Vayeira: Open my eyes

And the water in the skin was spent and she cast the child under one of the shrubs…and she sat down opposite and she lifted up her voice and wept…and God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water…(Bereishit 21:15-19)

She cast him down beneath the shrub
gazed long upon his shuttered face;
the vein pulsating at his throat
was mirrored by her throbbing heart.

Her eyes brimmed over bitter tears
his face became a swirling pool,
blinking hard she turned away
and lo! the pool became a well.

Her desperation washed away
as rivulets of silver rain
dispel the desert dust;
the dullness of the barren hills
was sown in hopeful hues.

Hagar perceived the well of water which was quite near her but which she had overlooked in her anguish. God performed a miracle not by creating a well, but by opening her eyes to see the life-sustaining resource that was at hand. The Soncino commentary cites the Rambam who notes that the words employed here for opening her eyes, “Vayifkach Elohim et eineha“, are exclusively used in the figurative sense of receiving a new source of knowledge, and not in that of regaining the sense of sight.
Rabbi Binyamin is quoted in Bereishit Rabbah 53, “All are like the blind until God opens (me’ir) their eyes.” The word Rabbi Binyamin uses, also, for opening the eyes, is in the sense of enlightenment.
The Ba’al Chidushei HaRim* taught that we learn from Hagar who suddenly saw what had eluded her previously, that everything a person requires is already there for him, he only needs to be blessed that God will open his eyes to see. And this, he says, was King David’s prayer, “Open my eyes that I may see…” (Psalms 119:18). The Soncino commentary on Psalms observes that the word King David uses requesting God to open his eyes, “Gal ein’ai” means ‘unveil,’ literally, ‘roll away’ whatever obscures discernment.

In Dr Rachel Naomi Remen’s book Kitchen Table Wisdom, there is a chapter entitled “Finding New Eyes”, in which she describes a former patient, Josh, a gifted cancer surgeon, who seeks help because of depression. She describes him as highly disillusioned and cynical, and that he is contemplating early retirement. He seems to be burned out after seeing the same diseases over and over again, and hearing the same complaints on a daily basis. He says to her “I just don’t care any more. I need a new life.” Dr Remen cites Marcel Proust**, who said that the voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new vistas but in having new eyes. She suggests to Josh that he adopts a practice every evening, of reviewing the day’s events and noting in a journal the answers to three questions: What surprised me today? What moved or touched me today? What inspired me today? She wants him to see his world from a new perspective.
Josh is doubtful but agrees. At first, the practice frustrates him – he doesn’t manage to notice anything new and tells her, “The answer is always: ‘Nothing. Nothing and nothing.'” But he is intrigued, for he is someone accustomed to succeeding and asks Dr Remen for a hint. She tells him that perhaps he is still fixed in his old way of looking at his life, and suggests that he might look at the people around him and seek the stories, as a novelist, journalist or poet might.
He doesn’t mention the journal for several weeks although she detects an improvement in his mood during their sessions.
Six weeks later he brings in a little bound book and starts to tell her about the process. It had been hard for him at first. He couldn’t fathom how he was so busy and yet his life was so empty. However, slowly he had begun to find some answers to the three questions. He begins to read her some of the entries in his journal. At first they concern medical issues such as the effects of treatment, but gradually he begins to see things in a more profound way. Dr Remen says she was deeply moved by what he described: “Eventually he saw people who had found their way through great pain and darkness by following a thread of love,… people who had found ways to triumph over pain, suffering and even death.”
Josh recounts how, once he starts to see things differently, it changes him also. He begins to engage his patients on a different level, caring as much about their human struggle as about their medical one. He tells her, “I knew cancer very well, but I did not know people before.”
Dr Remen relates how people start to respond to him in a very different way, and for the first time they begin to thank him and bring him gifts. She says, “He reached into his pocket and brought out a beautiful stethoscope engraved with his name. “A patient gave me this,” he said, obviously moved. I smiled at him. “And what do you do with that, Josh?” I asked him. He looked at me, puzzled, for a moment and then he laughed out loud. “I listen to hearts, Rachel,” he said. “I listen to hearts.”
She concludes, “Most of us lead far more meaningful lives than we know. Often finding meaning is not about doing things differently; it is about seeing familiar things in new ways…We can see life in many ways: with the eye, with the mind, with the intuition. But perhaps it is only by those who speak the language of meaning, who have remembered how to see with the heart, that life is ever deeply known or served.”

