Parshat V’zot haBeracha (2012)
Deuteronomy 33:1 – 34:12
Do you have a religion of fire?
Have you ever found yourself facing off with shallow and trite sounding people trying to sell their religion to you? They do it like a drive-by shooting, just throwing messages your way as you try to dodge them. Well, actually it’s usually not that exciting. Most of their turns of phrase are as vapid as jingles for car dealerships; its easy to see why people avoid them.
Now what is the most boring and lack-luster way for them to respond to your dismissal that you’re not interested in their religion? You got it, “But it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.”
These poor, lonely souls, standing on the street corner obviously don’t know much about religion or relationships.
If I had enough time, and there wasn’t a new wild-eyed one every corner and station, I would like to stop more often and talk with them and ask them what they mean by that. The truth is most of these people aren’t used to getting a response, at all, so they act shocked if you ask them to articulate anymore than that. I would take away the script of verses they quote and the printed prayer they want you to repeat to save your soul with, and ask them to tell me what that statement means to them; to invest some time in them as a person. The problem is that most of them can’t get that real.
But every so often I do stop to engage. Every so often I do get a shocked young person to reply that they can understand why you wouldn’t want to join their religion, because religion is all about rules and doing things, but that they are more interested that you to have a relationship with G-d. Religion is “boring and demanding,” but that all they want to offer you is G-d’s love.
There are a few tragic statements being made right there. First, be patient with that person because the are so out of touch with the real human experience that they don’t understand that the point of a relationship is for more than to just get mere satisfaction out of. A relationship does deliver gratification, but it is also demanding and takes some work at. A real relationship is not just getting what we want from a person. It is something that is passionately engaging. It’s not easy, but it’s a blessing.
I would open up to this portion of the Torah and begin to explain to this person that here G-d not only gave Israel a relationship, but He also gave them a religion. I would ask them to look at the text and see that according to the Torah both of these things are blessings being given to us Jews, by G-d through Moses.
This parsha opens up by explicately telling us what its topic is going to be in its first line:
“And this is the blessing
which Moses, the man of G-d, blessed
the children of Israel before he died.”
|| Vezot haberachah
| asher berach Moshe ish ha’Elohim
| et-benei Yisra’el lifnei moto.
This whole section of Parshat V’zot haBerachah is going to deal with Moses extending his final blessings to the Tribes of Israel before he dies. But before we get there Moses begins by first delivering a general introductory blessing before he individually acknowledges the tribes. We find him saying as the text continues:
“And he says:
‘From Sinai Hashem came
and illuminated from Seir to them,
He shined forth from Paran,
He brought with Him from the holy myriads
a fire of a religion for them.’”
| Hashem miSinai ba
| vezarach miSe’ir lamo
i hofia mehar Paran
| ve’atah merivevot kodesh mimino
| esh dat lamo.
The Torah takes us back to the beginning of the story of what makes us Jews a special people, the place where we received the Torah from G-d, at Sinai. This is the place where we chose to receive Torah and therefore became “the chosen people.” But it contextualizes it very different for us. It says that G-d came to dawn forth from Seir and He let His light shine forth from Paran. What does is it mean by this?
Rashi explains to us, that before G-d gave the Torah to Israel He stood at Sinai like a bridegroom, waiting for someone to say “I do.” And it gives us a back-story of how much G-d wanted to be in relationship with man that He went forth to Seir and Paran. He went there and let Himself dawn upon Seir and shine down upon Paran.
Why did G-d go to Seir? Rashi explains that was the dwelling place of the Edomites, the descendants of Esau (see Genesis 36:8; Joshua 24:4); Israel’s (also know as Jacob) other brother that insisted that the birthright and blessings should instead be his. G-d offered it to Esau’s descendants but they didn’t want to marry Him and accept His Torah. Of course we know that in the end the Edomites were absorbed into the Roman Empire through their usurper vassals, the Herodian “kings;” for this reason the Romans and Christians of Europe became the inheritors of their legacy.
Why did G-d go to Paran? That was the place of dwelling of the descendants of Ishmael, the patriarch of the Arab peoples, had settled (Genesis 21:20-21). G-d went there and offered them this relationship and Torah. But they didn’t accept either.
