though he was admittedly not ‘a man of words (Exodus 4:10)’ — was so powerful that we indeed remember the Torah of Moses, even 3400 years later.”
In fact, the ancient rabbis tells us (in Midrash Devarim Rabbah 1:1): “It was not until Moses merited to truly get the Torah that he was healed of his speech impediment, as is written: ‘These are the words that Moses spoke’” (Deuteronomy 1:1). In other words, the Torah kept trickling down to us from God through Moses during our forty-year walkabout in the desert, but it was not until Moses’ final days on earth that he himself actually got it, and, in turn, so did *we*. Because when he finally opened his heart, as he approached his death, he also opened ours. And what transpired between his heart and ours, we can never forget. Thus, when you take the last letter of the Torah scroll ל and fold it all the way back to the first letter of the scroll ב, you will have the Hebrew word לב Iev, which means “Heart.”
From Melissa Carpenter
Vezot Habrachah: An Open Mouth
And Moses went up from the dry plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, the summit of the border range that faces Jericho; and God made him see the entire land … (Deuteronomy/Devarim 34:1)
And God said to him: This is the land … but you will not cross over to there.” And Moses, the servant of God, died there in the land of Moab, according to the mouth of God. And he was buried in the valley in the land of Moab, in front of the House of Peor; and not a man knows his grave to this day. Moses was 120 years at his death; his eye was not dull, and his sap was not gone. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 34:4-7)
Har Nevo = Mount Nebo; mountain of prophesy
peh = mouth, opening, statement, command, bidding
Peor = a proper name for both the third mountain where Bilam stood and blessed the Israelites (Numbers/Bamidbar 23:28); and for the local Moabite god worshiped through sexual rites. Derived from the verb par = to open wide (as a mouth), to gape, to expose genitals
leichoh = full of sap, fresh and moist, vigorous
At the end of the Torah proper, the “Five Books of Moses”, Moses dies. He dies on the “wrong” side of the Jordan River; God does not let him cross over into Canaan with the people he has shepherded all the way from Egypt. But God does miraculously let him see the entire “promised land” of Canaan. (There’s a good view from Mt. Nebo, but not good enough to see all the way to the Mediterranean without supernatural help.)
Why does Moses die when he’s still sharp-eyed and full of juice? Because God would not let him cross the Jordan. God had told him repeatedly that because of his mistake when he hit the rock at Meribah-Kadesh, he would not enter the land. So the Israelites camped by the Jordan for a long time while Moses delivered his final oration—the entire book of Deuteronomy/ Devarim. But he could not filibuster forever. Finally , in the last Torah portion, Vezot Habrachah (And These are the Blessings), Moses gives the tribes his final blessings, then walks away and climbs Mt. Nebo alone.
How does Moses die? The phrase I translated above as “according to the mouth of God” is usually translated in other parts of the Torah as “according to God’s word/command/bidding”. But for this verse only, medieval commentary interpreted the word for “mouth” literally and anthropomorphically; they wrote that God took Moses’ life with a kiss.
Why and how is Moses buried in a valley below the mountain top where he died? The Torah does not say who buried him. One opinion in the Talmud says God did it (Mishnah Sotah 1:9). For God, it would be no problem to teleport Moses’ body. A second opinion in the Talmud is that Moses miraculously buried himself; his soul left his body, and then carried his corpse down to the valley and into the ground. But neither of these miracles is necessary, since the Torah text does not rule out a human being finding Moses’ body on Mount Nebo, carrying it down, and burying it in secret. However the burial happened, the important message is that Moses was not wafted up into heaven, like Elijah, but was buried down in the ground, like the human being he remained to the end. Thanks to the wording in the Torah, no one can turn the grave of Moses into a site of idol worship.
But why was he buried in front of the House of Peor? This “house” is probably the temple of the local Moabite god Baal-Peor, who, according to Numbers/Bamidbar chapter 25, was worshiped through sex. Medieval commentary says Moses’ burial there atones for the sins of debauchery and idolatry.
When I looked up the etymology of Peor, I learned that it comes from the same root as the verb for gaping, or opening wide like a mouth. Thus Moses dies on the Mountain of Prophecy by the Mouth of God, and his grave lies somewhere in front of the House of the Gaping Mouth.
No wonder his death and burial are mysteries. What can we do when anyone dies, when the life vanishes from a person’s body? We can only standing gaping, literally or figuratively, as our mouths drop open in horror or awe or incomprehension.
The Torah tells us that even a Moses, who speaks with God face-to-face, has a human death: incomprehensible.
For Jews, the end leads right into the beginning. On Simchat Torah, the evening of September 30 this year, we read about the death of Moses at the end of the Torah scroll, and then move straight on to the creation of the universe at the beginning of the Torah. Both the death and the creation happen through the word of God, the mouth of God.