*Rabbi Yitchak Meir Alter (1799 – 1866) the first Gerer Rebbe.
**Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust (1871 – 1922) was a French novelist, critic, and essayist best known for his monumental novel À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time; earlier translated as Remembrance of Things Past), published in seven parts between 1913 and 1927. He is considered by many to be one of the greatest authors of all time.


Lech Lecha: The Open Tent

Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, all the wealth they had amassed, and the souls they had made in Charan, and they set out for the land of Canaan…(Bereishit 12:5)

Their tent is open to all four winds,
no judgment dims the welcome of their smiles:
he with thoughtful air and kindly face
she with busy hands and knowing eyes
stepping forward to embrace the passers-by.

Food is lovingly prepared,
guests are nourished and replete:
the conversation turns to God.
Animated arguments resound,
yet all are gathered in,
finding shelter beneath the Shechina’s wings.

In a commentary on next week’s Parasha, Vayera, Rabbi Aryeh Cohen ponders the secret of the righteousness that God Himself attributes to Abraham, “For I have embraced him [Abraham] so that he will charge his sons and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord to do righteousness and justice, that the Lord may bring upon Abraham all that He spoke concerning him.”
Rabbi Cohen suggests that the key to Abraham and Sarah’s righteousness is evidenced in the beginning of Parashat Vayera, when the three angels appear and Abraham (who was recuperating from his circumcision) runs towards them and entreats them to come in and rest, bathe their feet and eat and drink in the shade. He then hurries to Sarah and enlists her help in preparing the food for the guests (Bereishit 18: 1-8).
Rabbi Cohen notes that Abraham, who had been talking to God, looks up and notices three people coming. He says,
“He [Abraham] did not know them, nor did he know that they were angels on a Divine mission. However, as was his wont, he approached them from a stance of subservience. We would not expect Abraham to challenge the strangers in the manner of Western rangers guarding their lands, but we might expect him to inquire after them. “Who are you?” “What do you want?” (The angel thus inquired of Hagar in last week’s portion [Lech Lecha].) However, Abraham does not do this at all. He runs to greet them and bows low to them as if they were angels or God. He speaks to them as if they are Divine. Abraham’s behavior makes the strong statement that strangers have a claim on us. It is not ours to question them, but to respond to their need, their vulnerabilities.”
He continues, “Abraham sees wanderers and from the vantage point of his tent he recognizes that they are in need of food and water and so his first action is to respond to their need. He places himself at their service. Abraham then recruits Sarah to his response team (by this time, God is forgotten in a corner somewhere). Sarah…immediately and unquestioningly joins in creating a humane response to the travelers. Sarah prepares the bread as Abraham prepares the meat.”
Rabbi Cohen concludes that “engagement with another person has to start as a response to their needs. “My lord/my Lord, if I have found favor in your eyes, please do not go on past your servant.” Abraham recognized that every other person is just like God in that they are beyond our complete grasp and that therefore the only moral action we do is to respond to their need.”

