Blessings From and To Whom

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

From a Man of Gd

The first verse of the parsha gives Ramban much to discuss, and I’m not going to resist the urge to engage with it at length.

דברים פרק לג:(א) וְזֹ֣את הַבְּרָכָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר בֵּרַ֥ךְ מֹשֶׁ֛ה אִ֥ישׁ הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל לִפְנֵ֖י מוֹתֽוֹ:

Devarim 33;1: This is the blessing Moshe, the man of Gd, blessed the Children of Israel before his death.

Ramban picks up on two elements of this verse, which we read on Simchat Torah. First, the reference to Moshe as a man of Gd tells us to expect that these berachot will be effective. Ramban’s beautiful phrase is u-tefillat yesharim retzono, the prayer of the righteous is His Will. As we’ll see in his discussion of the use of the word ve-zot, I think he likely means that the righteous are so tapped into Hashem’s Will that whatever they say articulates that Will.

[Another option would be that the righteous choose which of several possible futures will come to fruition, and that Hashem does what they want. Ramban seems to go in this more conservative direction, so we’ll leave it there].

Part of what signals Moshe’s ability/right to express effective blessings is that he is referred to as an ish haElokim, as were many other prophets. I think Ramban’s hinting that Elokim refers to the Gd of Nature, as it were, the world as it runs in its ordinary way. Prophets work up to an understanding of how that natural order works (with Hashem’s input) well enough that they also know how to ask or invoke particular possible futures, rather than others.

At the end of the parsha, Moshe’s also called eved Hashem, using the other common Name. Ramban says a maskil, an enlightened one, will understand, but does not elaborate. My guess is that we connect this Name with the Attribute of Mercy; Ramban might be implying that we cannot have any real grasp of how that aspect works, not nearly enough to be able to claim to predict, ask, or tell that aspect of Hashem what should happen. When it comes to Hashem, the best we can achieve is being an obedient servant.

This Is the Blessing

Ramban also picks up on the Torah’s use of the word ve-zot, and this. He ascribes an esoteric significance to the word, linking it to Tehillim 118;23’s declaration “ki me-Hashem hayeta zot, for from Hashem was this,” and to the Torah’s saying about Ya’akov (Bereshit 49;28), “this is what their father said to them.” Tehillim 119;56 also uses the word zot to refer to a blessing, in that case the City of David, where Hashem has commanded blessing for eternity.

He closes by saying the enlightened would understand, but adds a clue in that he says that a passage in Bereshit Rabbah 100;12 assumes his idea. That Midrash says the Torah’s use of ve-zot for Ya’akov’s blessing left the door open for another man to come later and pick up where he left off, which is why Moshe opened with ve-zot. He also told them (in the Midrash’s reading) that they had earned these blessings when they accepted the Torah, about which Moshe had said ve-zot haTorah, and this is the Torah. That Torah also encompasses the covenant Hashem had told Avraham, in Bereshit 17;10, zot beriti, this is my covenant.

At one level, this is Midrash being Midrash, ascribing connection and significance to all the appearances of a slightly out of place word. In our case, it links the covenant, the Torah, and the blessings. While Ya’akov only articulated some of them, Moshe came (after the covenant had been turned into a Torah, still identified as zot) to round them out.

Ramban’s reference to that Midrash is why I take him to mean Moshe’s blessings would surely come to fruition because he was articulating what Hashem wanted to do anyway. These aren’t so much blessings as the “natural” outcome of being partners to a covenant and then a Torah.

The Dedication of the Desert

דברים פרק לג:ב וַיֹּאמַ֗ר יְקֹוָ֞ק מִסִּינַ֥י בָּא֙ וְזָרַ֤ח מִשֵּׂעִיר֙ לָ֔מוֹ … (ג) …וְהֵם֙ תֻּכּ֣וּ לְרַגְלֶ֔ךָ…:

Devarim 33;2: He said, ‘Hashem appeared from Sinai and shined towards them from Seir…Verse 3: …they assemble (or bow down) at your feet…

Ramban notices that verse two jumps from Sinai to Seir (and Paran), a gap of thirty-eight years. That’s because the Jewish people were in nidui during this time, partially shunned by Hashem, with Moshe Rabbenu not receiving prophecy. I find that a fascinating idea—the Jews gathering their man every day for food, being led by a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night, their clothes not wearing out, but also not having any direct interaction with Hashem.

