Skip to content

Parashat V’Zot haBerachah 5777 — 10/22/2016

Parashat V’Zot haBerachah 5777 — 10/22/2016

Devarim 33:1-34:12

V’Zot haB’rachah is a short parashah, but it contains several interesting elements. One is a comparison of the blessings that Ya’acov gave his sons right before his death, and the blessings Moshe Rabbeinu gives the tribes just before his death. Another is the description of Moshe’s death and what it has to say about the nature of human beings.

In Ya’acov’s blessing of his son Levi he says:

Shimon and Levi are brothers, their weaponry is a stolen craft. … I will separate them within Jacob, and I will disperse them in Israel (Bereishit 49:5, 7)

By contrast, Moshe Rabbeinu does not even mention Shimon in his blessings. (Or perhaps, according to some commentators, Moshe subtly includes them in Yehudah’s blessing according to R. Steinsaltz.  Yehudah’s blessing is quite short and I don’t see where Shimon would fit in, but historically Shimon’s small population was in fact scattered throughout Yehudah’s territory, so maybe that is what he is referring to. See the Artscroll Stone Chumash commentary to 33:7 for a discussion.) But of the tribe of Levi, he expands considerably:

Your Tumim and Your Urim befit Your devout one, whom You tested at Massah, and whom You challenged at the waters of Merivah. The one who said of his father and mother, “I have not favored him”; his brothers he did not give recognition and his children he did not know; for they have observed Your Word and Your covenant they preserved. They shall teach Your ordinances to Jacob and Your Torah to Israel; they shall place incense before Your presence, and burnt offerings on Your Altar. Bless,O Hashem his resources and favor the work of his hands; smash the loins of his foes and his enemies that they not rise. (33:8-11)

Here is the background: Ya’akov was reacting to his sons’ slaughter of Shechem (see Bereishit Chapter 34), which bordered on illegality (nowadays the ICC would be all over it). Ya’akov recognized that there was a dangerous zealotry in both these sons and they had to be kept separate so that it would not cause further trouble. Therefore Ya’akov “sentences” them to be “scattered” among the rest of the nation.

The way this plays out, however, is quite different between the two tribes. After the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe calls on all those who were loyal to Hashem to execute those who actually worshiped the calf, and the tribe of Levi rallied to his call. They use their zealotry in a positive manner, to purify the nation from negative elements. The result is that they become the tribe that is dedicated to spiritual leadership of the nation. As such, they are not apportioned any land, but are given 48 cities to live in, “scattered” throughout the Land, so that their spiritual qualities can enliven all parts of the nation.

In the case of Shimon, on the other hand, we find his tribe taking the lead in the debauchery that took place at Shittim (and the end of parashat Balak). The prince whom Pinchas killed along with the Midianite woman was Zimri of the tribe of Shimon, and the census that took place after that incident indicated that most of the 24,000 who were killed as a result of it were from the tribe of Shimon. Obviously their zealotry was not channeled in an appropriate direction.

R. Steinsaltz concludes:

Similarly, our Sages say that every newborn infant already has, from the beginning of his existence, contours that determine his characteristics, his achievements, even the nature of his personal life, yet he nevertheless has the freedom to change all of these (Niddah 16b). This does not contradict what was preordained, but, rather, changes its meaning.

This last point is made in many ways. We are told Ayn mazal l’Yisrael – the stars do not rule over Israel. Certainly there are environmental and genetic influences that constrain our choices, but we always have some point where we choose our own path, especially our moral and spiritual path. We can’t alter the past, but we can sculpt the future out of the material the past gives us. Similarly, Shmuel the Prophet was reluctant to anoint David as King because he had red hair, which was taken to be a sign of bloodthirstiness. Gd told him not to worry, David would indeed be a warrior, but he would use his natural tendencies for the defense of Israel and not for evil purposes. We are told that we must love and serve Gd b’chol l’vavecha – with all our heart. The word for heart is generally lev, but here it is written with two letters vet. The Sages tell us this means we must serve Gd with both the good inclination (that’s easy!) and the evil inclination as well (that’s the tricky part!). How do we do this? If a person has a violent nature, let him become a ritual slaughterer and use that nature for a positive end. (Violent vegetarians have to figure out another path.)

We are told that All is in the hands of Heaven except the awe of Heaven. We all have to deal with our physical nature and our emotional makeup. The challenge of being human, the challenge that Moshe leaves for Israel, is to figure out what characteristics we have been given and how those characteristics may be put to use in Gd’s service.