In the book, Torah of the Mothers: Contemporary Jewish Women Read Classical Jewish Texts edited by Ora Wiskind Elper and Susan Handelman, Tamara Goshen-Gottstein contributes a chapter entitled The Souls That They Made: Physical Infertility and Spiritual Fecundity. She addresses the different models of infertility among the Matriarchs. She says, “Entering the tent of Sarah, we meet a completely different paradigm of infertility. Abraham and Sarah are a couple, in deep spiritual partnership, bringing masses of people to the knowledge and praise of their Creator and sustainer…” Goshen-Gottstein notes that when we first meet Sarah, the Torah says, “Sarai is barren, she has no child (Bereishit 11:30). She observes that since no word in the Torah is superfluous, saying that she is barren and also that she has no child, elicits a range of interpretations. However, she continues that the next mention of Sarah is when she and Abraham embark on their journey of faith to the place that God will show him. The Torah tells us that as they set out, “Abram took his wife …and the souls they had made in Charan, and they set out for the land of Canaan…(Bereishit 12:5). So Goshen-Gottstein asks, “If they were infertile, then who were these souls?” She cites the Midrash in Bereishit Rabbah 39:14 in which Rabbi Elazar says in the name of R’ Jose ben Zimra that if all the nations assembled to create one insect, they could not endow it with life, yet here the phrase is “and the souls that they made”! This, he says, refers to the proselytes [whom they had made]. He comments that then it should say, “that they converted,” not “that they made” and this teaches that he who brings someone close to God, it is as though he created him. The question then arises why the text says, “that they made” as opposed to ” that he [Abraham] made” and Rabbi Hunia deduces that Abraham converted the men and Sarah the women.
The Talmud (Sotah 10b) describes Abraham bringing people closer to God by offering them hospitality. In Bereishit 21:33 we read, “Abraham planted a tamarisk at Beersheba”. The word for tamarisk is “eshel” which has been described as an acronym for achila-shetiyah-linah meaning eating-drinking-lodging – in short, hospitality. When the guests wanted to thank Abraham for the food and drink, he told them that these had come from God, and it was to Him they should offer their blessings.
As of Sarah, Goshen-Gottstein notes that although she had not given birth, the Midrash portrays her as an “immensely generative woman”. She says, “Their open tent, receiving, teaching, nourishing guests does not seem to give her much time to experience the distress of her barrenness.” She notes that it is Abraham who is troubled, despite God’s promises to grant him descendants. So Sarah matter-of-factly offers her concubine to Abraham in order to be “built up through her [Hagar]”.
Goshen- Gottstein looks at the concept of the “open tent” in two spheres. She says, “I am compelled to focus on the open tent because of real needs that beg to be met. As family structures weaken, many children are in need. There is a haunting chasm. On one side is a growing number of children in distress: children neglected through poverty, orphaned by war and AIDS, abandoned because of handicaps, or simply unwanted – urgently needing love and care. On the other side of this chasm are a multitude of infertile couples and singles desperate to have children. Why is this chasm so vast and deep? How much is ordained by God and how much is due to our desperate fixation on biological progeny? Would the chasm be bridged by profound shifts in our attitude?” She talks also about “spiritual parenting” in which young people might be nurtured in certain aspects of their lives by others than their birth parents. She describes how she herself both benefited from this herself as a teenager, and later bestowed it on another young woman.
And then Goshen-Gottstein addresses another aspect. She cites Rabbi Moses Cordovero*, the great Kabbalist in his work Tomer Devorah – The Palm Tree of Deborah, in which he describes the spiritual work in the world in which humankind should be engaged. He says that “Just as God provides [for all] from the horned buffalo to the lice eggs, despising no creature…man too should be good to all creatures, despising none. Even the smallest of small creatures should be very important in his eyes and he should be concerned about it. He should be good to all who need his goodness.” Goshen-Gottstein suggests “To most of us, this is a tall order: to live our lives open and aware, caring for all in need who cross our path, creature or human, allowing no judgment to limit our flow of support.” But, she continues, ” Although most of us are unable to open all four sides of our tent, many of us could open one flap.”

*Rabbi Moses ben Jacob Cordovero (1522–1570), was a central figure in the historical development of Kabbalah, leader of a mystical school in 16th-century Safed, Israel. He is known by the acronym the RaMaK.
His birthplace is unknown, but the name Cordovero indicates that his family originated in Córdoba, Spain and perhaps fled from there during the expulsion of 1492 during the Spanish Inquisition. His Hebrew signature, however, [Cordoeiro] strongly suggests a long-lasting residence in Portugal.
The RaMaK was either born in, or moved to Safed, the city that was soon to become famed as a center of Kabbalah and mystical creativity. Albeit not involved in mystical studies until his twentieth year, RaMaK soon after gained a reputation of an extraordinary genius and a prolific writer. Besides his knowledge in Kabbalah, he was a Talmudic scholar and a man of commanding mastery in Jewish philosophical thought who was respected in these fields.
According to his own testimony in the introduction to “Pardes Rimonim“, in 1542, at the age of twenty, RaMaK heard a “Heavenly voice” urging him to study Kabbalah with his brother-in-law, Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, composer of the mystical song Lecha Dodi. He was thus initiated into the mysteries of the Zohar. The young RaMaK not only mastered the text, but decided to organize the Kabbalistic themes leading to his day and present them in an organized fashion. This led to the composition of his first book, Pardes Rimonim (“Orchard of Pomegranates”), which was completed in 1548 and secured his reputation as a brilliant Kabbalist and a lucid thinker. The Pardes, as it is known, was a systemization of all Kabbalistic thought up to that time and featured the author’s attempt at a reconciliation of various early schools with the conceptual teachings of the Zohar in order to demonstrate an essential unity and self-consistent philosophical basis of Kabbalah.
His second work – a magnum opus titled Ohr Yakar (“Precious Light”) – was a 16 volume commentary on the Zoharic literature in its entirety and a work to which RaMaK had devoted most of his life (the modern publication of this momumental work started during the mid 1960s and reached partial fruition in 2004 in Jerusalem, though the 23-volume set left out about two-thirds of the Tikkunei Zohar; additional volumes are still being published).
Some other books for which the RaMaK is known include Tomer Devorah in which he utilizes the Kabbalistic concepts of the Sephirot (“Divine attributes”) to illuminate a system of morals and ethics and Sefer Gerushin, a short and intimate composition which features the highly devotional slant of RaMaK, as well as his asceticism and religious piety. Certain parts of his works are still in form of manuscripts, whereas his existing writings suggest many other compositions which he either intended to write or had actually written – but were lost.
Around 1550, the RaMaK founded a Kabbalah academy in Safed, Israel, which he led for twenty or so years, until his death. He was survived by a wife whose name remains unknown (it is known that she was Solomon Alkabetz’ sister) and by a son named Gedaliah (1562–1625). Gedaliah was the impetus behind the publication of some of his father’s books in Venice, Italy circa 1584-7. Gedaliah was buried in Jerusalem, where he had spent most of his adult life after returning from Venice.

