Vezot Haberachah: Re-reading the words

Moses charged us with the Torah as the heritage of the congregation of Jacob. (Devarim 33:4)

Meticulous, mindful, the scribe writes the words
that haven’t been altered in thousands of years

yet each year they change as we read them once more
for we have transformed in the year that has passed.

If once we believed that we grasped what they say
today we might see that they speak to us otherwise.

Parashat Vezot HaBerachah, the last parasha of the Torah, actually has no Shabbat of its own: it contains two chapters that we read on Simchat Torah. We thus complete the yearlong Torah cycle and seamlessly start to read again from the first parasha of the Torah – Bereishit. In a commentary from 2000,, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch notes that one of the verses from VeZot HaBerachah, “Moses charged us with the Torah as the heritage of the congregation of Jacob” (Devarim 33:4) was chosen by the Talmudic sages to be the first verse of Torah that parents teach their young children. Rabbi Schorsch says “Long before our children start their formal education, we are obliged to give them a sense of place. As Jews, our lives are shaped by Torah. The triad of God, Torah and the people Israel is an inseparable and indestructible unity. The compression of the verse has a creedal force that will take a lifetime to unpack (B.T. Sukkah, 42a).”
“The ritual statement of this unity is the festival of Simhat Torah. There is to be no interruption in our public reading of Torah, because it is the link that joins God and Israel. Torah is the medium through which Jews experience the reality of God as well as express it. Torah is the form and content, language and substance of our religious being. Its centrality in the synagogue service merely reflects its seminal role as the infinitely expanding curriculum of daily study.”
Rabbi Schorsch continues that the pathway to this ever-expanding study of Torah is pointed to in the Shema, the cornerstone prayer that we recite morning and night: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day.” (Devarim 6:5-6).” Rebi, who compiled the Mishnah, teaches that the second verse is advising us how to fulfill the first. By constant, assiduous study of Torah we “take to heart” these instructions, and thus understand more and wish to cleave to God more closely. Rabbi Schorsch notes “The specificity of Torah helps to concretize our inarticulate love (Sifre, ed. by Finkelstein p. 59).”
Rabbi Schorsch continues, mentioning a further rabbinic comment on the clarification that the Shema offers us, which notes the present tense of the verb, “which I charge you this day.” He says “That immediacy suggests that, “we are not to regard the Torah as an old statute to which no one pays attention any more, but rather like a new one that everyone is eager to read (Sifre, p. 59).” Each time we take up the Torah should be like the first, full of novelty and discovery.”
Rabbi Schorsch suggests that the each reading of the Torah might reveal something new to us, only if we allow “our growth and maturation” since the last encounter, to unmask something that we were unready to detect before. He says “The lens through which we look at Torah is always being modified by experience. The great German philosopher Hegel stated this deep truth in a striking way: “The absolute idea may be compared to the old man, who utters the same religious doctrines as the child, but for whom they signify his entire life. The child in contrast may understand the religious content. But all of life and the whole world still exist outside it.” Thus the creed with which we began, “Moses charged us with the Torah…” contains the same words for toddler and grandparent alike, yet the meaning they carry for each could not be more different.”
Rabbi Schorsch recounts an encounter between Franz Kafka* and a small girl, which illustrates this phenomenon: On his last visit to Berlin before his premature death from tuberculosis, Franz Kafka encountered a small girl in a park where he often walked. She was crying inconsolably. She had lost her doll and was desolate. Kafka offered to help her look for the doll and arranged to meet her the next day at the same spot. He could not find the doll, but he composed a letter from the doll which he read to the little girl at their next meeting. In it, the doll purportedly told the child that she was not lost but had gone on a trip, and would return. In the meantime, she was sending letters with anecdotes of her adventures. On each subsequent day, the two met, and Kafka read another letter to the little girl. On his final day in Berlin, Kafka came to meet the child one last time, and brought with him a doll which he lovingly gave to the child. However, the doll did not look at all like the one she had lost, and the little girl said so. Kafka reassured her that it was her doll, telling her that her travels and experiences had simply changed the way she looked.
Rabbi Schorsch concludes, “For millennia Jews have pored over the same sacred canon. But history has recorded its effects in their understanding of its words. Alongside the Written Torah of Moses, unfolded and accumulated the Oral Torah of Israel, befitting the settings and sensibilities, the dilemmas and disputes of generations of Jewish interpreters, who coupled ingenuity with reverence and freedom with fidelity. As experience proliferated layers upon layers of meaning, the underlying sacred text remained immutable, effectively yielding a canon without closure, ever open to new readings. The concept of a dual Torah spawned a discourse over the ages that embraces both continuity and change.
“Thus Simhat Torah, which is the latest of the traditional Jewish holidays (not found in either the Tanakh or the Talmud), celebrates a religious culture founded on the plasticity of the written word. The Torah we are about to begin anew is not exactly the one we have just finished, because in the intervening year we ourselves have changed.”

In an interview on the Days of Awe, from On Being, aired in 2010, Krista Tippet interviews Rabbi Sharon Brous. Rabbi Brous also addresses the need to discover the newness and relevance as the Torah is studied each time. She notes that rabbinic tradition holds that the Torah was transmitted in fire, and in fire it has to be handed down from generation to generation. Rabbi Brous considers the analogy of fire to allude to the need to find something to warm and illuminate, something more than “just the memory of something that once touched our great-great-grandparents…” She searches continually for what it means to her, and adds “…not only does it mean something different to me than it meant to my grandparents, it means something different to me this year than it meant to me last year.” She concludes “And that…[is] the great power of a religious tradition. It’s versatile enough to really sustain itself over the course of many thousands of years, to say…the text is the same every year, but we are different. There is something newborn every time that I encounter this text or this holiday or this piece of liturgy.”

