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, http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/if-not-now-when/ 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.”