Noah: Creation rewound

Darkness and chaos:
sepia shadows flit over the void.
Dazzling light rays glow and recede
night becomes day, and day yields to night.
Waters divide, ascending in clouds,
swelling the seas.
Tinges of color burst into brightness:
creation proliferates.
Humanity scatters over the earth
forging community, building a world.

Society crumbles, vice stalks the earth:
a solitary man fashions an ark.
Vivid hues fade, washed by the rain,
creation is flooded.
Clouds overflow: torrents pour down
and seas erupt skywards.
Storm brings eclipse: daylight dissolves and
surrenders to night.
Darkness and chaos:
sepia shadows flit over the void.

But the man in the ark sails on
borne to a new beginning.

In his book, Understanding Genesis The Heritage of Biblical Israel, Nahum M Sarna* notes that, “…the Deluge is directly connected with Creation. It is, in fact, the exact reversal of it. The two halves of the primordial waters of chaos which God separated as a primary stage in the creative process, were in danger of reuniting. To the Bible, the Flood is a cosmic catastrophe.” Sarna contrasts the biblical portrayal with the Mesopotamian versions of the Flood story. In the latter, the motivation for the Flood is ambiguous at best and seems to have little or no moral implications. In the Bible, however, there is no doubt about God’s motivations. Noah is chosen because of his righteousness, not some caprice or partiality on God’s part. In contrast to the Mesopotamian stories, the Bible makes repeated references to man’s wickedness: “The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness…”(Bereishit 6:11) and to God’s decision which He imparts to Noah, “to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.” (Bereishit 6:131)
Sarna continues, “Now this kind of universalistic terminology, and this concept of the Flood as a returning to primeval chaos, has profound moral implications. For it means that in biblical theology human wickedness, the inhumanity of man to man, undermines the very foundations of society. The pillars upon which rest the permanence of all earthly relationships, totter and collapse, bringing ruin and disaster to mankind.
“This idea is one of the dominant themes of Scripture and runs like a thread of scarlet throughout its literature. The Psalmist, in excoriating the perversion of justice in the law courts, makes use of the same motif. He denounces the exploitation by the wicked of the poor and the fatherless, the afflicted and the destitute. Through such deeds, he says, “all the foundations of the earth are shaken.””
Sarna points out that the God of the Bible is not a remote deity – having created the world, He does not leave it to its own devices. He is very much concerned with the world and its inhabitants’ welfare, particularly in the socio-moral domain.

*Professor Nahum Mattathias Sarna (1923 – 2005) was a modern Biblical scholar who is best known for the study of Genesis and Exodus represented in his Understanding Genesis (1966) and in his contributions to the first two volumes of the JPS Torah Commentary (1989/91). He was also part of the translation team for the Ketuvim section of the Jewish Publication Society’s translation of the Bible, known as New Jewish Publication Society of America Version.

Bereishit: Yuval

And the name of his brother was Yuval [Jubal]; he was the ancestor of all who play the lyre and the pipe. (Bereishit 4:21).

Did you idly blow through hollow canes
and hear the soft sweet sounds?