Maybe this is another way of saying that both death and birth are too mysterious for humans to ever understand.
From Rabbi Jonathan Case
V’Zot HaBerakha: And This is the Blessing
“And Moses, the servant of the Lord died there.”
Like all mortals, Moses was destined to leave his body and be rejoined with his ancestors. Yet, by the Torah defining the point of death, it also enjoins the reader to understand that the death of Moses was physical. His spirit, resiliency, and devotion remain alive. That is why the Torah states that Moses died “there”. As long as we turn back to the Torah and invest our souls in the work of understanding the Will of the Almighty the spirit of Moses continues to live.
In much the same way, the last Sidra of the Torah deliberately ells us that Moses was the servant of God. That is why the Radak interprets this word to be an invitation for all future generations to imitate the path of Moses. Any person can devote themselves to something larger than their mortal self. Just as a servant is solicitous to his master so too anyone can follow the path of Moses using the same principle, love.
And, what if we do not have the internal strength to master ourselves? what if we fall short? That is why teshuva, return, is always an option. With the holy day of Yom Kippur just past we become aware that our lives are a process of moving towards becoming whole. It must ever be a forward-moving process. Even if at times we move in the wrong direction, it is critical to never give up trying to refine our character, become a servant of God.
That is also why as the Torah winds to a close we immediately open it up at the other end and commence the process of renewal. The Torah is bound on wooden spindles that ever roll. We walk through life, make attempts at growth, reach the end of a phase of life and then begin again.
In fact, it is remarkable that we celebrate the Torah with unbridled enthusiasm now when we finish the Torah and not at Shavuot, the anniversary of the Giving of Torah. Why? The Torah is perfect. Measuring ourselves against its light we fall silent, awestruck by its enormity and boundless power. The reading of the Torah, by contrast, is an exercise in movement, becoming. That is why Simhat Torah outstrips Shavuot in sheer joy. When we conclude the Torah we celebrate our renewal along with the renewal of the endless cycle of learning, and growth.
The name of the Torah reading is V’zot HaBerakha, “This is the Blessing.” The Midrash states that when the Lord God told Moses that his life was about to end, Moses complained. He told God how troubled his life was a leader was: he had to cajole the people, threaten them, plead with them, plead for them and now as it was all about to end, he had a single request of the One: Let me bless them.
The blessing is upon you.
Almost seamlessly the Torah portion segues into the Hafatara. Moses, our Teacher, has died, and the position of leadership has passed to his disciple, Joshua. The promise of God to continue His protective shield and maintain the covenant with His people remains firmly planted. Yet, as before, the Holy One demands that we carry our part of the covenant. We are to remain pledged and true to the mitzvot. With these instructions and words of encouragement the people respond as they had at Mt. Sinai. They reaffirmed their commitment and fidelity to the Word of the Almighty.
A Matter of Law:
Rambam teaches that the last eight pesukim — verses –of the Torah may be read without a minyan. This is because they are ancillary to the Torah. Lower in holiness than the rest of the five books these pesukim detail the death and praise the life of Moshe Rabbenu.
Because we are forbidden from reading the same Torah portion twice, this sidra is always reserved for the night of Simhat Torah, not Shabbat.
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
MOBIUS (V’ZOT HA-BRAKHA) 2008
I want to write the Torah
on a mobius strip of parchment
so that the very last lines
(never again will there arise,
arpeggio of signs and wonders
stout strength and subtle teaching)
would lead seamlessly to
the beginning of heavens
and earth, the waters
all wild and waste, and God
hovering over the face of creation
like a mother bird.
This is the strong sinew
that stitches our years together:
that we never have to bear
the heartbreak of the story ending
each year the words are the same
but something in us is different
on a mobius strip of parchment
I want to write the Torah
One of my favorite moments in all the year comes when we read the solemn last lines of the Torah — these last words from this week’s portion, V’Zot HaBrakha — and immediately read the opening lines of the Torah. Sometimes we do it with two scrolls. Sometimes we unroll a single scroll all the way from end to end, holding it in gloved fingers carefully in a giant circle around the room so we can see it in all of its complex beauty. We read the ending, and then we read the beginning.
It’s the original neverending story. Just as the story of human growth and potential never ends, only spirals onward, so our reading of the Torah never ends but we begin again. For me as a lover of story, this says something important about who we are and how we understand ourselves.
Every year offers us a chance to begin again. Every year that new beginning is informed by who we are and where we’ve been. One door closes and another one opens. The last words lead to the first words which will eventually, a year from now, lead us to the last words again. And then, again, the first words. One of my favorite moments in all the year.