The last 8 verses of Torah describe Moshe’s passing from this earth. R. Steinsaltz writes:

Nevertheless, since Moses dies alone, his death is, in many respects, a mystery. From Israel’s point of view, Moses does not die; he returns to his own plane of existence. Moses is described as “a fish that leaves the sea and walks on dry land” (see Zohar, Balak 187-188), meaning that although he walked and lived his life within our reality, he belongs and exists in a different world entirely. For this reason, Maimonides, who was a great admirer of Moses, writes in the introduction to his Commentary on the Mishna, “This was his death for us, since he was lost to us, but [it was] life for him, in that he was elevated to Him. As [our sages], peace be upon them, said, ‘Moses our Master did not die; rather, he ascended and is serving on high’ (Sotah 13b).” Moses dies only from the standpoint of his absence from the world, the world of human beings, but not in the sense of coming to an end.

Our tradition holds Moshe Rabbeinu to be the purest soul that we have ever had. His great purity meant that his connection to, or his attachment to his body was the least binding. Therefore his death was no more traumatic that someone slipping off his coat when he comes home.

In truth, each one of us has the potential to realize that our Self, our true Self, is infinite and eternal, and is just temporarily clothed in the physical body we inhabit. When we get to that point, we too can leave our body at the proper time, like pulling a hair out of milk. In truth, we are not dying, we are expanding out of the confines of our covering to our natural, infinite state, like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon. A Chasidic master once said that the process of living is learning how to die properly. I think this is what he meant – realizing that when we “die” we just leave this world of restrictions and go to our home in infinity. And then, like Torah, the cycle begins over again.

Chazak, chazak v’nitchazeik!

Haftarat Simchat Torah: Yehoshua 1:1-18 (Sephardim end with verse 9)

Parashat V’Zot haB’rachah is always read on Simchat Torah. The parashah ends with the death of Moshe Rabbeinu, and the Haftarah picks up with the very next verse – the first of the Book of Yehoshua. Of course, this is the only time in the cycle of Torah readings that this can happen!

I think that the theme of transition, from Moshe to Yehoshua, from the desert to the Land of Israel, from a kind of temporary, if miraculous existence to a more permanent, settled lifestyle, is particularly apt exactly at this point. Directly upon reading the last verse of the Torah (on Simchat Torah) we immediately cycle back and read the first verse. One of the purposes of this custom is to direct our attention to the fact that the Torah is one continuity, one indivisible whole, one eternal teaching, albeit with many different aspects when it is projected down to the human, material plane.

But there is another aspect to Torah – it is progressive. We see history as progressive – leading to the Messianic Age. Progress superimposed upon a cycle is a helix (spiral), which Watson and Crick showed us (based on the at the time largely unacknowledged work of Rosalind Franklin) is basic to the structure of life. Life certainly moves in cycles – the whole creation is a cycle of fall and redemption, movement away from Gd to greater individuation and then return and reintegration with Gd, but the result of each of these cycles is a greater and greater wholeness.


Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian


Sukkot is a harvest festival, a festival of gathering the apples and grapes of the field, and symbolically, the fruits of our good thoughts and actions, our innocent openness and gratitude to the source of our success in the material world and fulfillment in our thoughts, feelings, bodies and souls.

The essential symbolism of Succot is “Joy of Openness, Openness to Gd”:

We see this in the commandment of the sukka, in the tradition that our Heavenly Sages visit us, in the tradition that we welcome guests, in the tradition of the four species,  and in the Torah Reading, Exodus 33-34, for this Shabbat Chol Hamoed Sukkot 3 in which “Then the Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man would speak to his companion”.

Fragile sukkas open to the sky can allow us to experience the joy of the serene night sky and the deeper Joy of the Intelligence in which they exist, symbolically, the Joy of opening our awareness to Gd, no longer pushing Gd away so we can take care of what we feel are the necessities of daily living.

The tradition that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David visit the sukkahs symbolizes our openness to the particular attributes of Gd that each one represents: for example, according to The Zohar, Abraham represents love and kindness and David represents the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.

When love and kindness fill our hearts, we are open to human guests, everyone, people who do things we like, people who do things we would rather they not do, but love allows us to feel, to see, to experience, Gd within all.

Waving the four species in 6 directions, with a snapping sound, symbolizes Unity — not only the unity of all people, all religions, but the Unity That is Gd:

Arthur Waskow, in his book about our Festivals, “Seasons of Our Joy”, observes that one way to look at the Four Species is as a representation of the Havayah, the four-letter representation of Gd’s Unnamable Name. Mr. Waskow puts it this way: “The etrog looks like a yod; the soft and curving myrtle, like a hay; the tall and springy palm branch like a vav; the soft and curving willow like a hay. The bringing together of left and right hands unify the Name… Sukkot is the moment when Gd’s Name will become One for all who live on earth!”

And when Gd’s Name is One, we return to the One we Are. Teshuvah, dissolution of imbalances, and flowing Tzedakah, our Joy spreading everywhere to everyone, United!

Let it be so Today!

Baruch HaShem