Did you reconstruct the bubbling
of crystal springs from underground;
the dulcet calls of courting birds
that warbled back and forth?

Did you wander past primeval trees
your fingers flying, eyes aglow,
footsteps drumming steady beats
upon the forest floor?

Did the notes bespeak a passion
that stirred your listeners’ souls;
a wordless ode to beauty
that ferried them to hallowed heights,

and were they haunted by the silence
when the music died away?

Oliver Sacks (1933 – 2015) the neurologist and author was widely known for writing best-selling case histories about his patients’ disorders. In 2007, he published a book entitled Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain in which he expounded the view that responsiveness to music is intrinsic to the human makeup. He said “Music is part of being human.”
And indeed we read early on in Parashat Bereishit that by the eighth generation after Adam and Eve, music-making enters the lives of these people who are beginning to populate the world, and are tent-dwellers, herders and metal-workers. Among them is Yuval, the father of music.
Knowledge of music-making in the biblical period is mostly from literary references in the Bible and post-biblical sources. Religion and music historian Herbert Lockyer, Jr. writes that “music, both vocal and instrumental, was well cultivated among the Hebrews, the New Testament Christians, and the Christian church through the centuries.” He adds that “a look at the Old Testament reveals how God’s ancient people were devoted to the study and practice of music, which holds a unique place in the historical and prophetic books, as well as the Psalter.”
The music of religious ritual was first used by King David, and, according to the Larousse Encyclopedia of Music, he is credited with confirming the men of the Tribe of Levi as the “custodians of the music of the divine service.” Historian Irene Hesk notes that of the twenty-four books of the Old Testament, the 150 Psalms in the Book of Psalms ascribed to King David, have served as “the bedrock of Judeo-Christian hymnology,” concluding that “no other poetry has been set to music more often in Western civilization.”
The study of ancient musical instruments has been based on archaeological findings (including figurines and iconographic depictions found in the area dating back to the biblical era) and early writings, which have demonstrated clearly that music was an integral part of daily life then. It appears that both wind and string instruments, as well as drums were in use. The human voice also played a part as evidenced by love songs and laments for the deceased.
Theodore Burgh, historian of ancient music surmises that the biblical period encompassed a culture in which music permeated daily life. He says “Such music was capable of expressing a great variety of moods and feelings or the broadly marked antitheses of joy and sorrow, hope and fear, faith and doubt. In fact, every shade and quality of sentiment are found in the wealth of songs and psalms and in the diverse melodies of the people.”
(From Wikipedia

The history of religious Jewish music spans the evolution of cantorial, synagogal, and Temple melodies since Biblical times.
The earliest synagogal music of which we have any account was based on the system used in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Mishnah gives several accounts of Temple music. According to the Mishnah, the regular Temple orchestra consisted of twelve instruments, and a choir of twelve male singers. The instruments included the lyre (kinnor),  harp (nevel),  ram’s horn (shofar),  trumpet (chatsotsrah) and three varieties of pipe, (chalil, alamoth and the ugav). (Kinnor and ugav were the instruments attributed to the biblical Yuval.) The Temple orchestra also included a cymbal (tziltzal) made of copper. The Talmud also mentions use in the Temple of a pipe organ (magrepha), and states that the water organ was not used in the Temple as its sounds were too distracting. No provable examples of the music played at the Temple have survived.
(From Wikipedia

In more recent times, a different form of Jewish music emerged from the Chassidic movement that swept Eastern Europe in the 18th century, in addition to the distinctive chazzanuth (cantorial music) and folk songs already existing there. The Jews in Poland and Ukraine produced an original type of song which seems to have no parallel. It is described as Chassidic song, because it was created out of the spirit of Chassidism in which piety supercedes learning and the expression of joy is deemed a religious duty. As Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught, “The most direct route from our material world to devotion to God, is through playing music and singing.” (Rabbi Nachman’s Teachings 273). He advised “Accustom yourself to sing a melody. It will give you new life and fill you with joy.” (Rabbi Nachman’s Collection of Counsel: Patience).

