The portion V’Zot HaBracha, the concluding two chapters of the book of Deuteronomy, gives the Israelites their last view of Moses as leader before his demise. It attempts to provide them with the reassurance they are craving, that there will be stability despite this moment of transition.
To do this, Moses must leave them secure that his successor will continue to follow the central values that Moses himself had articulated. Also, before departing, a leader needs to reassure the people, with a personal message to each group, that he knows and understands them and their values.
At the core of all this, creating stability and expressing values, is one of the two verses that the rabbis, according to the Talmud in Sukkah 42a, say that children should be taught as soon they can speak: “Torah was commanded to us by Moses/ the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.” (Deuteronomy 33:4)
This verse appears in the opening section of our portion, before Moses addresses the individual tribes. Bible scholar Jeffrey Tigay, in his JPS commentary on Deuteronomy, says that “it is not clear how this verse fits into its context.”
If it is a statement meant to ensure the people of continuity, why would it say Torah is commanded “by Moses” and not God? Wouldn’t it be more reassuring to know that, despite the death of the mortal teacher, the teaching itself is from God and is eternal? Clearly we are meant to remember that this is instruction given to humans by a human, to teach us both that God will communicate with us in the language of human beings and that nothing superhuman will be demanded of us.
“The Torah was commanded to us by Moses” also recalls when Moses first received it and brought it down to the people. He was so angered by their behavior that he smashed the tablets he had spent the previous 40 days carving. This very human response of destroying something he had created, out of frustration, demonstrated — at the moment of revelation — that Moses is an errant human, like the rest of us, and thus was able to convey these teachings.
And what about “the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob”? This hearkens back to Genesis 49, when Jacob addresses each of his sons on his death bed. Jacob hopes to be able to speak to them of later days, “aharit ha’yamim”( Genesis 49:1), yet his actual language never gets there. Now that the sons have each become tribes and the people are readying themselves to enter the land, albeit without Moses, there is a certain fulfillment of those hopes. They have become a people, having remained a unit through their years of Egyptian persecution. These texts and teachings will continue to unify the people as they have in the past, our verse suggests, and they have inherited what their ancestor Jacob had hoped to transmit to them.
The Torah’s final verse reads as follows: “And by all the strong hand and awesome power that Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel.” (Deuteronomy 34:12) Moses hid nothing from the people, but performed all of his actions – breaking the tablets, smiting the rock (Numbers 20:11) and communicating God’s word – truthfully, in front of their eyes. As a leader, even when he made mistakes, Moses conveyed the truth, even the sins that may have prevented him from entering the land with his people (Numbers 20:10).
We all need reassurance from leaders now. It can only be gotten if we choose those who will do their leading in plain sight, in the eyes of us all, and who adhere to a set of values that stem from a moral compass. Moses was not perfect, but he adhered to what he was taught and acted, positively and negatively, in plain sight.
As we select our own leaders, may we chose those who are willing to address us directly, to assure a smooth transition of power and to adhere to the common values we can all agree upon, without resorting to lies and subterfuge.
Beth Kissileff is the co-editor of the anthology, “Bound in the Bond of Life: Pittsburgh Writers Reflect on the Tree of Life Tragedy” (University of Pittsburgh Press, October 2020). She is also the editor of the anthology “Reading Genesis: Beginnings” and author of the novel “Questioning Return.” She lives in Pittsburgh with her family.
Friday, October 9, 2020
Tishrei 21, 5781
Light Shabbat/Holiday Candles at 6:06 pm
Saturday, October 10, 2020
Tishrei 22, 5781
Shemini Atzeret – Shabbat: Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17
Shemini Atzeret – Shabbat: Numbers 29:35-30:1
Shemini Atzeret: Kings I 8:54-66
Light Holiday Candles after 7:03 pm
Sunday, October 11, 2020
Tishrei 23, 5781
Simchat Torah: Deuteronomy 33:1-34:12; Genesis 1:1-2:3
Simchat Torah: Numbers 29:35-30:1
Holiday ends: 7:02 pm.