The Blessing, the King, and the Torah of Moshe

  • Rav Chanoch Waxman
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


This parasha series is dedicated
in memory of Michael Jotkowitz, z"l.

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PARASHAT HA'AZINU 

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Please include in your tefillot:

 

Zecharia Shlomo ben Miriam Baumel - Kidnapped 11/06/82

Tzvi ben Penina Feldman - Kidnapped 11/06/82

Yekutiel Yehuda Nachman ben Sarah Katz - Kidnapped 11/06/82

Ron (Roon) ben Batya Arad - Kidnapped 16/10/86

Guy ben Rina Chever - Missing In Action since 17/08/97

Gilad ben Aviva Shalit - Kidnapped 25/06/06

Eldad ben Tova Regev - Kidnapped 12/07/06

Ehud Ben Malka Goldvasser - Kidnapped 12/07/06

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Please say tehillim for YHE alumnus Amit Schwartz,
Amit Yehuda ben Malka.
Please say tehillim for Taube Yehudit bat Tema Gesha.

Ve-Yishlach lahem meheira refuah sheleimah min ha-shamayim be-tokh she'ar cholei Yisrael.

 

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The Blessing, the King and the Torah of Moshe

 

Rav Chanoch Waxman

 

 

 

I

            Near the end of Parashat Ve-zot Ha-berakha, upon completing his blessing to each and every individual tribe, Moshe turns to the community as a whole. Addressing the nation by the poetic name Yeshurun, he utters the last words he will ever speak to the Children of Israel. He speaks the last words of Moshe recorded in the Torah.

 

O’ Yeshurun there is none like God,

Riding through the heavens to help you (be-ezrekha)

Through the skies in His majesty (u-bega’avato)

The ancient God is a refuge above,

A support underneath are the arms everlasting

And He shall drive out the enemy (oyev) before you

And shall say, Destroy!

 

Then Israel (Yisrael) shall dwell in safety alone

The fountain of Yaakov,

In a land of grain and wine,

Also the heavens shall drip down dew.

 

O’ Happy Israel (Yisrael)! Who is like you?

A people saved by the Lord,

The shield of your help (ezrekha), your sword majestic (ga’avatekha)

And your enemies (oyevekha) shall submit before you,

And you shall tread upon their high places.

                                                                                                            (33:26-29)

 

As indicated by the arrangement into poetic form and stanzas in the citation above, Moshe’s blessing is spoken in poetic style. It can be divided into three segments (33:26-27, 33:28, 33:29), each beginning by addressing or speaking of Yisrael, or its poetic variation of Yeshurun (33:26, 28, 29).

            Thematically, Moshe’s final prophetic blessing speaks of God’s military prowess in both its opening and closing segments. In the opening of the blessing, in a play on the term for chariot (merkava), God is depicted as riding (rokhev) through the heavens (33:26) to drive out the enemies of Israel before them (33:27) (see Tehillim 68:1-5). God pronounces destruction upon the enemies of Israel, and the deed is done. Similarly, but in slight contrast, the closing segment of the blessing celebrates and/or prophesies the impending destruction of Israel’s enemies. God is the shield and sword of Israel (33:29). He “saves” Israel and helps them to subdue their enemies and “tread upon their high places” (33:29).

            This thematic parallelism is highlighted by a crucial literary device. Both the opening and closing segments of the final blessing include the terms “help (ezra),” “majesty (ga’ava)” and “enemy (oyev),” or some variation thereof, in this particular a-b-c sequence. God rides through the heavens to “help” Israel, blazing across the skies in his “majesty” to drive out the “enemies” of Israel (33:26-27). Likewise in the closing “celebratory” segment, God is the shield that “helps,” the “majestic” sword, Who causes Israel’s “enemies” to submit (33:29).

            In point of fact, the a-b-c parallelism between the opening segment and the closing segment serves as more than just a literary means of emphasizing the theme of God’s military might and dedication to the defeat of Israel’s enemies. In addition, it creates a frame around the middle paragraph, and should draw our attention back to the center, the textual heart of Moshe’s final blessing. To return to the text:

 

Then Israel (Yisrael) shall dwell in safety alone

The fountain of Yaakov,

In a land of grain and wine,

Also the heavens shall drip down dew.

