This Torah portion is read on October 11, 2020
Parshat V'zot Habracha
Torah Portion: Deuteronomy 33:1–34:12
V'Zot Habracha is the final parsha of the Torah. Usually it is read on Simchat Torah. In the Parsha, Moses blesses each of the tribes and it ends with the passing of Moses.
Shirat Ha'azinu: The Song Of Moses
Parshat V'zot Habracha
V'zot Habracha Torah Portion: Deuteronomy 33:1–34:12
Parshat V'zot Habracha is the 54th and last parsha of the Torah. It is traditionally read on the holiday of Simchat Torah, and as soon as it is concluded, we immediately turn back to the start of the Torah and begin again with Parshat Bereishit. It consists of all of two chapters from the Book of Deuteronomy: 33 and 34.
Chapter 33 opens with the words: "And this is the blessing with which Moses, the man of God, blessed the children of Israel [just] before his death." This description of Moses as a "man of God" sounds pretty ordinary – but if you search through the Bible looking to find similar phrases, you'll find that it's actually extremely unusual.
There is only one other time in the entirety of the Bible that Moses is referred to as a "man of God" – in Hebrew, an ish HaElokim. That other time is Psalm 90, which begins: "A Prayer of Moses the man of God" – Tefillah l'Moshe, ish HaElokim.
At first glance, it might seem like mere coincidence. But Rabbi Fohrman took a careful look at Psalm 90, reading it alongside Parshat V'zot Habracha, and some astounding connections started to emerge. In his estimation, Psalm 90 is nothing less than a commentary on Moses' life, a text that tells us the "story behind the story" as to what mattered most to Moses and what he was thinking about in the final moments of his life.
The connections that he uncovers are truly amazing, not only because they bring Moses' story to life with incredible depth, but also as an example of how the Book of Psalms interacts with the text of the Five Books of Moses in complicated and beautiful ways. He presents it all in "Moses' Farewell To Israel," a three-part video series that ties together the final three parshiyot of the Torah: Vayeilech, Ha'azinu and V'zot Habracha.
Once you get past this bit about Moses being the "man of God," you find that all of Chapter 33 focuses on one theme: Moses giving out blessings to each of the 12 tribes. (Reading this, you can't help but be reminded of another, earlier time when someone – on his deathbed – gave out blessings to the 12 tribes: our forefather Jacob, back in Parshat Vayechi. For more on that account, check out Imu Shalev's video on Parshat Vayechi, "The Meaning Behind Jacob's Mysterious Blessings," which focuses closely on the blessing that Jacob gave to Joseph and illuminates it in fascinating ways.) Moses gives out blessings to each tribe, sandwiching his blessings between praises of God – but readers beware, his language is poetic and extremely hard to understand.
Chapter 34 changes pace, offering us a narrative description of exactly what happened to Moses in his final moments on earth. Ever since Parshat Chukat back in the Book of Numbers, when God first decreed that Moses wouldn't be able to enter the Promised Land, we've known that this moment would be coming (see "Was Hitting the Rock So Horrible?" for a deep dive into that story) – but the Torah's description of it nonetheless leaves us feeling some measure of shock. Is this really the end? Did God really follow through on this decree? Moses never got a second chance, an opportunity to change God's mind?
Earlier in the Book of Deuteronomy, in Parshat Va'etchanan, Moses tells us how he pleaded with God, saying: "Pray let me cross over and see the good land that is on the other side of the Jordan, this good mountain and the Lebanon." But apparently, Moses' prayer wasn't enough to move God, to change his unfortunate reality. His people would be allowed to cross the Jordan and enter Israel, but Moses never would. He would be directed to climb a mountain on the eastern bank of the Jordan River, Mount Nebo, from which he could see all of the Promised Land – and there he would die.
And that is precisely what happens here in Chapter 34, in the final chapter of V'Zot Habracha, the final chapter of the Torah.
"And the Lord showed him all the Land," we read, "The Gilead until Dan, and all [the land of] Naftali, and the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, and all the land of Judah, until the western sea, and the south, and the plain, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, until Zoar. And the Lord said to him, 'This is the Land I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, 'I will give it to your offspring.' I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.' And Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there, in the land of Moab, by the mouth of the Lord" (Deuteronomy 34:1-5).
It's a hard passage to read.
Parshat V'zot Habracha brings an unsettling and tragic end to Moses' story, sealing the deal on his punishment, leaving no recourse for him. Moses must have been devastated, and we, as readers, empathize strongly with him. Did he really deserve this? We're left to wonder how God could possibly have wreaked such a harsh punishment on His most beloved prophet.
And what's interesting is that if you read the final verses of the parsha, it almost seems as if the Torah is asking this very question:
"And there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, as manifested by all the signs and wonders, which the Lord had sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and all his servants, and to all his land, and all the strong hand, and all the great awe, which Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel." (Deuteronomy 34:10-12)
This talk about how Moses was the greatest prophet in human history, how he performed great miracles on God's behalf for everyone to see... these verses are filled with praise for Moses. And that is how the Torah ends! Those are the concluding words of the Five Books of Moses!
So how do we jibe this thoroughly positive description of Moses with the story of his being barred from the land? Could it be that the Torah is bothered by the very same question that bothers us? How could it be that you have someone who was afflicted with such a harsh decree, and yet he was so great, so deserving, so praiseworthy?
If you're bothered by this question, then our video "Was Hitting the Rock So Horrible?" is a great place to start, and from there, you should watch "Why Did Moses Hit The Rock?" If you enjoyed those and you're thirsting for more, then Rabbi Fohrman's seven-part audio course "Why Couldn't Moses Enter The Land?" provides the deepest, most comprehensive answers.
Still interested in the tragic story of Moses' death? Allow us to add another wrinkle to it. The Torah tells us that Moses ascended Har Nebo (Mount Nebo) before he died. It turns out that this mountain comes up in one other context in the Torah – in a story that seems to have nothing to do with Moses' death.
It's the story of the tribes of Reuven and Gad approaching Moses and requesting that they be allowed to settle the eastern bank of the Jordan. But as with so many other teachings here at Aleph Beta, look closer and you will discover some fascinating possibilities that connect these two stories. For an exploration of those connections – that may even bring us some measure of peace about Moses' seemingly tragic end – check out "Moshe’s Final Farewell," a podcast conversation between Ami Silver and Beth Lesch.
Now, the truth is that even if we can arrive at some understanding of why Moses deserved this punishment, there's still something quite odd about the way that the Torah concludes its story, something else that should bother us. Take a step back and think about what the Torah is: a story of the relationship between God and His chosen people, the Israelites – their forefathers, origin story, the laws that they receive from God, the back and forth in their relationship with God, and so on.
It's a story that is meant to serve for us, ever after, as a guidebook for how we can have a relationship with God, and with God's other creations. Now take a look back at the end of V'zot Habracha and ask yourself: Why does the Torah end on the note that it does?
"And there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, as manifested by all the signs and wonders, which the Lord had sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and all his servants, and to all his land, and all the strong hand, and all the great awe, which Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel." (Deuteronomy 34:10–12)
Moses is a great guy – no doubt – but why end with Moses' story? Why not end with something more general, something more inspiring, something like: "And God showed His love for the children of Israel and asked them to follow His laws, and generations ever after should remember this story and cleave closely to God"? Wouldn't that have been a much more appropriate close to the Five Books of Moses? If you're bothered by this question, then Imu Shalev's video, "The Inspiring Conclusion To The Torah," is required viewing.
And when you're done, it's time to turn back to Parshat Bereishit to begin the cycle again....