BACK TO THE BEGINNING

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHA

 

PARASHAT VE-ZOT HA-BERAKHA

 

BACK TO THE BEGINNING

 

By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley

 

 

 

A.        INTRODUCTION – THE UNIQUE HOLINESS OF OUR PARASHA

 

With our parasha, Ve-zot Ha-berakha, we conclude our study of Sefer Devarim and the Torah.  The primary focus of the parasha is the blessings that Moshe gave to the various tribes before his death and the description of Moshe’s final day on earth. 

 

Traditionally, we read this parasha on Simchat Torah, and we immediately follow it with the first chapter of Sefer Bereishit.  The legendary Chassidic master R. Tzadok of Lublin notes that our parasha is never read as a regular Shabbat reading, but is only read as a Yom Tov reading.  He suggests a fascinating rationale for this.  Our parasha expresses Moshe’s personal initiative and desire to bestow blessing on the people.  Hashem did not command him to do so.  This parallels the different types of sanctity that each holy day possesses.  In Chassidic thought, the holiness of Shabbat comes "from above" - the initiative in providing sanctity comes from Hashem.  The holiness of Yom Tov, however, originates "from below" – it is through the actions of the Jewish people that the day gains it sanctity.  Similarly, Hashem dictated the other sections of the Torah – they came "from above."  Therefore, we read them as part of the weekly cycle, on Shabbat.  Parashat Ve-zot Ha-berakha reflects human initiative, and we therefore can not read it as a regular Shabbat reading.  It remains outside the weekly cycle of Torah readings.  It can only be read alongside the matching holiness of Yom Tov can we read it. 

 

B.        THE BEGINNING AND END OF THE BLESSING

 

A quick glance of Chapter 33, the blessings, reveals that we can divide the section into three parts: (a) the introduction (v. 1-5), (b) the blessings to the individual tribes (v. 6-25), and (c) the concluding remarks (v. 26-29).  By placing the introduction and conclusion side by side, we can see numerous similarities:

 

 

INTRODUCTION (v. 1-5)

CONCLUSION (v. 26-29)

1 And this is the blessing that Moses the man of God blessed the children of Israel before his death.

2 And he said: Hashem came from Sinai, and rose from Seir unto them; He shined forth from mount Paran, and He came from the myriads holy, at His right hand was a fiery law unto them.

3 Yea, He loves the peoples, all His holy ones - they are in Your hand; and they sit down at Your feet, receiving of Your words.

4 Moses commanded us a law, an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.

5 And there was a king in Jeshurun, when the heads of the people were gathered, all the tribes of Israel together.

26 There is none like God, O Jeshurun, who rides upon the heaven as Your protection, and in His majesty on the skies.

27 The eternal God is a dwelling-place, and underneath are the everlasting arms; and He thrusts out the enemy from before thee, and said: "Destroy."

28 And Israel dwells in safety, the fountain of Jacob alone, in a land of corn and wine; yea, his heavens drop down dew.

29 Happy art thou, O Israel, who is like you?  people saved by Hashem, your protecting shield, your  sword majestic! And your enemies shall dwindle away before you; and you shall tread upon their high places.

 

In the introduction, Moshe describes Hashem’s appearance before the Jewish people at Har Sinai, when he gave them the Torah.  (Verse 4, apparently spoken by the people in response to Moshe’s words, reflects their acknowledgment and acceptance of this fact).  The varying names of the Jewish people – Jeshurun, Jacob, people, and Israel – appear in both sections, strengthening the connection between the two.  In the Midrash, our sages note that Moshe’s blessings serve as a paradigm for all prayer:

 

And he said: Hashem came from Sinai, and rose from Seir unto them - Moshe Rabbeinu did not begin by listing the needs of the Jewish people, but instead began his words with praise of the Holy One… At the end, he returned and praised the Holy One at the end [of the blessings]. So King David did also… and Shlomo did also… Similarly, the Eighteen Blessings [of the Amida] that the prophets established that the Jewish people pray every day begin with the praise of the Holy One and end with the praise of the Holy One.  (Sifrei, Ve-zot Ha-berakha, 343)[1]

 

Comparing the opening and concluding verses of the blessing, we see that they revolve around one central theme – the relationship between Hashem and the Jewish people.  The introductory verses describe the relationship as mutual:  Hashem came towards the people at Sinai with love, and the Jewish people accepted Hashem’s kingship and commandments.  By contrast, the conclusion mentions only Hashem’s relationship with his people, revolving entirely around the secure settlement and dwelling in the Land of Israel.  The verses do not mention the nation’s relationship with Hashem.  However, when we look at the opening and closing verse of this section, we see the people’s involvement:

 

(26)  There is none like God, O Jeshurun, who rides upon the heaven as Your protection, and in His majesty on the skies.

