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The Torah that Moses commanded us in an inheritance of the Congregation of Jacob (33:4).
With these words, Moses opens up the final blessings he gave to each of the tribes and to the Israelite nation as a whole.
Rashi implies that the Torah is not an inheritance as such, but one has to 'grasp it' - become involved with learning it and observing it.
However, the meaning of the word morasha - translated as 'heritage' is understood more literally by S'forno. He writes that the Torah is ours in the sense that it has been bequeathed to ourselves, and to our children. Taking this idea further, the Torah is our essence and we cannot actually leave it because in doing so we leave our very selves. We see this often today with, for example, Israeli politicians who call them secular, but frequently and with obvious pride quote from their favorite passages in Isaiah and Ezekiel - texts which embody the deepest expressions of Torah values. The Torah is part of them… The Ramban goes further, explaining the word kehilla (congregation) to include those who are 'congregated into' the Torah nation - namely converts. Once a person converts, the Torah becomes part of his inheritance that stays with him for all time.
This more literal explanation of morasha by the S'forno appears to contradict the words of R. Yosi in the Talmud, where he urges, 'apply yourself to Torah study because it is not yours by inheritance'. (Ethics of the Fathers 2:11)
In seeking an answer to this question, there appear to be two different ways in relating to the Torah. Both are necessary and each complements the other. They are:
1. The Ambience of the Torah.
2. The Learning of the Torah.
On Simchat Torah (falling on the same day as Shemini Atzeret in Israel), we rejoice in both aspects of the Torah, as explained in this paragraph. In Temple times, after having offered seventy bulls to promote the welfare of the seventy nations of the world (Talmud: Sukkah 55b) during Sukkot, we offer only one bull on this last day. The Talmud (Sukkah 55a) explains that this is akin to G-d saying to the Israelites, "make a small banquet for me so that I can enjoy your company… Your leaving is hard for me." This represents the ambience of the Torah. In addition, the Rabbis went further by combining this festival of pure joy with the completion and new beginning of the annual cycle for the weekly Torah reading. This symbolizes the learning of the Torah.
There are many ways to experience the ambience of the Torah. For example, the various authentically Jewish nigunim: melodies which when sung properly touch parts in the soul of a Jewish person. Yom Kippur may be a strenuous time, but few of us leave shul without our heads being full of the tunes that brought out the profound and positive thoughts of that day. Similarly, the festivities of the Shalosh Regalim (including Shemini Atzeret) - the three festivals where the Israelites from all over traveled to the place where the Shechina - Divine Presence - was at its strongest: the Temple. On Sukkot, events included the Simchat Beth Hasho-eva - the festivities of water drawing, concerning which the Talmud (Sukkah 51a) states that whoever did not witness it had never seen real rejoicing in his life. Today the latter is reflected in the happy celebrations bearing the same name held in many sukkot which include festivities meals combined with Divrei Torah, nigunnim and dancing. These are all ways in which even the unlearned can experience the ambience of the Torah. And the soul of the Jew which stood at Mount Sinai or joined the Torah nation though conversion including full acceptance of the Torah, has received as in inheritance the necessary spiritual sensitivities to experience and benefit from the Shechina in forms similar to the above.
However, this is not the entire Torah framework. The Torah is the Divinely ordained system - that of the Creation - and its observance maximizes our part in positively forwarding the process of Creation. Our place within the Torah discipline requires us to observe commandments, including those reasons we cannot easily understand or make sense of. Only as our understanding deepens, after many years of genuine, authentic Torah study, do we come to the truer appreciation of the Torah as a whole, and we begin to see where previously inexplicable things fit in to the giant system of the Creation.
That is not achieved by merely 'tasting' the Torah, enjoying its ambience. It is the product of many years of Torah study and Torah observance. These are the things to which R. Yosi refers to in saying that the Torah is not an inheritance - and to which Rashi alludes to when he writes of having to 'grasp' hold' of the Torah. But underlying all of that is the ambience of the Torah alluded to by the Sforno. The neshama - soul of the Israelite - has been endowed with the necessary spiritual sensitivity to fully benefit from the specifically Jewish spiritually uplifting experiences, and Torah study.
Since Rabbinic times we have emphasized both aspects of the Torah inheritance on Simchat Torah. The festive meals, and the singing and dancing with the Sifrei Torah bring out the ambience of the Torah - the readily available Torah. And in addition our ending and re-starting the annual weekly Torah reading cycle highlights the eternity and continuity of the need for Torah study.
