Thursday, October 1, 2015

Parashat V’zot Habracha 5776 From Sinai to Jerusalem

Echoes of Eden
 Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat V’zot Habracha 5776
From Sinai to Jerusalem

In the final parashah of the Torah, Moshe takes leave of his people by blessing them:

And this is the blessing with which Moshe, the man of God, blessed the children of Israel [just] before his death. He said: "God came from Sinai and shone forth from Seir to them; He appeared from Mount Paran … (Devarim 32:2)

As a preface to the blessings he is about to bestow upon them, Moshe makes reference to two specific geographical locations, two places that have been mentioned before but whose significance he does not explain:  Se’ir and Paran. Rashi, drawing upon earlier traditions[1], fills in the blanks for us:

…and shone forth from Se’ir to them: [Why did He come from Se’ir?] Because God first offered the children of Esav [who dwelled in Se’ir] that they accept the Torah, but they did not want [to accept it].

…from Mount Paran: [Why did God then come from Paran?] Because He went there and offered the children of Yishmael [who dwelled in Paran] to accept the Torah, but they [also] did not want [to accept it]. (Rashi, Devarim 32:2)
Rashi, always a sensitive reader of the text, explains these cryptic references to long-forgotten places through the application of a well-known tradition that has clear textual grounding: Yishmael, son of Hagar and Avraham, “settled in the Paran wilderness” after he and his mother were banished from Avraham’s tent (Bereishit 21:21), while Esav’s domain in Se’ir was well-known to this generation of Israelites, who had been instructed to steer well clear of the inheritance given to the other son of Yitzchak (Devarim 2:5). Rashi deftly weaves the textual associations of Se’ir and Paran together with the tradition regarding their unwillingness to accept the Torah: Each of these sons of Avraham had been given the opportunity to become the People of the Book, as it were, but each had rejected the offer when they found out what was involved.

This approach stands in stark contrast to the approach of the Children of Israel. At the foot of Mount Sinai, when offered the Torah, they responded without hesitation:  “Na’aseh v’nishma” – “we will do and we will hear”. They accepted the Torah “sight unseen”, as it were, without question, without consideration of the pragmatics, of the demands that their acceptance of this Divine gift would entail.

The relationship between God and the Children of Israel is not dependent upon the content of the Torah; rather, the Torah is an expression of the unique relationship between them. This relationship, also described by Rashi, in the verse that prefaces Moshe’s parting blessings:

And this is the blessing with which Moshe, the man of God, blessed the children of Israel [just] before his death. He said: "God came from Sinai…’
He came out toward them when they came to stand at the foot of the mountain, as a bridegroom goes forth to greet his bride, as it is said, “[And Moshe brought the people forth] toward God” (Shmot 19:17). We learn from this that God came out toward them. (Rashi, Devarim 32:2)

In a sense, when the Jews accepted the Torah, they entered into a covenant with God, taking a vow similar to those of marriage. When a man and woman are wed, they do not know what fortune (or perhaps misfortune) awaits; their future is a book that is as yet unwritten. Their marriage is not based upon any assurance of what the content of that book will be; it is based upon their love for one another, and the decision that they wish to share the journey into the unknown. Rashi contrasts the pragmatic relationship, the aborted relationship between God and the nations that live in Se’ir and Paran, with the loving relationship entered into by those who declared “na’aseh v’nishma”, who had no expectation of reading the content of the book before making the loving commitment to the future of their relationship. Esav and Yishmael demanded to read the fine print before entering into the covenant; what they read seemed to them excessively demanding, and they declined God’s offer. The sons of Yaakov, on the other hand, had complete trust in the One who had offered them the covenant, and wanted nothing more than the loving relationship that this covenant would foster.

There may be a deeper level to this teaching: The names of the two protagonists, Esav and Yishmael, are suspiciously similar to the two words said by the children of Israel, na’aseh v’nishma (we will do we will listen). Taking careful note of the roots of these Hebrew words unlocks layers of meaning that might be overlooked in translations: The word na’aseh (we will do) shares the root asah with the name of Yitzchak’s son Esav, while nishma (we will listen) shares its root, shama, with the name Yishmael.[2]

There are several conclusions that we might draw from this etymological lesson: On the one hand, we might see within it an emphasis on the fidelity of the Jews versus the hesitation of those who perhaps might lay claim to some part of the inheritance of Avraham: The Children of Israel succeeded, in declaring na’aseh v’nishma, where the children of Esav and Yishmael had failed. Furthermore, we may say that in using these precise words, the Children of Israel channeled the spiritual power and potential that the others had forfeited.

On the other hand, as we approach the final verses of the Five Books of Moshe - and begin again, returning to Genesis, to Bereishit, to Creation, perhaps there is a new hope. All of mankind was created in the image of God; the entire world was created with spiritual potential. The message of the last chapter of Devarim leads directly to the message of the first chapter of Bereishit: those who succeeded in creating this unique, loving bond with God, and those who failed. We are given the opportunity to pause and wonder, to pause and hope, that the realty of the past does not dictate the destiny of the future. We do not rest on the laurels of the blessings of V’Zot HaBrachah and the knowledge that our relationship with God is unique; instead, we wait for the day that all peoples of the earth will embrace the word of God and live in tranquility.

Also the strangers that join themselves to God to serve Him and to love the name of God, to be His servants I will bring them to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer; their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices shall be acceptable upon My altar, for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus declares the Almighty God who gathers the dispersed of Israel: Yet I will gather others to him, beside those that are gathered. (Yishayahu 56:6-8)

Chazak Chazak V’nitchazek!

[1] See Sifri Dvarim V’zot Habracha Piska 343.
[2] This teaching is found in the commentary of the Vilna Gaon in his Aderet Eliyahu, Dvarim 32:2, and in numerous places in the writings of the Hid”a, who attributes the idea to the Torat Haim (authored by R. Abraham Hayyim ben R. Naftali Tzvi Hirsch Schor, d. 1632) commentary to Talmud Bavli Avoda Zara 2b.

                                               Echoes of Eden

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