(29) Happy art thou, O Israel, who is like you? a people saved by Hashem, your protecting shield, your  sword majestic! And your enemies shall dwindle away before you; and you shall tread upon their high places.

 

The parallels between the verses develop the following idea:  Both verses, directed towards the people, praise God.  In verse 26, the praise is directed to Hashem, while in verse 29, the praise is directed towards the Jewish people.  However, the second praise results precisely from the fact that the Jewish people are "a people saved by Hashem," whose majesty provides them with protection.   Praise of the people and praise of Hashem are equivalent.

 

To summarize, both the opening and closing verses praise God through his relationship with his people.  However, while the opening passage describes Hashem’s relationship with Israel through their acceptance of his Torah, the concluding verses focus on Hashem’s active protection of His people as they dwell securely in the land, although surrounded by enemies.  This duality reflects the dual nature of the covenant between Hashem and the Jewish people – a covenant based both on the acceptance of the commandments (Brit Sinai, long with its predecessor, Brit Mila), and based on the promise to house the Jewish people safely in the Land of Israel (Brit bein ha-betarim – the covenant between the pieces). 

 

C.        STARTING OVER

 

Upon re-reading verses 27-28, we note the following literary allusion.  While describing the expulsion of the enemy nations from the Land of Israel and the settlement of the people securely within it, the Torah uses the wording "va-yegaresh" ("He expelled") and "va-yishkon" ("[Israel] dwells").  These words appear together in the Torah in only one other place:  “He drove the man out (va-yegaresh et ha-adam) and He stationed (va-yashken) the angels east of the garden of Eden"  (Bereishit 3:24).  Clearly, through this allusion, the Torah wishes to associate the banishment of Adam Ha-Rishon from the Garden of Eden at the beginning of time with the settlement of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel at the Torah’s conclusion.  Clearly, the entry of Israel into its land serves to close the circle that was opened when Adam was expelled from the garden.  At the beginning of creation, Hashem intended to have mankind dwell in the earth’s choicest location, to live in a place where Hashem’s presence was so great that Hashem would "mithalech - stroll constantly" among them (Bereishit 3:8[2]).  With Adam’s disobedience, he was banished from the garden (and expulsion becomes the symbolic ultimate punishment in the Tanach).  However, Hashem never despaired of His dream.  Now, at the cusp of the entry of the Jewish people into the Land of Israel, the dream reawakens.  Israel replaces the Garden of Eden, and the Jewish people replace Adam Ha-Rishon.  However, the hope that the most worthy of the creation will reside in the earth’s finest location.

 

In the beginning of his commentary to the Torah, the Ramban makes this connection explicitly:

 

The Torah began with, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." and the entire story of creation through the creation of man, and stated that He granted man authority over His creatures… The Garden of Eden, the choicest of all of the places on the earth, became the place for him to dwell, until Adam’s sin drove him from there …

Therefore, it is warranted that when a people sins constantly, it is driven from its land and another people comes to inhabit the land, for this has been God’s law in running the world… How much more so with Canaan, destined for eternal slavery, and is not worthy of inhabiting the choicest among inhabitable lands.  Instead, the servants of Hashem, the offspring of His beloved, will inherit it, as it states, “He gave them the lands of nations, they inherited the wealth of people, that they might keep His laws and observe His teachings” (Tehillim 105:44).  He expelled from there those who rebelled against Him, and had his servants settle there, in order that they know that only through His service will they inherit it.  However, should they sin against Him, the land will expel them, just as it expelled those who preceded them …

 



[1] Dr. Benjamin Gesundheit has developed this parallel further, noting the thematic similarities between the beginning of Moshe’s blessing, the praise and acknowledgment of God’s holiness, with the themes at the beginning of the Amida.  Similarly, just as the end of the blessings here, Moshe aspires toward the safe dwelling of the Jewish people in their land, the final section of the Amida begins with Avoda, – the desire to see Hashem return to Zion so we can serve him. Further development of this theme could be found at his website www.tefillah.org. 

[2] See Vayikra 26:12, where the similar term is used to describe the ultimate reward awaiting the Jewish people should they prove faithful to the commandments. See Rashi ad loc.: "I will walk with you in the Garden of Eden as one of you, and you will not tremble at My presence."