QUESTIONS ON THE TEXT AND COMMENTARIES ON PARASHAT VEZOT-HABERACHA
1. What are the three outstanding merits of the Israelites that Moses refers to in the opening words of his final blessings to them, according to the Ramban?
2. Why, according to (a) Rashi and (b) the S'forno, did the tribe of Reuben need the specific blessing of 'Let Reuben live and not die'? (33:6)
3. Why was the Tribe of Simeon the only tribe not to receive a blessing from Moses, according to (a) Ibn Ezra and (b) the Ramban?
4. The tribe of Levi is described as the tribe '…whose children he did not know… for they observed Your Word' (33:9). To what incident does this refer, according to Rashi?
5. Why is Zebulun blessed before Issachar, even though he was born after him (Gen. 30:18,20)?
6. What is the meaning of Moses' blessing to all the tribes that 'Israel would live alone' (33:28), according to Rashi?
7. 'Happy are you, O Israel! Who is like you?' (33:29) What is the meaning of that whole final blessing that Moses gave to the Israelites, according to Hirsch?
8. Moses is described as a 'servant of G-d' at his death only (34:5). What is the meaning of that title, according to Rabbeinu Bachya?
9. What is the special force of the strong hand and awesome power 'that Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel?' (34:12) - according to Rashi?
ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS ON THE TEXT AND COMMENTARIES ON PARASHAT VEZOT-HABERACHA
1. The three outstanding merits of the Israelites that Moses refers to in the opening words of his final blessings to them are (i) G-d sets His Presence amongst them, (ii) They alone accepted His Code - His Torah, and (iii) They accept His universal sovereignty.
2. According to Rashi, the tribe of Reuben needed this special blessing to counteract Jacob's having castigated Reuben himself for becoming inappropriately involved in his marital arrangements (Gen. 25:22, 49:4) after Rachel's death. The S'forno relates this to what he understands as a shortcoming of the actual tribe of Reuben - namely that it was too interested in forgoing a share of the Holy Land in favor of the pasture land of the east bank of the Jordan (Num. 32:5).
3. According to Ibn Ezra, that tribe did not receive a blessing because Jacob has viewed Simeon's conduct over the massacre of the people of Shechem with great disfavor (Gen. 34:30; see also 49:6-7); and also because of that tribe's connection with Baal Peor (Num. 25:14). The Ramban holds that (following Gen. 49:7) as the population of the tribe of Simeon was dispersed amongst other tribes, they would receive the blessings of the respective tribes amongst whom they settled.
4. This verse, following Rashi, refers to the Levites' having been the only tribe to respond to Moses' call to bring to justice those responsible for the sin of the Golden Calf, even though it might involve close family members (see Ex. 35:22-29).
5. Zebulun was blessed before Issachar, even though he was born after him, following the tradition that his 'going out' (33:18) refers to his being involved in commerce, and Issachar's 'in … tents' (ibid) denotes his devotion to Torah study and teaching (c.f. Chronicles I 12:32). Although Issachar was older, Zebulun was blessed first as it was he that made Issachar's activities possible through his financing them.
6. Moses' blessing to all the tribes that 'Israel would live alone' means that they would live peacefully 'alone' in individual tribes, and not have to band together and live in large groups for fear of invasion (c.f. Kings I 5:5).
7. According to Hirsch, that final verse refers to the uniqueness of Israel. For G-d gave it eminence that other nations only achieve though war and the sword.
8. According to Rabbeinu Bachya, Moses' being called a 'servant of G-d' at his death alludes to Moses himself going to a higher status. As a servant allowed into the master's inner chamber, Moses entered the 'inner chamber' of G-d as he went into the Afterlife.
9. The word 'asher' in the last verse can be related to 'ashrei' - meaning homiletically that G-d ratified Moses decision to smash the Tablets at Mount Sinai 'before the eyes of all Israel', as having been the right one to make in the circumstances.
ADDITIONAL QUESTION ON PARASHAT VEZOT HABERACHA
How could Moses be so close to G-d that he could know Him 'face to face'? (34:11) For elsewhere, G-d explicitly said to Moses, 'You cannot see My face. For no man may see me and live' (Ex. 33:20).
My attempts to answer the above may be found on the Shema Yisrael website under Vezot Haberacha 5763.
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Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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