Ve-Zot Ha-Berachah: Metaphysics as a Marker of the Jewish People

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

More than most Torah portions, our three commentators brought up issues in Ve-Zot Ha-Berachah we would not see as purely natural. Their view of the Torah’s final description of Moshe Rabbenu, and of the nation the Jewish people were going to form, suggest it is more than coincidental, we are being reminded, as the Torah closes, of the necessity of a metaphysical component in the Jewish people’s existence.

Blessings of a Prophet

When the opening verse tells us this is the blessing Moshe gave, the Torah calls him ish ha-Elokim, a phrase we might have taken as praise of his character. Onkelos instead writes neviya de-Hashem, prophet of Gd, I think to shape how we read Moshe’s words. In what sense were these the words of a prophet, as opposed to Ya’akov’s blessings to his sons, Bereshit 49?

Ya’akov’s blessings were the words of a father to his sons, only afterwards chosen by Gd for inclusion. Moshe’s words started out as prophecy, I think Onkelos indicates, were at the outset a prophet’s prediction of the courses of their futures.

Ramban has a similar idea. He says Moshe’s being an ish ha-Elokim gives us reason to expect these blessings to be effective, because Mishlei 15;8 tells us u-tefillat yesharim retzono, the prayer of the upright is Gd’s Will, as it were. Where Onkelos had Moshe as prophet, Ramban has him as significant righteous person, whose ideas Gd then fulfills.

He does not say why. At the end of the parsha, when Moshe is called an eved Hashem, a servant of Gd, Ramban says a maskil will understand, without further elaboration. I believe and suggest Ramban was contrasting the name Elokim used at the beginning of the parsha with the four-letter Name at the end; the former is often seen as the Attribute of Justice as well as the aspects of Gd that run the world in its usual patterns, its “natural” way.

Becoming an ish ha-Elokim, I infer or read into Ramban, is a matter of understanding the world, seeing how Gd runs it, having insight into ways it could work in the future, and praying for them. This would be the Moshe who could issue blessings to the tribes, and we would be told they would likely come true, because anyone who is an ish ha-Elokim know paths they can pray for that Gd is likely to accept.

The four-letter Name is usually taken as the middat ha-rahamim, Gd in a more parental mode, where absolute justice is ignored in the name of finding ways for people to get a second chance. This aspect of Gd also abrogates Nature when needed. To me, Ramban was hinting a maskil would see that human beings cannot fully understand this aspect of Gd, and therefore must be eved, obedient servant, rather than ish, whose prayers Gd “feels obligated” to fulfill.

This Is the Blessing

Ramban uses the same phrase, the enlightened would understand, for another hint he gives in the first verse, on ve-zot, and this. He points to three other times the word zot appears in Tanach: Tehillim 118;23, from Gd hayeta zot, this came; Bereshit 49;28, zot is what their father (Ya’akov) said to them (in his blessings); and Tehillim 119;56, which Ramban takes as being about the eternal blessing for the City of David.

He does not leave us fully in the dark, closes with a clue that Bereshit Rabbah 100;12 assumes his ideas. That Midrash says the Torah deliberately wrote zot in the context of Ya’akov’s blessing to open the door for another man to pick up where he left off. The Midrash says Moshe told the Jews they had earned these blessings when they accepted the Torah (another ve-zotDevarim 4;44), and Hashem had used the word with Avraham about the covenant between them, Bereshit 17;10.

The hints tell me Ramban held the blessings Moshe is giving are not his, made up in the moment. Avraham started them, continued by Ya’akov, with the knowledge someone else would have to complete them, were earned by the Jewish people when they accepted the Torah (as David also said in Tehillim, his observance of Gd’s commandments brought his blessing). Moshe is articulating an existing blessing.

The Gd We Met at Sinai

The second verse of the parsha speaks of Gd, Who came from Sinai, with an esh dat, a flaming fire, in His right hand, as it were. Rashi thinks the verse means the Torah, written before Creation as black fire on white fire, then transcribed by the Hand of Gd on the Tablets. Rashi does not elaborate on the implications of the idea; instead of speculating, I will only point out it meant something metaphysical for Rashi, that Torah existed before Creation, was in some sense written as black fire on white, then transferred by the hand of Gd to physical writing.

