This Week's Torah Portion: The Final Passage (Part 51)

Shabbath Chol haMo‘ed – Parashath VëZoth haBëracha

(Deuteronomy XXXIII, 1-XXXIV, 12)

Here are the first two verses of the last parasha in the Torah:

Vëzoth habëracha asher bérach Moshe ish ha’Elo-him eth bënei Yisra’él lifnei motho. Vayomer Ha-Shem miSinai ba’ vëzarach miSé‘ir lamo, hofia‘ méhar Paran vë’atha mérivëvoth qodesh, mimino ésh dath lamo.

 And this is the blessing which Moshe, the man of G-d, blessed the bënei Yisra’él before his death, And he said, Ha-Shem came from Sinai and shined forth to them from Sé‘ir; He appeared from Mount Paran and came from the myriads to holiness; from His right hand, the fire of religion to them.

Rabbi Ya‘aqov ben Asher, the Ba‘al haTurim, notes that the gimatriya (numerical value) of the letters forming the words Vëzoth habëracha (649) is the same as that of the phrase zo hi’ haTorah (“this is the Torah”). Thus, the blessing to which the first verse refers is the Torah itself.

In this light, the ésh dath, the “fire of religion” in the second verse, can also be understood as referring to the Torah. The Rabbis tell us in the holy Zohar (III, 135a) that the passage refers to the events of Shavu‘oth, i.e. Mattan Torah (“the giving of the Torah”). There, they tell us that the Torah was given in “two sides,” a right and a left.

Perhaps this can be understood as referring to the mitzvoth lo’ tha‘ase (“negative commandments”) on the left and the mitzvoth ‘asé (“positive commandments”) on the right. If so, then the phrase mimino ésh dath lamo can be interpreted as emphasizing Israel’s mission in this world — nullifying the hold of base materialism on mankind, preparing all mankind for Divine service by elevating the material world to the realm of qëdusha (“sanctity”) through performance of the mitzvoth ‘asé.

The Talmud (‘Avoda Zara 2b) explains the phrases ëzarach miSé‘ir and hofia‘ méhar Paran as demonstrating that G-d went around to every nation in the world offering the Torah, but found no takers other than Israel.

Thus, Sé‘ir refers to ‘Ésav and those nations stemming from him (cf. Genesis XXXVI, 8) while Har Paran refers to Yishma‘él and those nations descended from him (ibid., XXI, 21). Rabbi Baruch haLévi Epstein, in his Torah Tëmima, asks the excellent question: Why does the Torah single out these specific nations? After all, there are many others in the world unrelated either to Yishma‘él or ‘Ésav. He answers that if any of the nations could be expected to have a claim on the Torah, it would be these two, because of their relationship to the Patriarchs. If they would reject it, then surely so would the others.

This thesis finds support in the Zohar (III, 192a):

When the Holy One, Blessed is He, wanted to give the Torah, He went and called the sons of ‘Ésav and they did not accept it … He went to the sons of Yishma‘él and they did not want to accept it … Since they did not want it, He returned to Israel.

Having established the above scenario, the Zohar then asks another excellent question:

When the Holy One, Blessed is He, went to Sé‘ir, to which prophet of theirs did He reveal Himself? And when He went to Paran, to which prophet of theirs did He reveal Himself? If you say that He revealed Himself to these peoples en masse, we have never found any record of this save concerning Israel, alone at Moshe’s hands. And further, it seems that the verse ought to read, “Ha-Shem came to Sinai and shined to Sé‘ir to them; He appeared to Mount Paran to them.” Why does it say, “from Sé‘ir to them” and “from Paran”?

The Zohar also records Rabbi Shim‘on bar Yochai’s answer to this question: that G-d consulted with the “guardian angels,” the sarim of the nations. When offered the Torah, Ésav’s sar asked first what was written in it. When he was told lo’ thirtzach (“you will not murder”; Exodus XX, 13), he rejected it, since the empire of the Romans, Ésav’s descendants, was entirely founded upon warfare and bloodshed.

He suggested instead that it be given to the “sons of Ya‘aqov, to whom it is suited.” Therefore, the verse reads “and He shined from Sé‘ir to them,” i.e. Israel, that is. He took the “light” from Ésav and added it to that of Israel. Thus was any residual claim to Yitzchaq’s patrimony on Ésav’s part disposed of.

G-d then turned to the sar of Yishma‘él, who similarly asked first what was written in it, and was told lo’ thin’af (“you will not commit adultery”; Exodus, ibid.). The sar wailed that he could not accept such a thing; after all, his earthly charge had been blessed: “And I shall make him fruitful and multiply him very, very much” (Genesis XVII, 20), as well as “and he will make men wild” (ibid., XVI, 12). The Torah would obviously be a hindrance to carrying out such a destiny. Accordingly, the sar reminded G-d that Avraham had another son: “Behold the sons of Yitzchaq; give it to them, it suits them.” Therefore, He “appeared from Mount Paran” with Yishma‘él’s claim on Avraham’s patrimony.

In short, Israel owes a debt of gratitude to the nations of the world, for Israel was singled out to receive the blessing of Torah because they refused it.

The great Rabbi of Prague, Rabbi Yisha‘ya haLévi Horowitz (known affectionately as the Shëlah), asserts that there is an organic relationship between parashoth of the Torah and the season in which they are read in the synagogue. Perhaps the connection between our parasha and Sukkoth lies in that very debt of gratitude. One of the distinguishing marks of Sukkoth is that more sacrifices were offered in the Temple than on any other holiday. Seventy oxen were sacrificed over the holiday’s seven days (Numbers XXIX, 12-34). The Talmud tells us (Sukka 55b) that these seventy oxen were offered on behalf of the seventy root nations of the world.

Eventually, as we read in the haftara, the prophetic reading for the first day of Sukkoth Zechariah XIV, 16-19) the estrangement between the nations and the Torah-nation will end; all the nations will come to celebrate Sukkoth in Jerusalem, in belated recognition of the truth and faithful Israel’s devotion to it.