From Rav Kook
Vezot HaBracha: The Full Cup of Blessing
The centerpiece of a Jewish ceremony is usually a glass of wine. Weddings, circumcisions, kiddush on the Sabbath — all make use of wine, a symbol of joy.
The Talmud (Berachot 51a) teaches that this cup of wine should be filled to the brim: “Whoever says the blessing over a full cup is given a boundless inheritance” and “is privileged to inherit two worlds, this world and the next.” The Sages derived this reward of a “boundless inheritance” from Moses’ blessing to the tribe of Naphtali before his death: “He shall be filled with God’s blessing, inheriting (land) to the west and to the south” (Deut. 33:23).
Why is it important to fill the ceremonial glass to the brim? Why should this act grant us boundless riches and an inheritance in this world and the next?
The Pursuit of Riches
One might think that if we sincerely desire to live life according to our true spiritual goals, then we should make do with only our barest needs. We should distance ourselves as much as possible from the distracting pursuit of luxuries. And yet, the desire for an expansive lifestyle is ingrained in human nature. It is natural to delight in greater wealth, nicer homes, and fancier cars. There must be some inner purpose to this innate human nature.
In fact, the pursuit of riches is only a negative trait when its sole objective is self-gratification. Wealth and material possessions serve no purpose if there are acquired only for our own personal benefit. But if we utilize our energy and joy of life for that which is good and proper, than it is unnecessary to restrict these natural tendencies. On the contrary, a generous and kind- hearted individual can accomplish many more good deeds when he is blessed with wealth.
A full cup of wine represents an abundance of riches. The Sages praised filling a wine-glass to the brim — on condition that the glass is a “kos shel berachah”, a ceremonial cup used for mitzvot and good deeds. With such a ‘cup of blessing,’ it is proper to pursue a life of wealth, as we recognize that these material blessings are a vessel, a tool to perform mitzvot and help others, both physically and spiritually.
One who pursues riches only for his own physical pleasure has set for himself very limited goals. How much joy can all the pleasures of the universe generate, when they are confined to one individual? But one who seeks financial success in order to help others — there is no end to the benefit of the wealth he acquires. Therefore, the Sages taught that such an individual is blessed with a “boundless inheritance.”
In addition, if we recognize that God is the source for all blessings, then being showered with material wealth helps us develop the important trait of gratitude. Our resolve to serve God and help others is strengthened, and we become loyal emissaries of God in spreading kindness in the world.
Inheriting Both Worlds
For most people, there is a clear dichotomy between physical and spiritual pleasures. This world and the next are separate, even competing, realms.
But if our love for this world is based upon the good that we can benefit others, then the pursuit of material riches is also a spiritual pursuit, and there is no longer any contradiction between the love of this world and the World to Come. Life in this world becomes a spiritual life, filled with the pure ideals of loving- kindness and generosity. This is “the inheritance of two worlds” that the Sages ascribed to one who fills his mitzvah wine-glass to the brim.
(adapted from Ein Eyah vol. II, pp. 225-226)
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~
(And this is the Blessing)
DEUTERONOMY 33:1 – 34:12
Moses blesses each of the tribes and then gives his blessing to the people as a whole. He goes up the mountain, gazes upon the Land and dies.
THE FIRST WORD of this final portion of the Torah, the first step on this last leg of the journey, is “Zot,” which is the feminine form of the word, “This.” In mystical language zot refers to The Shekhina, the immanent, sparkling Divine Presence that is hidden and waiting at the center of all manifest being. She is waiting to be discovered, embraced, honored, and redeemed, longing for us as we long for her.
Throughout our lives we receive the light, the blessing of Shekhina in flashes of terror or beauty. The light of the Infinite shines through this finite world. A veil is lifted. Our physical existence is unwrapped to reveal a splendor and brilliance that is the soul, the “innerness” of all things. These flashes awaken in us a yearning for Truth, an aching desire that tears our hearts open in surrender to the Beloved.
But then the veil drops, the light fades, and we are surrounded once more with seemingly dead and dense matter. We return to the task of manipulating the material realm even as the details slip beyond our control, and everything that we try to grasp passes away or changes.
MOSES CLIMBS THE FINAL MOUNTAIN of his life and blesses us “lifnei moto,” 1 as he faces his Death. Sogyal Rinpoche, in his book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, says that Death is “… a mirror in which the entire meaning of life is reflected.” Moses looks into that mirror and opens to blessing. “For Love is as strong as Death.” 2 In the presence of Death, those veils of the superficial and trivial drop away and the power of Love is revealed.