Another form of Jewish music is Klezmer music (Klezmer means “vessels of song”) which is a musical tradition of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe. Played by professional musicians called klezmorim, the genre originally consisted largely of dance tunes and instrumental display pieces for weddings and other celebrations. Klezmer is easily identifiable by its characteristic expressive melodies, reminiscent of the human voice, complete with laughing and weeping. This is not a coincidence; the style is meant to imitate cantorial and paraliturgical singing. The Romanian influence is, perhaps, the strongest and most enduring of the musical styles that influenced traditional klezmer musicians. Klezmer musicians heard and adapted traditional Romanian music, which is reflected in the dance forms found throughout surviving klezmer music repertoire. Although as mentioned above, music was an integral part of the Temple service, after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, many Rabbis discouraged musical instruments. However, the importance of merrymaking at weddings was not diminished, and the musicians who emerged to fill that niche were the klezmorim. The earliest written record of the klezmorim is in the 15th century.
(From Wikipedia

Here is a recording of a klezmer melody played by Giora Feidman, an Israeli klezmer clarinetist, who was born in 1936 in Argentina, where his Bessarabian Jewish parents immigrated to escape persecution. Feidman comes from a family of klezmer musicians. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather made music for weddings, bar mitzvahs, and holiday celebrations in the shtetls of Eastern Europe.

Vezot haberachah: The final blessing

This is the blessing with which Moses the man of God blessed the children of Israel before his death. (Devarim 33:1).
His eyes are focused, his mind
still sharp, his vigor unabated;
yet he knows that death approaches.
This is the time to speak his truth
to voice his unfeigned blessings
for if not now, then when?
And what of us, who do not know
when death will strike
but that it must?
Shall we risk the sudden exit, or
await the ebb of strength
before we bless the ones we love?

Rashi comments on the seemingly superfluous phrase “before his death.” (How could it have been afterwards?) Quoting the Sifrei, he says “ “before” means close to his death, for if not now, when?” Rashi is pointing out the urgency of Moses’s blessing: Moses knows that his death is imminent and so this is his final chance to bless these people to whom he has ministered for forty years. Rashi is giving a powerful reminder that since, unlike Moses, no-one knows the day of death, blessing loved ones should not be postponed.

In the Midrash P’tirat Moshe – the Midrash of the Death of Moses, Moses says “All my life, I have scolded this people. At the end of my life, let me leave them with a blessing.”

In a commentary on Vezot Haberachah, Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger says, “Now, if we stopped right here with Rashi’s midrash, we’d have a powerful reminder that words between intimates cannot be postponed indefinitely, for no one knows the day of his or her death. If you want to bless your loved ones, or say anything else of significance, do so now, for you might not have the warning that Moses received that his days were soon ending. This is solid wisdom, often repeated, and still true for the repeating.”
Rabbi Loevinger believes, however, that Rashi is hinting at something else as well. Rabbi Loevinger notes that the phrase, “If not now, when?” would have been familiar to Rashi as it was coined by Hillel the Elder and appears in Pirkei Avot (1:14). (Rashi lived between 1040 – 1105 while Hillel lived around 110 BCE – 10 CE.) The entire maxim reads, “If I am not for myself, who is for me? If I am for myself [only], what am I? And if not now, when?” So Rabbi Loevinger continues, “Now Rashi’s midrash takes on a different meaning, for it hints that Moses’s blessing of the tribes was prompted by a whole philosophy of life, not just the urgency of imminent death. Moses could have said nice things to everybody and died basking in the adoration of the people — but “what am I” if I don’t speak the truth, even if it’s not pleasant?” Rabbi Loevinger notes that Moses’s blessing for the tribe of Reuben — that they “live and not die” is rather unenthusiastic – and indeed, the Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS notes that having once been a strong tribe as would have befitted that of the first born son, it later became a tribe of marginal importance. He observes further that Moses says, “When Moses charged us with the teaching…” (Devarim 33:4) he seems to be emphasizing his own place in the transmission of God’s Torah. Rabbi Loevinger sees this in the light of the first part of Hillel’s aphorism, “If I am not for myself, who is for me?” He comments, “Even though he was called a very humble man, he had every right to remind the people of what he actually did. Perhaps this gave his blessings more legitimacy and his words greater power.”
So Rabbi Loevinger suggests that by correlating Moses’s final words with Hillel’s aphorism, Rashi seems to be offering an interpretation of the entire chapter, not only of this one verse. He says, “According to this reading, Moses spoke out of a sense of urgency, a sense of truthfulness, and a legitimate desire for recognition of his real contributions. Thus, Moses’ final blessing also becomes his final moment of teaching us by the example of his life, a life dedicated to ideals, actions, and truth. That’s what makes him Moshe Rabbenu [“Moses our teacher”], not just Moses the leader.”