Deuteronomy 33 -34
Let’s Choose To Put Our Heads Together This Year
We are just coming through a week of much celebration, having many days of festivity back to back. First we started with the observance of Rosh haShanah – the head of the year, the New Year – and then it extended on with a conjoined Shabbat. But alas here we are at the rosh, (ראש) the head of the year. We have now begun to ready ourselves to head off on another fortuitous journey around the sun. Hopefully all these holidays are helping us recharge for the journey ahead of us.
Here in this final reading of our annual Torah cycle, in this narrative we are coming in right after the start of Moses’ ultimate blessing, just before he dies and the people ride off into the sunset towards the promised land without him.
There are two odd verses that are presented in our text. The first is actually a rather famous verse for religious Jews, but it’s just that it’s oddly dropped into place right here during this speech of Moses. “Torah tzivah lanu Mosheh / The Torah that Moses commanded us…” (Deut. 33:4) We aren’t exactly sure why it changes tone and perspective for just a verse. Why would Moses speak about himself in the third person? It’s hard to know, considering it comes in right after a highly stylized song like we saw in Parshat Haazinu last week (see Parshat Haazinu 2012). Poetic form might have a play in this matter.
The other verse is certainly hard to understand because of its poetic structure. And that is the verse the we are going to take a look at today. Let us continue on with the fifth verse:
“He was king in Yeshurun,
when the heads of the people congregated
the tribes of Israel were together.”
| behit’asef rashei am
| yachad shivtei Yisra’el
This verse falls into our text before the blessings of each tribe begins, as part of a poetic introduction of sorts. In the second verse of our parsha we have a speech begun that is traditionally understood to be fully in the voice of Moses. There are two preceding verses where G-d is understood as the “He” in this situation, in which He leads the people of Israel from Sinai and through the desert with a fiery law in hand. (see verses 2-3) From this point of view Moses is relating that G-d is really the one that has led them all along. That it is His words that they are going to eternally utter and at His feet they will now sit. This verse five steps back into the same orientation as verses 2-3. G-d is the “He” here in verse 5 too. He is the King spoken of.
Second problem that arises is this, a lot of people don’t understand the use of the name Yeshurun. This is a unique name that is only used three times in the Torah, with the other two occurrences also found here in Deuteronomy as well. (see Deut. 32:15; 33:26); and once in the book of Isaiah (see Isaiah 44:2). In Isaiah it is Israel (Jacob) that is identified as Yeshurun (or Jeshurun in English). This is a nickname for the people of Israel, which in my observations seems to apply when they are corporately together in one place or in one mindset.
There are a few things that further complicate the understanding of the verse, aside from the odd structure and unique nicknames. There seems to also be an odd use of a recognizable word as well. The word is rashei (ראשי). Rosh (the root of the word) means “head,” in this case of “rashei haAm” they are they “heads of the people,” or more precisely “the leaders of the people.”
Rashi suggests that the oddity of this verse is caused by it uses an idiom, a cultural expression.
We have talked about idiomatic phrases before, interestingly it has actually been about this type of phrase. (see Parshat Bemidbar 2012; Parshat KiTissa 2013) Simply put, we have seen how the Hebrew language of the chumash didn’t have a correct word for “census” for example. The closest they could do was describe the “taking a head count.” (se’u et rosh, see Numbers 1:2) This is done “ki tissa et rosh,” when you lift the heads of each person and count them individually among their ranks. (see Exodus 30:12)
Rashi further suggests that this far in the advancement of the language we are able to use the word “rashei” as a simple term for taking account of the people. The word “rashei” thus means “the sum of.” It applies to a whole congregated body of people. Therefore Rashi tells us to understand this verse to mean that when all the people are gathered together to be accounted for then G-d sits as King among Israel, and thus they are worthy of blessing (ראויין אלו שאברכם).
In these intermediate days between Rosh haShanah and Yom haKippurim we have been gathering for so many religious services dedicated to our annual accounting for our deeds and souls. This started with our selichot (penitential prayers) and will continue on until Yom haKippur. (this year Yom Kippur coincides with Shabbat) At this time we corporately atone and seek to have our deed to a good year sealed for us.
I must say that I’ve really been enjoying the holidays, worshiping with the people for whom I feel deeply for. As in most suburban cities, the congregations by me have a very diverse attendance. It’s wonderful to see so many people together for the solemn task of teshuvah (repentance). It is even more awesome when one sees all the people of different backgrounds and affiliations celebrating in peace and joy. People of all walks of Jewish life doing some soul-searching. This is very praise worthy! Truly we are worthy of the holiday birkat kohanim (the priestly blessing) when we determine to come together (b’yachad) as a people.
Rashi also offers us another insight. One that I think is very timely for this season. He suggests that in order to understand this verse it might be helpful if we change the key focus to the word “yachad” (together) and rebuild the verse from that position. His commentary thus reads:
“Another explanation: When Israel is gathered together in a unified group, and there is peace among them, G-d is their King-but not when there is strife among them.”
דבר אחר, בהתאסף, בהתאספם יחד באגודה אחת ושלום ביניהם הוא מלכם, ולא כשיש מחלוקת ביניהם:
Rashi speaks a lesson to us that I hope all of us are considering as we approach these holidays. It is not enough that we just get together, though that is certainly praiseworthy in and of itself. (see Parshat Haazinu 2013) But in order for us to truly be worthy of a blessing, and in order for G-d to truly take His role as King over us, we need to be an “agudah echat / a unified society.” Rashi defines this as being a people who are at peace with each other. Only when there is peace among G-d’s people can He truly rule over us as King. This cannot be so when we are divided by “macholket / arguments.” If we want G-d to rule as King over us, and we want to be sealed for blessing, we need to start first with becoming a united people.
This year we have many more opportunities to congregate. Over the next couple weeks we also have Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Simchat Torah, etc. As we come together for our celebrations we should not just be content to be a nice sized group of people congregated together. It’s not about just getting together as a group, to stick our heads into shul and be counted. It’s also important that as we gather together in unity. With a determination to be a unified people, not divided by strife and bickering. That we put our heads together and be counted as one people.
This year I would like us to try to follow the advice of Rashi. We need to not just strive to be more active in communal life, but to also determine to help the Jewish community be an agudah echat, a single union.
- Selichot: The Penitential Prayers for Rosh haShanah
- Parshat V’Zot haBerachah (2012)
- Parshat V’Zot haBerachah (2011)
- Parshat Bereishit (2012)
- Parshat Bereishit (2011)
- Parshat Haazinu (2013)
- Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech (2013)