It would likely challenge their confidence that Hashem was leading them, even with all those signs of continuing involvement. That element of it (I skipped other parts of the comment) connects well to Ramban’s reading of the phrase in verse 3, different than the translations I found. In his view, tuku is like huku, were hit, and he takes it to mean the Jews suffered in the desert and yet faithfully followed Hashem. They didn’t care, in Ramban’s view, about famine, drought, serpents and scorpions.

This refers back to Devarim 8;15, where Moshe warned the Jews about how their arrogance might lead them to forget all Hashem has done for them. In his list of what Hashem had done appears the fact that Hashem led them through a land of serpents and scorpions, with no water or food, and produced water from a rock and gave them the man.

Ramban seems to be reading that as if the Jew suffered from all those before Hashem saved them from it, and he mentions Yirmiyahu2;2’s speaking of the Jews’ following Hashem in the desert as chessed ne’urayikh, kindness of your youth, that they went after Hashem in a land that was not planted (and therefore didn’t have readily available food supplies).

It is clearly Ramban’s view, with basis in Tanach, but it raises interesting questions about what counts as a merit and what not. The Jews left Egypt because Paroh kicked them out, and once in the desert, it’s not clear how they’d have made it had they not followed Hashem. Various sources also show that disobedience led to death, such as with the Jews who insisted on going to Israel after hearing the punishment for crying at the spies’ report.

He’s not fabricating anything, but to see the Jews as having suffered for Hashem in the desert is a particularly beneficent viewpoint.

There Will Be Twelve

The last comment we have time for this week picks up on the fact that Moshe does not bless the tribe of Shim’on. Ibn Ezra and Rashi attribute that to their malfeasance, that they were the main sinners at Pe’or. We infer that from the fact that Zimri, whom Pinchas killed, was the head of a clan of that tribe, and that Shim’on’s numbers dropped over the course of the Bamidbar much more than any other tribe—in the count at the start of the book, there are 59,200 men in Shim’on, and only 22,300 in the count in Pinchas.

Since 24,000 people died in the plague that punished those who worshipped Pe’or, tradition thought Shim’on must have participated disproportionately in the sin, and therefore lost numbers disproportionately as well.

Ramban argues that other tribes also lost population, and Shim’on lost many more than 24,000. Besides, verses make clear that Pe’or was a national sin, not limited to one tribe, and had already been atoned. So that’s not sufficient reason to exclude Shim’on from the berachot in this parsha.

Regardless of the historical fact, his alternative suggestion is also more far-reaching. He says the Jewish people always have twelve tribes. When Ya’akov blessed them, Ephraim and Menasheh were grouped together as part of Yosef (as they were at the ceremony on Mt. Gerizim), so there were twelve; at the dedication of the Mishkan, in their encampments (and settling the Land), Levi wasn’t included as a tribe, so there were again twelve.

In VeZot HaBerachah, Levi needed to be explicitly included, since they weren’t going to get a share in the Land. Yet Moshe also wanted to ratify Ephraim and Menasheh’s identities as tribes, which had been true of them throughout the time in the desert. Somebody had to be left out, because there needed to be twelve, to correspond to natural phenomena that come in twelves (the months of the year, for one example–  Ramban doesn’t expand, but he clearly means that the tribes in some way represent or reflect some aspects of Nature, giving the Jewish people, in their tribes, a role in the workings of the world at large).

Yechezkel 48 doesn’t mention Levi at the beginning of the chapter, because Yosef’s sons are named individually. Later in the chapter, when he does bring up Levi, he refers to Yosef rather than Menasheh and Efrayim.

A Tribe That’s Part of the Whole

Why make Shimon odd man out? Because there weren’t that many of them, and Ya’akov’s minimal blessing was that they would be scattered throughout the people. If so, they could benefit from those other tribe’s blessings, and Moshe could leave them out here.

The specifics of Shimon’s fate as a tribe in all honesty interest me less than Ramban’s assumption that twelve was the necessary number of tribes, because the tribes correspond to deep truths of the universe (such as months of the year, mazalot in the sky, and so on).

It’s a good reminder of Ramban’s view of the intermixing of the physical and metaphysical, a view that also expressed itself in the first verse of the parsha, about Moshe’s blessing and its connection to Hashem’s view of the future of the world (and that seems to me to be a main theme of Ramban in Devarim as a book).

About Gidon Rothstein

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