Each of us must climb that same mountain. And if we are to unlock the blessing, the transforming love that is in us, we must stand without flinching,in the presence of Death. “If a man tried to buy love with all the wealth of his house, he would be despised.” 3 In the presence of Death all bets are off . When faced with Death we stop trying to buy love or prove ourselves. When reputation, wealth, success, and worldly power are stripped away by the reality of Death, the blessing that we give and receive is of the purest essence.
In facing Death we are given a key to the locked garden, the garden of our innocence. There, we address Shekhina directly. We call to the ultimate Reality that until this moment has been disguised beneath the layered garment of our lives, “Oh woman in the garden, all our friends listen for your voice. Let me hear it now!” 4 Facing Death, we receive Life in its fullness. The blessing of Vezot HaBrakha comes as we open to the Divine Presence in “This!”: this life, this step, this breath, this moment. “Let me hear it now!” In facing Death, I open to receive the abundant Now. As I lay down my fear of Death, my arms are free to embrace and treasure each day.
Psalm 90, which is attributed to Moses says, “Teach us to treasure each day that we may acquire a Heart of Wisdom….” When we treasure each day and acknowledge how precious Life is, the Heart of Wisdom opens and expands, receiving into it the blessing that is our inheritance.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
THE DEATH OF MOSES represents the ultimate and most profound spiritual challenge that God gives to each of us. The vast body of literature, poetry, and midrash that describe the death-scene and burial of Moses stand in contrast to the actuality of the stark and spare text in Deuteronomy that says he died (by the mouth of God) was buried, and that no one knows where his grave is. 5
The fact that Moses’ gravesite is unknown, poses a major challenge in the development of Judaism. Religions tend to develop as the glorification of some great man. “He was so great and we are nothing. Let us worship him, or pray at his grave, or receive the merit of his goodness.”
But here the message becomes, “Don’t look to Moses… it is not really about him… The Torah is about YOU.”
ONCE DURING A MEDITATIVE JOURNEY I asked, “Show me where Moses is buried”. I was told, “It’s not out there. Moses is buried within you.” Upon hearing this, I sat very still, took a long slow breath and turned even deeper within. The moment I found stillness, a flower opened up inside my heart. The fl ower grew to fill me with its essence. Then Ruach HaKodesh, the “Holy Spirit” blew upon me, scattering seeds and fragrance into the world.
THE CHALLENGE FOR EACH ONE OF US is to plant and tend the seeds of prophesy. Each of us must stand up to Pharaoh, take our shoes off at the burning bush, receive the Divine Name, sweeten our bitter waters, and journey courageously through the wilderness. Each one of us must come to Sinai and receive Torah for ourselves.
And each one of us must face Death. Through that initiatory encounter we receive the fullness of Life and are able to finally give ourselves wholly to God. That complete giving of Self and receiving of Life is expressed in the image of the Divine Kiss. Moses dies “by the mouth of God.” 6
In that kiss we give our lives away. Everything that we have been clinging to and grasping is finally released in that kiss. All the fearful power that has been devoted to pushing away pain and death is finally released. In that kiss we can finally love God “with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our might.” In that kiss, giving and receiving become One.
THE KISS OF DEATH is not something that is passively received. The challenge of Vezot HaBrakha is to surrender our lives in loving generosity. This means working wholeheartedly for justice while letting go of attachment to the outcome of our efforts. It means loving with abandon even when there is no guarantee that the love will be received. It means writing books whether or not others will read or appreciate them, singing songs that perhaps no one will hear. It means dying to your ambitions, dying to your personality and preferences.
Dying again and again.
For me the dream of love had to die before I could open my eyes and embrace true love. My fantasies, expectations, ideas and beliefs about romance, and past disappointments, all obscured the view.
THE VERY FIRST LINE of the Song of Songs says, “He kisses me with the kisses of his mouth.” Each kiss is another death (and another re-birth.) Each kiss is practice in letting go. And yes, each kiss is an initiation into more abundant Life.
Yet the ego-self is such an expert at holding on. She is the consummate survivor and preserver of the status quo which is in her eyes the only “sure thing.” The great spiritual challenge that Vezot HaBrakha gives us is to risk the known in order to step into the unknown. Moses is commanded to “Die,” even though “his eye was not dim nor his natural force abated.” In the stories about his death, Moses turns away every messenger that is sent to claim his soul. Only the Divine kiss can claim him.
Only the consummation of our soul’s desire can allow us to surrender the fortress we have built and defended for a lifetime.
“Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing. And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb. And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.” 7
Please see website for Guidelines for Practice http://www.rabbishefagold.com/vezot-habrakha/
1 Deuteronomy 33:1
2 Shir HaShirim 8:6
3 Shir HaShirim 8:7
4 Shir HaShirim 8:13
5 Deuteronomy 34:5-6
6 Deuteronomy 34:5
7 Khalil Gibran, The Prophet (1923)