G-d offered it to the peoples near and far, and with no one else willing to accept it He returned back from the myriads in all His glory to Mount Sinai; and there waited for Israel to come by to accept this Torah and marriage to Him. He stood there waiting until the willing children of Israel came to accept His “eish dat;” His fiery religion, or his law of fire. Rashi further explains to us that the first tablets were inscribed by the hand of G-d alone; black fire, upon a shinning background of white fire, G-d spelled out His law in fiery light and smoke that illuminated the mountains of Sinai as He transmitted it. We all know the story very well, the whole world does as it’s so infamous. (if you don’t, rent “The Prince of Egypt,” for creeps sake)
Now before I go much further I need to point out that I’m not just playing a game of switcharoo. Why is that I use the term religion and law interchangeably? I do so because this is exactly the way it is in the Hebrew language. Sure, many times the word dat (דת) means law, justice or sentence; but it is also the actual word for religion, or a religious faith. I have to point this out because we are not talking about religion as just a mere sense of “knowing G-d.” In the figurative sense we should know (לדעת) G-d, but that is a whole other word all together. Sure G-d wants us to know Him, but this is only in the figurative sense; our G-d is a G-d of fire, we can know Him warmly but not closely because He is all-consuming. Nor does it mean just to have intimate relations with someone. Again, this is something different all together from this base root of the word we see here (without the “ayin”). Actually we only see it used several times in the book of Esther, used purely in the legal sense; as a decree of sentence, as a order of law.
As we see there is a level of symbolism of a relationship that is used in the Torah between G-d and man. But we need to remember ourselves, and come to a better understanding of the situations. We are not “the catch” in this pair-up; we are the slave people, humble and lowly that He chose to make His bride. It is not for G-d to try to woo us with deeds and signs of love. It should be us doing it, as He is a King marrying a Cinderella. It is not appropriate for us to think the way the nations do, that G-d should just be the one to make us feel loved and provide everything we want. We should ascend to His ways as His bride, not the other way around.
And that is not to say that G-d does not also love the nations, this is point that is explained to us in the next verse of our parsha:
“Even though He loves the peoples,
all of His holy ones are in His hand
they sit down at Your feet
and receive your words.”
|| Af chovev amim
| kol-kedoshav beyadecha
| vehem tuku leraglecha
| yisa midabroteicha.
G-d does love all the people of the world, this is a truth that is undeniable. The earth and all the souls of the world are His alone (Psalm 24:1). He loves each and every person, and each and every nation. But this is also an oddly worded phrase, highly stylized. It can also be understood a second way almost poetically, that the nations of the world do love Him too. We as Jews do not assume that there is no goodness or godliness in the peoples of the world. As pointed out previously in this parsha we see that He calls the myriads and multitudes that He created holy as well.
But here the parsha stresses the point that the really holy people are the ones that are in His hand, which sit at His feet and receive His words; or it can also be understood as “that follow your footsteps and bear your word.”
At this final point in our parsha, and for the last time the Children of Israel will gather at Moses’ feet; all of the tribes together and their leaders in order to receive Moses’ finally blessing over them as His journey as a teacher is coming to a close. (v.5) The text reads:
“Moses prescribed a Torah (law) to us,
for the congregation of Jacob.”
|| Torah tzivah-lanu Moshe
| kehilat Ya’akov
At this point we are given one of the most important verses in all of Jewish tradition. The Lubavitcher Rebbe (of blessed memory) stresses to us in his sichot that the Gemara encourages us to make this the first thing that we teach our children, that “this is the Torah Moses gave us.” (see “It’s Good to Know: Zos haBracha”) Us Sephardim are also very familiar with this verse, this is the verse we often say in joy when the Torah is lifted for hagbah before it is read in our synagogues.
This verse spells it out for us, we have a relationship to G-d through his Torah. Through Moses we were given a morashah; a heritage, a legacy, an inheritance. And from Sinai until this very day the congregation of Israel, us descendants of Jacob, still congregate and engage in the acts of G-d’s Torah, and receive His words. And when we do, we do so with joy. We are not being restricted, but because we have “married up” in the world, to a higher state were we are horasha; enabled, or empowered as free and elevated people to be able to partner with G-d in His deeds, and follow His ways.
It is important that we express to people who tell us that we should give up our faith in pursuit of their doctrines that we already have a religion, and a relationship with G-d through that religion. It is not a religion which is given to us by man, it is a religion which is given to us by G-d Himself. G-d loves us and we love Him; enough to take Him by the hand and follow after His ways. It is not a cold religion, it is a passionate and engaging religion; a fiery religion. One that has been passed down for over 120 generations, from Sinai to us; one that is still burning bright and warmly in the world today if they would take a moment to notice, and also engage in it.
Usually a missionary wouldn’t talk to me that long. They don’t want to have that deep of a relationship with people generally. Likewise in their lack of discipline and dedication, they don’t really care to engage G-d in that type of warm relationship either. If they did listen long enough it would become clear to them that it’s not that we are not interested in religion, it’s just not that their religion isn’t that interesting; not when you have a religion of fire given to you by G-d Himself.
I dedicate the study of this parsha, the one we leave out of the Shabbat Torah reading, to all of those people who feel like they don’t have a place in our tradition. May you be strengthened and blessed. Chazak, Chazak, V’nitchazek… be strong, be strong, and may be we be strengthened!