                                                                                                            (33:28)

 

Picking up on the reference to God as a “refuge above” and a “support underneath” in the opening paragraph (33:27), the middle segment of the blessing opens by declaring that God guarantees the security and safety of Israel. Israel “dwells alone,” undisturbed by outside forces or enemy agents (see Bamidbar 23:9). God’s might also protects. But there is more to it than this. The middle segment of the poem ends by declaring that Israel/Yaakov will be located in a land of “grain and wine,” dripping with the “dew of the heavens.” God’s might also provides.

            This conjunction of terms and images, of  “Yaakov/Yisrael,” “grain,” “wine,” “dew,” and “heavens” should remind us of a similar passage found in Sefer Bereishit, a passage reporting the first blessing received by Yaakov/Yisrael. In blessing his son, Yitzchak declares the following:

 

And God should give you

Of the dew of the heavens and the fatness of the land,

Abundace of grain and wine…

                                                                                                Bereishit 27:28

 

Moshe deliberately echoes the blessing of Yitchak given to Yaakov/Yisrael. Dew of the heavens, grain and wine abound (33:28). This of course should not surprise us. The provision forecast by Moshe and provided by God is not something new. Rather, it constitutes the accomplishment of the promise, the covenantal blessing, granted to the forefathers in general and the progenitor Ya’akov/Yisrael in particular. As such Moshe echoes the language of that first blessing received by Yaakov/Yisrael.

            Moreover, as pointed out by both the Ibn Ezra and the Ramban (33:1), Moshe’s prophetic blessing of the twelve tribes at the end of his life (Devarim 33:1-24) constitutes an echo, or perhaps a reenactment or continuation, of Yaakov’s prophetic blessing of the twelve tribes at the end of his life (Bereishit 49:1-28). In point of fact, numerous linguistic parallels exist between the two sets of blessing (see Bereishit 49:22-26 and Devarim 33:13-17). Again, by no surprise, at the center of his final words, in his general blessing of the descendants of Yaakov/Yisrael, at the moment of recreation or continuity, Moshe draws on the first blessing received by the individual Yaakov/Yisrael in trust for his descendants.

            Yet something should surprise us. A closer look should make us realize that Moshe seems to omit a key term. In his blessing to Yaakov/Yisrael, in between his references to the “dew of the heavens” and an abundance of “grain and wine,” Yitzchak wishes Yaakov/Yisrael the “fatness of the land.” In glaring contrast, despite deliberately echoing Yitzchak’s words to Yaakov/Yisrael – and mentioning “dew,” “heavens,” “grain” and “wine” – Moshe omits any mention of the “fatness of the land.” To be more precise, Moshe indeed blesses Israel with “a land of grain and wine” (33:28). The fifth key term of Yitzchak’s blessing, the term “land” is present in Moshe’s blessing. Only the sixth term, the “fatness” of the said land is absent. While this may seem a minor point, a difference of a single word, the contrast requires explanation. After all, Moshe’s words blessing Israel with the land, with God’s provision and sustenance, are modeled after the very first blessing received by Yaakov/Yisrael. If so, why does Moshe omit the term?

            This question in turn raises a larger issue. As mentioned above and assumed throughout our analysis until this point, the passage under discussion constitutes the final part of Moshe’s blessing, the last words of Moshe. They are the means by which Moshe ends his part of Sefer Devarim, his career, his teaching of the people, and the means by which he seals his Torah. As such, we may duly wonder not just at Moshe’s particular choice of words, but also as to his choice of topic and overall purpose. Indeed, God’s power, protection and provision for Israel, or to use an alternative formulation, the future realization of God’s promise to the forefathers of successful nationhood in the land under divine Providence, certainly constitute suitable topics with which to seal the Torah. Nevertheless, this is not the whole story. What about Moshe himself? What constitutes the connection to Moshe’s career and his agenda in Sefer Devarim? If we may dare to ask, in what way do these words constitute a unique and suitable finish to Torat Moshe, the Torah of Moshe?

 

II

            Let us begin by turning our attention back to the beginning of Moshe’s final words. As mentioned above, Moshe begins by addressing the people with a poetic variation of the name Yisrael, the term Yeshurun. As cited earlier, the exact sentence reads as follows:

 

O’ Yeshurun there is none like God.

