Ve-zot Ha-berakhah – on elegy, on engagement, and on ending

We looked last time at the Song of Moses, and in this, the final section of the Torah, we have the blessing of Moses. Moses blesses the tribes of Israel like a patriarch would bless his children just prior to his death. It is notable that his actual children or nephews are not given blessings. The point, perhaps, is that the family that matters in the story is that of the Jewish people in its entirety. The poetic form of the Song of Moses is here, ending the narrative of the Torah with the beauty of form and language that helps mark its significance throughout the ages as an important literary text. The ending offered is bittersweet: Moses is about to die, but Israel is moving ahead in “safety” and “happiness.” This ending rings true, there is not a sweet and easy summation to the long and difficult road of the people, but they are prepared and ready to move ahead. In order to keep the positive and inspiring message at the narrative’s end, there is a reinforcement of the idea that Israel is superior to the other cultures around it. Moses says: 

O happy Israel! Who is like you, 

A people delivered by the Lord, 

Your protecting Shield, your Sword triumphant! 

Your enemies shall come cringing before you, 

And you shall tread on their backs (33.29) 

The Torah is meant to be the grounding of the Jews as a people throughout the generations. The writers know that hard times are coming. This passage suggests Jewish superiority and separation to and from others. It is also, in a sense, an early superhero myth, with the kind of strength of imagery and language that describe figures like Superman much later in Jewish literature. While we take issue with the idea of chosenness and superiority, the idea that the people are special, and protected, and living out a promise and a destiny that is pre-ordained, did give Jews solace and strength during centuries of exile. We look back on our story for being foundational to our people and appreciate its power on our ancestors through the chain of our predecessors, even as we know that the writing is not always true, and not always consistent with our contemporary values. 

Moses knows he is not to enter the land, but he can see it from atop Mount Nebo. This is a complex metaphor for the relationship between Israel the people, and Israel the land. We too sometimes feel that we are far from the reality of Israel that we desire. We have so much attachment, sometimes coming from our relationship with Torah (sometimes too much driven by a belief in its authenticity tying our people with the land), to “haaretz,” but we still have work to do in creating the kind of just state that Humanistic Jews imagine. Like Moses, we see the opportunity for some kind of reconciling of land and peoplehood, but we know we are not quite there yet. 

The parshah makes clear that Moses has transferred his position of leadership to Joshua, and that the people respect and follow him. This is a leader’s final act: securing a legacy and succession that leaves the people with a plan and with promise. Moses has taught us much of leadership, and thus it is fitting that the parshah, the book of Deuteronomy, the Torah as a whole end with a praise of his leadership qualities and influence.

Jews often refer to Moses as “Moshe Rabeinu,” Moses, our teacher. And in many ways Moses as a character and as a narrator for our central literary text, has taught us much along the way. One of the things the text teaches is that the text continues to reverberate and make meaning through the generations, because of the interpretations Jews throughout the ages have brought to it. One example is a lovely idea Rashi brings to the text. The parshah begins: “Moses blesses the people before his death” (33.1). Rashi, always arguing that redundancy is impossible in the text, asks why it says “before his death” because, obviously, he cannot bless the people after he dies. It seems unnecessary to include the phrase. Rashi reads the text in light of the Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, in which we have the famous phrase from Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Rashi comments on Deuteronomy 33.1, that Moses blesses the people before his death, “if not now, when?” thus tying together the Torah and later textual traditions. Rashi is reminding us, through Moses, that we all have a finite amount of time to accomplish what we set out to accomplish. Moses must bless the people now, for this is his last opportunity. What would we do or say if we knew we were in our final moments? The text challenges us to live as though life is short. It reminds us, ultimately, that humanity is in the hands of humanity. Moses is praised as a member of the people, because of the importance of the people, and his leadership shows us that we have the power to transform ourselves and each other. The Torah is a challenge to find the traditions and stories that lend meaning to our lives and help us renew our commitment to our peoplehood, our community, our Jewish identity, and our desire to see a better world. Moses embodies that challenge. At the end of the Torah it is clear that it is not just Joshua, but rather all of us, who must step forward to replace him as the one who defines the destiny of the people.

It has been a wonderful project to try to reflect on the Torah – that weighty and fraught text made up of many texts. Humanistic Jews approach Torah as literature, part of a canon of Jewish literature that tells us something about our heritage, culture, and common symbolism and language. Of course, this collection is only one of many possible Humanistic commentaries. There is much more to say. We must be open to the richness of the canon of Torah and its commentary. We must also be open to the other texts that enrich Jewish life. Next steps, or suggested further reading, of texts we could and should interpret Humanistically are the rest of the books of Tanakh (the prophet and writings sections), as well as Mishnah, Talmud, commentaries from Nachmanides, Rambam, Sforno, etc. We too need more Ginsberg, Bialik, folk tale, oral storytelling texts. We need Mendelsohn and Buber, Amichai and Rilke. We need Saul Bellow, Cynthia Ozick, Anita Yezirerska, and Leonard Cohen. All of these writers are part of the Jewish canon, but none are so foundational and well-known as Torah. 

Dividing this commentary by the weekly parshot puts Humanistic Jews into connection with the communities around the world reading these texts each week at the same time. This common reading time, if not interpretation, is something no other Jewish text enjoys. The Torah and the people are in many ways strangers, and in many ways inextricable. This is part of what the weekly commentaries uncover. I love the study of literature. Nothing else can open up new worlds, expose bias and perspective, challenge with contradiction, and offer unlimited imaginative possibilities. Any text is always both being and becoming – like the Jews and their communities. This commentary focuses on the issues of its writing, but also and much more importantly – of its reading. The humanistic lessons we bring to the text, and we draw from it, can offer renewed meanings for our selves, our lives, and the text itself. As we dialogue with the commentators of the past and present, we situate ourselves in some of the most debated Jewish conversations. Through this process, we better find our own Jewish voice, and also our own Jewish claim to tradition. Humanistic Jews pride ourselves on saying what we mean and meaning what we say. How wonderful to be able to do this in interpreting the central text of Jewish literature, history, and culture.