Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations may derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
Overview Moshe’s final blessings to each of the tribes
Moshe blesses all of Israel
Moshe views the land before his death
Israelites mourn Moshe for thirty days
Previously-appointed Yehoshua assumes leadership
The Only Parsha Not Read on Shabbos
This Parsha is read on Simchas Torah (or Shmeni Atzeres in Israel) when we celebrate the completion of the annual cycle of Torah reading and prepare to start restudying the Torah anew, by reading Bereshis (“In the beginning”).The Torah is the saga of God’s selection of the Jewish people to adhere to His ethics and to become a role model for all Mankind. The blessings in the Parsha are followed by Moshe’s reassurance of God as Protector of Israel Who provides help in battle and Who is the source of agricultural/economic prosperity.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that blessings in the world exist because of Torah observance and that the blessings in this Parsha are greater than any of the others given earlier in the Torah. That the blessings are read on a day that though important, does not approach the spiritually uplifting atmosphere of Shabbos, suggests to the Rebbe that their power and their origin emanate from a higher source.
The Man Moshe is Known as...
• Moshe Rabenu , our teacher who transmitted the Torah law from God but did not create it
• Ish haelokim (the man of God), a description appearing nowhere else in the Torah
• Eved Hashem (servant of God)
• The one God singled out (v’lo kam navi owed b’yirael k’moshe)
• The only one who encountered God “face to face” (panim el panim)
The Blessings of Moshe
In the tradition of the Patriarch Yaakov, who blessed his sons before his death, Moshe blesses each of the tribes of the nation of Israel before his death. Yaakov spoke as the dying father to his sons, describing each one’s personality and potential, partly in explanation of why it was Yehuda who would ultimately be the one qualified to lead the nation. Because he was dealing with the destiny of each son, he blessed them in age order from oldest to youngest.
Moshe, on the other hand, was the dying leader who addressed the nation as it was preparing to enter the Promised Land. Therefore, concludes Rabbi Menachem Leibtag, his blessings related to the tribes’ military conquest or to the quality of their specific territory inheritance. Rabbi Gunther Plaut notes that these blessings are a calm assessment of Israel’s past and future written in prose form yet displaying poetic rhythm. They contain obscure, rare and unique words.
Moshe encourages each tribe to achieve its potential in the conquest of the Land and/or describes the characteristics of the territory (nachala) to be inherited. Following is Rabbi Menachem Leibtag’s view that the order of the tribes represents a combination of grouping by respective mothers and of geographic location of each tribe’s inheritance starting from south to north.
The Order of the Tribes
Reuven is listed first not because he is oldest but because he was the first tribe to get its inheritance. The blessing was meant to reassure Reuven that he would remain an official and full-fledged member of the tribes of Israel despite his having been cursed by Yaakov (because of the Bilhah incident) and despite electing to settle in Transjordan, outside the borders of Eretz Canaan.
Shimon is not included because his territory is within the borders of Yehuda. “As Shimon’s conquest and inheritance during the time period of Yehoshua will be almost negligible, his tribe is totally skipped” writes Rabbi Leibtag.
Yehuda is the first of the tribes to successfully conquer his portion of the land. His is the most southern region of the Land of Israel and his blessing is about military leadership, enthusiasm and diligence. “May Hashem hear Yehuda’s voice” refers to prayers for military success.
Levi’s blessing, though focusing on the responsibilities to provide spiritual leadership, is described in military terms. Levi was to be scattered throughout the country to teach Torah, but the tribal center is to be the Holy Temple in Yerushalayim. The tribe of Levi did not receive a portion of land. Its “nachala” is “nachalas Hashem”, to serve in the Holy Temple-- which is located on the border of Yehuda and Binyamin. Therefore, Levi’s blessing follows Yehuda’s to the south but precedes Benyamin’s to the north.
The Holy Temple in Yerushalayim (God’s “dwelling”) is to be located on the border of Benyamin’s territory north of Yehuda. Earlier, the Mishkan was in different cities within Binyamin. His blessing is that God’s Shchena will “dwell” within his borders. Rabbenu Yosef Bechor Shor explains that the blessing [“God constantly protects (or “surrounds”) him and dwells among his slopes”] refers to the constant influx of the priests and the levi’im traveling through Binyamin’s territory on their way to serve in the Holy Temple.