                                                                                                            (33:25)

 

Moshe declares God’s uniqueness. While admittedly part of the genre of poetic and prophetic blessing, Moshe’s declaration also constitutes a theological statement. God is unique, and by implication, He is the only real God. Again, by implication, it is God alone Who is the God of Israel. In other words, Moshe’s opening sentence stands in conceptual parallel to another time Moshe addresses Israel, the famed declaration of Shema Yisrael, Hear O’ Israel the Lord is our God, the Lord alone (6:4) (see Rashbam, Ibn Ezra 6:4).

            In this light, Moshe’s declaration, the first line of the final segment (33:25-29) of Moshe’s larger blessing of Israel (33:1-29), also stands in parallel to the other time Moshe utilizes the name Yeshurun in his larger blessing, the closing line of the opening segment of the blessing (33:1-5). Right before delineating the individual blessing of each and every tribe (33:6-24), in what most probably constitutes a reference to the events at Sinai (Ramban 33:5), Moshe mentions the kingship of God over Yeshurun.

 

And He was King in Yeshurun

When the heads of the people assembled

The tribes of Israel together 

                                                                                                      (33:5)

 

In other words, Moshe’s individual blessings to the respective tribes (33:6-24) are framed by the name Yeshurun and parallel declarations reminding Israel of God’s uniqueness, i.e absolute divinity, and kingship over Israel.

            All this stands in marked contrast to the third and only other time the name Yeshurun appears in the Torah. Shirat Ha’azinu, the Song of Ha’azinu just spoken by Moshe (32:1-43), already contains the name Yeshurun. Comparing the people to a recalcitrant and rebellious animal, Shirat Ha’azinu depicts Yeshurun as “kicking” (32:15). In elaboration, the song states the following:

 

Then he forsook God who made him

And spurned the rock of his salvation

They provoked Him to jealousy with strange gods

With abominations they brought Him to anger

They sacrificed to demons, no-gods

Gods they had never known

To new gods who came newly up

Whom your fathers feared not

You neglected the rock that begot you

Forgot the God that brought you forth.

                                                                                                            (32:15-18)

 

The contrast could not be clearer. Yeshurun “forsakes,” “spurns,” “neglects” and “forgets” God (32:15, 18). In His stead, the people turn to “strange gods,” “abominations,” “demons,” “no-gods,” gods they have never know, and even the newest contemporary gods (32:16-17). God is not unique, God’s divinity is not absolute and God is not the unchallenged King of Yeshurun.

            To put this together, comparing the appearances and contexts of the name Yeshurun in Shirat Ha’azinu (32:1-43) and in Ve-zot Ha-Berakha, the Blessing of Moshe that follows upon its heels (33:1-29), yields something like the following. Whereas the Song of Ha’azinu depicts a state in which Yeshurun, i.e. Israel, fails to recognize the uniqueness, supremacy and kingship of God and in consequence turns to various idols, the Blessing of Moshe depicts the opposite state: Yeshurun, i.e. Israel, recognizes the uniqueness and supremacy of God. God is King (33:5), and God alone constitutes the supreme and only divinity (33:25). From a certain perspective, the Blessing of Moshe constitutes an anti-Ha’azinu.

            Turning from the theology and religious state described by the two prophecies to the political and military state described by the two poems strengthens this interpretation. As stressed earlier, the first and third stanzas (33:26-27, 33:29) of the final segment of Moshe’s blessing (33:26-29) both emphasize God’s military might and prowess on Israel’s behalf. God drives Israel’s “enemies” from in front of them (33:27) and causes Israel’s “enemies” to submit (33:29). In consequence, the central stanza of the final segment (33:28) portrays Israel as “dwelling alone,” in “safety,” in their “land,” i.e. undisturbed and untroubled by their enemies.

            But this of course constitutes the polar opposite of the picture painted by Shirat Ha’azinu. Like the Blessing of Moshe, the Song of Ha’azinu twice refers to the “enemies” of Israel (32:26, 42). But in contrast, rather than the enemies vanquished by God, these are the enemies unleashed upon Israel by God (32:21). Israel does not dwell undisturbed, in plenty, safety and security, “alone” in their land. Rather, the land is “consumed” (32:22). Israel is pursued (32:30), wild animals rampage (32:24) and the people are hounded by “the sword without and terror within” (32:25). To put it mildly, the Song of Ha’azinu speaks of a disturbed, troubled, unsafe, and insecure situation. Once again, the Song of Ha’azinu and the Blessing of Moshe present opposite visions. Once again the Blessing of Moshe reverses a key motif of Shirat Ha’azinu and constitutes an anti-Ha’azinu.