*Franz Kafka (1883 – 1924) was a German-language writer of novels and short stories who is widely regarded as one of the major figures of 20th-century literature.

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.”

Vezot HaBerachah: Dancing with the letters

Wooden rollers wind the parchment back:
black fire etched on white;
an open book about to be revealed.
And while the scroll is furled
back to that first word, we pause
between the end and the beginning.
And in that lull, a silent call –
to dance with the letters
as with a bride, rejoicing
in the blessing which flourishes anew.

After we complete the annual reading of the entire Torah on Simchat Torah, we immediately begin the cycle again by reading the beginning of Bereishit. In his book, Orchard of Delights: The Ohr Chadash Torah Commentary, Rabbi Avraham Arieh Trugman describes the “spiritual no-man’s land, suspended somewhere between the end and the beginning” in which we find ourselves, while the Torah scroll is being rewound (or a second scroll is being readied). He says that the Midrash teaches that the letters of Torah are like black fire engraved on parchment that is analogous to white fire (Yalkut Shimoni, Yitro 280). Rabbi Trugman suggests that to understand even a fraction of the wisdom encoded in the black fire takes a lifetime, while the wisdom in the white fire is at present beyond human comprehension. He adds, “On Simchat Torah we do not emphasize studying Torah. Instead we dance on the white fire as if all is an open book waiting to be revealed.”
In the book, Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings from around the Maggid’s Table (Vol. 2) by Rabbi Arthur Green and others*, a teaching is brought by the Tiferet Uziel** on the verse, “Moses commanded Torah to us, an inheritance of the community of Israel.(Devarim 33:4). The Tiferet Uziel says in the name of his teacher R’ Dov Baer that the sages read the word “morashah” – inheritance as “me’orasah” – betrothed (Pesachim 49b). Rabbi Green quotes the Tiferet Uziel: “We can understand this by a worldly analogy: the king has a beautiful daughter. How improper and disrespectful it would be to take hold of her and dance about like people do in a tavern! It would be inappropriate even to draw near to her, let alone take her and go dancing!
All this is true except on her wedding day. Then the rules are loosened, and even the most ordinary person is permitted to approach her to dance. This is the case with the holy Torah, the daughter of the King of Kings, the blessed Holy One. It would seem improper even to approach her. Yet we are told that Torah is like water; just as water is owned by no one, so too is Torah accessible to all. How is this possible?
The answer is that Moses has given us a “betrothed” Torah. We are forever to approach Torah like the King’s daughter on her wedding day. Everyone has permission to dance with her! All are welcome to study Torah!”
Rabbi Green explains that the Tiferet Uziel has in mind the “mitzvah-tanz,” a special dance at the wedding when even the poor (who were accorded honour at the wedding) were given an opportunity to dance with a wealthy bride. In the analogy of Israel as the bridegroom of the Torah, here the Jew who may feel unworthy to engage in Torah, is invited to join in and dance with the bride.
In his commentary on the Sefat Emet, The Language of Truth, Rabbi Green brings one of the Sefat Emet’s teachings on Simchat Torah (when we read Vezot HaBerachah). He teaches that “the souls of Israel are vessels into which the light of Torah is able to flow. Thus it is that the light of Torah is interpreted and illuminated in accordance with the worthiness of each generation.” On the verse, “Moses commanded us Torah,”  he says this means that “We” and “Torah” are thoroughly bound together, and on the continuation, “an inheritance of the community of Israel.(Devarim 33:4) he cites the  sages who read the word “morashah” – inheritance as “me’orasah” – betrothed (Pesachim 49b). He then cites a Simchat Torah hymn which says “It [the Torah] is strength and light for us” and he says, “strength” is the essence of Torah, while “light” is the shining forth of Torah, renewed frequently but according to our efforts. And the Sefat Emet adds that it is taught that “when a person sits and studies Torah, the blessed holy One sits and studies facing him.” Rabbi Green understands this whole teaching as “a defence of ongoing creative reinterpretation of Torah.” He suggests that the Sefat Emet was very much in favour of the Chassidic tendency to keep teachings fresh and new.  Rabbi Green adds, “By the late nineteenth century, the Sefat Emet was exceptional in this regard. Here he warns against those who view the Torah as an “inheritance,” something to be passed on unchanged to the next generation. Such a Torah will indeed have “strength,” the power to protect Jewish existence, but it will be without “light,” the true purpose for which Torah was given. This message is an urgent one for our day as well. “Preserving the tradition” is not an end in itself, but only a means to making God’s light shine forth through it.”
In the book Speaking Torah, Rabbi Green and his co-authors expand on their view of this concept pointing out that we are all Moses’ disciples; what he taught is transmitted to us through the chain of tradition, but it also has to be renewed in each generation. They note the pivotal relationship between teachers and students in Judaism and that the challenge is to be faithful to our teachers but also to pass on a Torah that works for the next generation. They describe this as a covenant: “To enter into a relationship with the tradition means that we open ourselves to being challenged by it. But we also enter into that relationship bringing our whole selves, including our twenty-first-century questions and reservations.”

*Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings from around the Maggid’s Table, by Rabbi Arthur Green with Ebn Leader, Ariel Evan Mayse and Or N. Rose.

**The Tiferet Uziel – Rabbi Uziel Meizels (1744 – 1785) was one of the early leaders of Chassidism in Poland. He was one of the prominent disciples of the Ba’al Shem Tov, and after his death, studied for many years with the Maggid of Mezeritch (R’ Dov Baer, alluded to above) at whose behest he composed his book, the Tiferet Uziel. Already as a child, his great giftedness was apparent. From a young age he became the rabbi of prominent congregations in Poland and was a close contemporary of other great rabbis. Many disciples had gathered to learn from him by the time of his premature death at age 41.