The bountiful nature of Yosef’s land [Efraim and Menashe]--located north of Binyamin-- will enable it to be the backbone of Israel’s agrarian society. Furthermore, Efraim and Menashe will have the military might to defeat their enemies. Yehoshua, descendant of Efraim, led the nation in the conquest of Eretz Canaan.
Zevulun and Yissachar’s territories are north of Yosef and span from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. Zevulun’s military strength will provide protection along the seacoast. The ancient, important trade route connecting Egypt and Mesopotamia located in Yissachar’s territory in Emek Yizraeel will help it build its international trade and influence. Moreover, the fertile soil in Emek Yizraeel makes it ideal for both agriculture and livestock breeding.(Zevulun, the younger brother precedes Issachar possibly because that is the order in which their father Yaakov blessed them or because they are listed first in the apportionment of the land among the tribes in the Book of Yehoshua.) That the two tribes’ blessings are contained in one verse has led to the conclusion that the two tribes were a complementary unit (Nechama Leibowitz). Rashi, among others, thinks that the two brothers created a partnership in which Zevulun was the businessman who supported Yissachar who stayed at home and studied Torah. Rambam disagrees with this approach, noting that historically Talmudic scholars both worked and studied Torah. They would “not permit themselves to beg from any man, regarding acceptance of charity as a desecration of God’s name, causing the Torah to be accounted just another means of livelihood, degrading it…”
Gad, who inherited first with Reuven in Transjordan, will be granted military prowess to enable the tribe to widen its inheritance. “He is poised like a lion to tear off arm and scalp.”
“Dan is like a lion’s whelp that leaps from the Bashan”. The tribe will be located near the western slopes of the Golan Heights and to the north of Yissachar and Zevulun. It will have the military might to guard against enemy intrusion.
Naftali, located in the fertile and beautiful region of Upper Galilee to the north of Yissachar and Zevulun, is blessed with agriculture potential. Naftali also will be blessed with the military might to conquer its territory.
Asher, on the northern border --the “iron lock” protecting the country-- will be blessed with an abundance of olive trees (and olive oil).
“…Or any of the mighty acts or great sights that Moshe displayed before the eyes of all Israel.”
This last verse in the Torah ends with the letter “lamed” and links to the first word of the word Bereshis that starts with the letter “beis” to form the word lev, meaning “heart”.
The word “eyes” can also refer to insight in addition to sight. Perhaps it took all forty years of a heartfelt effort by Moshe (despite experiencing many trials and tribulations) to teach, to review, and to inspire the Israelites to finally understand and appreciate both the truth of the Torah and its Ethics. Having this insight, we can now begin a new cycle of Torah study with our eyes open wide(er).
Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo comments on the seeming rush to start reading Bereshis immediately after we’ve completed the reading of the entire Torah without allowing time to contemplate what has been read in the previous year. While there is a need to learn the Torah in depth, this approach brings with it the danger of stagnation, of being tied to only the one particular interpretation that has been repeated so often that it does not seem to leave room for an alternate, fresh understanding. “The call for new interpretations, and not just repeating what we or others have said, is fundamental to genuine Torah learning” writes Rabbi Cardozo, citing Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi (1513-1586) who understood the verse “And not with you alone did I establish a Covenant” to mean that “each one of us, our children and grandchildren, until the conclusion of all generations…are duty-bound to examine the secrets of the Torah on our own…Just as our forebears did not wish to indiscriminately accept the truth from those who preceded them…it is valuable for us …to investigate the meaning of the Torah in accordance with our own mind’s understanding”.
The urgency to read Bereshis on Simchas Torah may be a designed to be a wakeup call to prevent the text from settling in our mind in a particular way. It is as if we are reading the Torah from start for the first time, filled with a sense of excitement at exploring something new (or re-discovering something once-studied but by now forgotten a year later) seeking to develop new understanding, “rediscovering it as never before”. It is in this way, concludes Rabbi Cardozo, that the poetry of the Torah can remain fresh and can amaze the reader with its multiple levels of understanding. “This is the true joy of Simchat Torah’s rush.”