 

III

             These two points of contrast between the Song of Ha’azinu and the Blessing of Moshe, the religious and military state of the nation, stand in particular causal relation one to the other. As Shirat Ha’azinu makes abundantly clear, it is exactly the deterioration of the people’s belief, their abandonment of God and subsequent worship of idols, that leads to God’s anger and His unleashing of Israel’s enemies upon them (32:19-21). By implication, the opposite is true of the Blessing of Moshe. It is precisely the recognition of God as King, of God as the supreme and only divinity that leads to the success of Israel against their enemies, to dwelling “safely,” “alone” in their land.

            To take this a step further, the causal relation sketched by Shirat Ha’azinu, between abandoning God and idol worship on the one hand, and suffering at the hands of one’s enemies on the other, possesses a certain history. As emphasized in our analysis of Parashat Ha’azinu, the process of forgetting God begins in a very particular fashion. The “kicking,” the rebellion and idol worship of Yeshurun, results from what Shirat Ha’azinu, terms the “fatness,” the satiation and satisfaction of Israel. In the words of the song:

 

But Yeshurun grew fat and kicked

You are grown fat, you are thick with fat, you are covered with fat.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                (32:15)

 

As phrased in analyzing the Song of Ha’azinu, the process predicted by the song constitutes a three part process of satiation, idol worship and consequent suffering. By implication, negating the process predicted by Shirat Ha’azinu involves negating the very first stage, the satiation, the “fatness” of Yeshurun.

            This brings us back to the Blessing of Moshe and full circle to the Moshe’s choice of particular words, his echo of the first blessing given Yaakov/Yisrael and his glaring omission of the sixth marker of Yitzchak’s blessing, the “fatness” of the land (Bereishit 27:28). By now this should no longer surprise us. Admittedly, as mentioned above, the final segment of the blessing of Moshe, as well as the entire blessing in general, constitutes an echo, reenactment or recreation of the blessings given by Yaakov/Yisrael before his death. By no surprise, the language parallels the first blessing received by Yaakov/Yisrael. Just like Yitzchak, Moshe refers to “grain,” “wine,” “land,” and the “dew” of the “heavens” (33:28).

            But the Blessing of Moshe also possesses another aspect, a second dimension. It also constitutes a negation of Shirat Ha’azinu, the opposite of its idolatrous and despairing vision. As such it also negates the causal history of the satiation-idol worship-suffering process that lies at the heart of the Song of Ha’azinu. Whereas Shirat Ha’azinu, in a play on the motif of rich fare and animal fat that leads to the swelling of Yeshurun, refers to grain as “the fat of kidneys of wheat” (32:14), the Blessing of Moshe blesses Yeshurun with no more than “grain” (33:28). Whereas Shirat Ha’azinu, in the very same line, in a continuation of the rich and carnivorous motif, refers to wine as “foaming grape blood,” the parallel line in the Blessing of Moshe wishes Yeshurun no more than “wine” (33:28). And most importantly, whereas Shirat Ha’azinu, dwells extensively upon the “fatness” of Yeshurun, describing Israel as so satiated as to have “grown fat,” as “covered with fat” and “grown thick with fat” (32:15), the Blessing of Moshe omits any mention of the term or concept. Part of negating the vision of Shirat Ha’azinu, of speaking an anti-Ha’azinu, involves negating the primary cause and start of the satiation-idol worship-suffering process that lies at the heart of the song. Just as the Blessing of Moshe defines an alternative vision of recognition of God’s kingship, success against Israel’s enemies and security in the land, so too it omits any mention, wish, or blessing that remotely resembles the “fatness” of Ha’azinu and the start of the satiation-idol worship-suffering process. As such, the Blessing of Moshe differs from the Blessing of Yitzchak.  