For Ramban, the metaphysical was going to be a regular part of Jews’ lives. The tribe of Yosef will enjoy retzon Shocheni seneh, the favor or goodwill of the One Who dwells in a bush. Ramban reminds us the bush was where Moshe first “met” Gd, where Gd told him the Jewish people would come back to that spot (Sinai) to receive the Torah, and, in Ramban’s view, that Presence from Sinai then enshrined in the Mishkan, the movable Tabernacle in the desert that later became the Beit Ha-Mikdash.

It was that ratzon Moshe was assuring Yosef they would enjoy. Once again, Ramban stops there, having put the metaphysical into our awareness of how the Jewish nation would work without fully detailing its meaning or manifestations.

Moshe’s Miracles and Their Impact

Gesturing at the metaphysical without laying it bare might be a necessary aspect of it, that it must be experienced, is impossible to describe or teach. The Torah’s last verses say Moshe made significant contributions in exactly that area. The penultimate (I always am excited to use that word) verse speaks of his signs and wonders, as if there was something special about them.

Ramban cites a Midrash that other prophets needed to pray to produce miracles, Moshe did not. Ramban sees it as the continuation of the previous verse’s comment Gd had known him panim el panim, for Ramban a description of Moshe’s unmatchable level of prophecy. Only a prophet like Moshe, to whom Gd revealed more (and more fully) than any human before or after, could invoke miracles with the ease the later Moshe did.

[This possibly goes back to the Ramban we reviewed earlier, Moshe was an ish ha-Elokim as well as an eved Hashem, fully understood Gd’s “natural” world, fully a servant of Hashem, and thus able to know when an unusual path was needed or proper.]

The idea might explain Onkelos’ translation of the mora ha-gadol the last verse of the Torah says Moshe performed. Instead of awesome deeds, as English translations have it, Onkelos writes hezvana rabba, great sights or visions. He used the same phrase to translate mora gadol in Devarim 26;8, where a farmer bringing first fruits to the Temple says Gd took us out of Egypt with mora gadol. A clue as to why he made this choice comes in Shemot 3;3 where Moshe reacts to the burning bush by deciding to turn to see this mar’eh ha-gadol, this great wonder. There, too, Onkelos writes hezvanah rabbah.

He seems to me to be blurring mar’eh, a wonder, with mora, usually a matter of fear or awe. I suggest he was mixing them, was saying great signs produce wonder as well as mora, fear or awe. The way Moshe performed mora gadol was by showing the Jewish people the kinds of signs or wonders that produce first wonder then awe.

The Twelve-Nationed Nation

For a last example of the metaphysical, let’s turn back to where Moshe describes Gd as hovev amim, One Who loves nations, 33;3. Onkelos there (and in verse 19, on another appearance of the word amim) writes shivtaya, tribes. Rashi agrees, and reminds us we have seen it before, when Gd told Ya’akov a goy, a nation, would come from him, where the only child left to be born was Binyamin. As a first step, Onkelos and Rashi are telling us each tribe of the Jewish people counts in some sense as a nation of its own.

[They do not review some of the halachic ramifications, such as the idea that each tribe had its own Sanhedrin, with rights to rule for that tribe on issues the national Sanhedrin did not need to address. Too, if the tribal Sanhedrin made an error, they might bring an atoning sacrifice for their tribe.]

Ramban adds there always had to be twelve of these “nations.” Here, Moshe had to make clear Efraim and Menasheh each counted as a tribe and Levi had to be blessed because they were not receiving a share in the Land. On occasions where Levi is kept separate, or Yosef is treated as one tribe, Shim’on—omitted here–is mentioned. They were the tribe to omit, Ramban says, because Ya’akov had said they would be scattered throughout the nation, so could partake of the blessings of whatever tribes hosted them.

It has to be twelve, Ramban says, to correspond to phenomena such as the months of the year. He again does not clarify; he seems to me to be saying the Jewish people must reflect Nature, for reasons we are left to seek on our own.

The last moments of the Jewish people’s time with their sui generis prophet have them receive blessings that tap into longstanding sources, remind us we were given a Torah that predated the world, given to a nation of nations, who in their makeup reflect the world at a deep level. Leaving us to start the Torah again, looking for more understanding of the physical, the metaphysical, and the interactions between them.

About Gidon Rothstein

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