 

IV

            Reading the Blessing of Moshe as the opposite of the Song of Ha’azinu, raises an interesting challenge. While the Song of Ha’azinu presents a vision of the future where the Children of Israel stray after the foreign gods of the land upon entering the land and suffer in consequence, the Blessing of Moshe presents a contrasting vision, in which the Children of Israel, cognizant of God’s divine rulership, enter the land, vanquish their enemies and dwell securely therein. But this very conflict requires some explanation. After all, both visions are prophetic and both are contained in the Torah. How can they conflict? Or to put this more analytically, given the prophetic context of both the song and the blessing, the very concept of opposition seems problematic. The nature of the “anti” in the term “anti-Ha’azinu” requires some elaboration. In other words, what constitutes the relationship between these two prophetic and yet conflicting visions of the future?

            Quite possibly, we may be tempted to suggest a historical answer to the problem. We may claim that the two prophecies, that of Shirat Ha’azinu and that of the Blessing of Moshe, refer to different historical periods. As such, the Torah contains both the Song of Ha’azinu, the dismal prophetic vision of satiation, idol worship and suffering, as well as the Blessing of Moshe, the optimistic vision of recognition of God’s kingship and Israel’s dwelling securely upon their land. In point of fact, while the Song and the Blessing do offer different visions of the future, they do not really contrast, conflict or stand in a relation of opposition. Rather they speak of different futures, different time periods in history and different historical events.

            Alternatively, as argued above and telegraphed by the choice of terms such as “negation,” “opposite” and “anti,” we may wish not to sidestep the tension, or even contradiction, between the Song of Ha’azinu and the Blessing of Moshe. Rather, we should look for a resolution to our problem in the different origins of the Song and the Blessing.

            As we should remember, the vision of Shirat Ha’azinu originates in a divine command. God summons Moshe to the Tent of Meeting (32:14), informs him that the Children of Israel will stray after the foreign gods of the land upon entering the land (32:16), and commands him to write and teach the Song of Ha’azinu (32:19). The vision of Ha’azinu originates with God. In contrast, the Blessing of Moshe does not originate with God. Shortly after reporting Moshe’s speaking of “this song” (32:44), in a deliberate echo, the Torah turns to “this blessing,” that “Moshe blessed” (33:1). The blessing known as “this blessing” is not the song known as “this song.” It is uniquely Moshe’s, unprompted by divine command. It is “his” blessing, “his” vision and “his” alternative to the Song of Ha’azinu. In point of fact, the very issues of satiation and forgetfulness, some of the central motifs of contrast between the Song of Ha’azinu and the Blessing of Moshe constitute major themes of Moshe’s discourse in Sefer Devarim.

            Let us consider one particular example. The latter part of Devarim 8:1-18, a lengthy “memory” passage urging the Children of Israel to remember God, the desert journey, God’s provision for them on their desert journey, and the commandments upon entering the land, reads as follows:

 

Beware lest you forget the Lord your God…lest when you have eaten and are satiated, and have built good homes and dwell in them. And when your herds and flocks multiply, and your silver and gold are multiplied, and all that you have has multiplied. And your hearts will be lifted up and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness…                           (8:11-14)

 

The process of satiation and forgetfulness, of forgetting the redemption from Egypt and God’s providential care on the desert journey, culminates in the ultimate declaration of human ego.

 

And you shall say in your heart: My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth                                     (8:17)

 

In place of this process of satiation, forgetfulness, arrogance and self-worship, Moshe offers an alternative. He demands memory, memory of God’s Providence and recognition of God as the true power.

 

But you shall remember the Lord your God: for it is He that gives you power…                                                                        (8:18)

 

In other words, the negation of satiation and forgetfulness, and the teaching of memory and the recognition of God’s power in their stead, comprise a central part of Moshe’s teaching.

            To put this together, the Blessing of Moshe constitutes Moshe’s reaction to the Song of Ha’azinu. While the Song of Ha’azinu forecasts the “forgetting” of God (32:18) in the face of the “fatness,” the material plenty of the land (32:14-15), the Blessing of Moshe offers an alternative paradigm and vision. Despite inhabiting a land of “grain and wine,” of the “dew of the heavens” (33:28), Israel can remember that “there is none like God” (33:26). Despite the temptation to become satiated, forget and slide into idol worship, another possibility exists. Moshe blesses Israel with memory, with consciousness of God as King, of God as their power and provider. Moshe offers an alternative to the dismal paradigm of the Song, to the dismal process of satiation, idol worship and suffering.

 

V

            To close the circle, we seem to have arrived at a metaphysical impasse. On the one hand, in the Song of Ha’azinu God declares His vision of the future. It is the depressing picture of satiation, idol worship and suffering. On the other hand, in the Blessing of Moshe, Moshe counters with his alternative and optimistic vision, an optimistic world of consciousness of God’s kingship, His power and His Providence. Yeshurun knows God and dwells securely in its land. But can Moshe truly teach other than what God has already spoken? If God already “knows” what will occur after Moshe’s death and has instructed Moshe to “teach” it, does this not mean that the story of Ha’azinu constitutes the only real possibility? How can Moshe suggest otherwise? How can he present the possibility of his blessing?

            Needless to say this constitutes a false dilemma. In Biblical theology, God’s foreknowledge does not negate human freewill. Despite the prophetic nature of Shirat Ha’azinu, the choice still rests with Israel, with the people themselves. They can choose forgetfulness, they can choose the slippery slope of satiation and the dismal world of the Song of Ha’azinu. Or they can choose otherwise, they can choose consciousness of God, His kingship, His power and the Blessing of Moshe. 

            But this is not really the point. Rather, the truly dramatic point is about the narrative flow of the end of Devarim and the character of Moshe. Confronted with the imminent end of his career and life, God informs Moshe that it has all been for naught. After his death, the people will stray after the gods of the land, they will abandon God and suffer horribly (32:16-17). His teaching has failed, they will forget and his last divinely commanded mission is to inform the people of such (32:19-20). While Moshe faithfully carries out God’s command and teaches the people Shirat Ha’azinu (32:44), he is not deterred nor does he desist from his teaching and his Torah. One last time he rises before them to speak. Ever the “man of God” (33:1) and “servant of the Lord” (34:5), he reminds the people that things can be otherwise. They can remember, they need not forget. He presents an alternative vision, a vision of consciousness of God’s kingship, power and Providence, a vision of blessedness in which Israel dwells secure in its land. He seals his Torah, the teaching of Moshe, with his own personal vision and stamp.

 

 

Further Study

 

1)      See 33:1 and the Rashbam’s comment. Now see 31:30 and read 32:44-52. a) Is the Rashbam’s comment the “simple” interpretation of the text? b) Reconsider the Rashbam’s comment in light of the central idea of the shiur above.

2)      Read 33:1-5. a) See Rashi 33:2 s.v. va-yomer, mi-Sinai, ve-zarach, Ibn Ezra 33:1 and Ibn Ezra Bereishit 49:1. Formulate the different theories of Rashi and the Ibn Ezra as to the nature of the beracha. b) See Rashi 33:3 s.v. ve-heim, yisa, and Ibn Ezra 33:2-5. Try to formulate a unified reading of 33:1-5 for both Rashi and the Ibn Ezra. Note at least three differences. c) See Ramban 33:2-3 and 33:5. Compare and contrast the Ramban to both Rashi and the Ibn Ezra.

3)      Scan 33:1-29. Now Reread 33:13-17 and see Bereishit 49:22-26. Now see Ibn Ezra and Ramban 33:1. a) Reread 33:28 and see Bamidbar 23:7-10, 21-24 and 24:5-9. Note the connections between the blessing of Moshe and the “blessing” of Bilam. c) Now compare Bamidbar 23:7-10, 21-24 and 24:5-9 to Bereishit 49:2, 7, 9, 24, 27. Try to formulate the connection between the blessings of Yaakov, Bilam and Moshe. d) Now see Bereishit 49:1, Bamidbar 23:10 and Devarim 31:29 & 32:20. Try to formulate the relationship between the prophecies of Yaakov and Bilam on the one hand and Shirat Ha’azinu on the other. Try to integrate the Yaakov/Bilam blessing aspect of Moshe’s blessing and the anti-Ha’azinu aspect of Moshe’s blessing.

4)      Read 33:6-9. What is missing? Now see Bereishit 49:7. See Rashi 33:7 s.v. ve-eizer, Ibn Ezra and Ramban 33:6. Formulate at least three different theories to explain the omission.