Parshat V’zot HaBerachah has two focuses: the blessing that Moses bestows on Israel before his death and the account of his death.
Moses’ blessing to Israel almost forces a comparison to the corresponding blessing in Genesis 49, the blessing that Jacob bestows on his sons before his death. These two blessings are not just a leader’s parting words before his death; they also contain an aspect of guidance and prophecy.
The main difference between the blessings is that Jacob’s blessing relates to all the tribes, whereas Moses’ blessing skips at least one tribe – the tribe of Simeon.
The reason for this is that Jacob’s blessing is primarily directed to his sons, and since he has twelve sons, each one merits attention. In Moses’ blessing, however, this is not the case. Although he relates to the existing units that are still based on the tribal division, he has before him another significant structure: the People of Israel. Indeed, a considerable part of Moses’ blessing – both its beginning and its end – relates not at all to individual tribes but to the People of Israel as a nation, in which the division into tribes, despite their significance, is becoming increasingly blurred.
Another difference between the blessings is their tone. Although Jacob’s blessing is a father’s parting blessing to his sons, Jacob tells his sons from the outset that he will not only relate to them as they are now, but will also prophesy future events. By contrast, in Moses’ blessing, although it, too, certainly contains allusions and references to future events, the main focus is on the tribes as they are in the present, not in the future. In short, Moses’ blessing is composed only of words of blessing, whereas Jacob’s blessing contains words of reproof and prophecy as well.
Jacob, alongside the prophecies for the future and the words of praise for some of his sons, does not spare his first three sons harsh words of reproof for their past mistakes and sins. By contrast, in Moses’ blessing, there are no words of condemnation at all.
The reason for this is that Moses is not the father of the tribes; he cannot act like Jacob, who, upon departing from this world, could address his sons’ sins. Hence, Moses does not mention the sins themselves at all.
Although it is reasonable to assume that his omission of the tribe of Simeon is not accidental but is a value judgment of the tribe, Moses does not spell this out. Additionally, although the Torah does not spell out the matter entirely, most of the sinners involved in Israel’s sin at Shittim were Simeonites. A hint of this can be detected in the killing of one of the tribe’s princes by Pinchas, and another hint emerges from the final census taken of Israel in the wilderness, in which the only tribe whose number has decreased drastically is Simeon.1 This numerical decrease corresponds more or less to the number of those who died or were killed after the sin at Shittim. Nevertheless, Moses does not censure the tribe, but merely ignores it, or, as several commentators suggest, subtly includes it within the tribe of Judah.
Moses and Joshua
Besides these contextual differences, whether in the nature of the one giving the blessing or in the purpose of the blessing, there are differences in the treatment of the tribes themselves.
Like Jacob’s blessing, Moses’ blessing features Judah and Joseph prominently. These two tribes serve important roles, not only in the present but also in the future of the Jewish people. However, whereas Jacob’s prophetic blessing, which relates both to the individual personality and the distant future, gives almost equal treatment to Judah and Joseph, Moses’ blessing of Joseph is greater and more detailed than that of Judah. Here, too, as in Jacob’s blessing, Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Menashe, are blessed independently.
Although the commentators have not discussed the matter comprehensively, the extraordinary emphasis on the tribes of Joseph in Moses’ blessing is not a vision for distant generations. In fact, over the generations, the position and significance of the tribe of Judah has been much more central than any other tribe, including the tribes of Joseph. Here, in Moses’ blessing, the focus is on the present and immediate future, and is probably connected with Joshua.
Joshua was not just a member of the tribe of Joseph; he had a direct familial connection to the tribe’s leadership.2 For this reason, Moses gives special attention to the tribe that is most closely connected to him, the tribe of his right-hand man Joshua.
Although in the blessing itself Joshua is not mentioned by name, in the final parashot his character grows in significance, for Joshua fulfills the complicated and difficult role of taking over the leadership of Israel after Moses.
Anyone who enters the shoes of a giant personality will inevitably suffer from the comparison, whether he is a disciple or a son. Indeed, in Jewish history throughout the generations, we see how people who, taken on their own merits, were supremely exalted individuals, yet did not attain the prominence they deserved because their predecessors were so great that no one could properly succeed them.
The Talmud’s characterization of Joshua demonstrates this clearly: “Moses’ countenance was like that of the sun; Joshua’s countenance was like that of the moon.”3 Although the moon is a great luminary as well, its light and intensity cannot be compared to those of the sun.
A less ancient historical example is the case of Rabbi Abraham the son of Maimonides, whose achievements were overshadowed by those of his great father. If Rabbi Abraham had lived in another context, he certainly would have received greater attention as one of the outstanding Torah leaders of the generation.
In addition to replacing Moses, Joshua is also given the responsibility of conquering the Land of Israel. An almost direct reference to this important task appears in Moses’ blessing to Joseph: “His firstling ox, majesty is his; and his horns are the horns of the wild ox. With them he will gore the peoples all of them, even the ends of the earth.”4
Many interpret that the special treatment accorded to the tribe of Gad, the length of whose blessing is disproportionate to the tribe’s historical importance, is because the blessing contains an allusion to Moses’ own personality. When Jacob blesses his sons, he is certainly aware that he is addressing the tribes of Israel, but his blessings still retain a personal aspect. Moses’ blessing, however, is addressed to the entire people, and thus there is no room for a personal element. Nevertheless, Moses seems to grant the tribe of Gad a special blessing because he knows that his burial site will be within their allotted territory. As he says, “for that is where the plot of the Lawgiver is hidden.”5
Simeon and Levi
The biggest difference between Jacob’s blessing and Moses’ blessing is how they relate to the tribe of Levi.
Levi the man, the son of Jacob, receives from his father both words of reproof and a dim prediction of his future as dispersed and scattered, without a hold in any specific point of settlement in the Land of Israel.6
By contrast, Moses’ blessing sets forth for the tribe of Levi the possibility of redefinition and rectification. By changing their ways, the Levites have the ability to gain a new awareness, which can not only rectify past faults but can also transform them from evil to good.
In addition, the tribe of Levi receives a lengthy and detailed blessing that relates to the tribe’s special status, which was granted to it not only by G‑d’s choice but also as a consequence of its deeds. During the wilderness years, the tribe of Levi distinguished itself as the tribe of loyalists, the personal guard of the Sanctuary and the sacred. In this regard, G‑d’s command and His choice of the tribe of Levi came as a result of the complete devotion and faithfulness of the tribe’s members to G‑d and His Torah.
The Midrash notes that Jacob’s blessing to Simeon and Levi, “I will disperse them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel,” took on different meanings over the generations.7 The tribe of Simeon, along with its territory, was absorbed almost entirely by the neighboring tribes over the course of its history, and it is mentioned sparingly throughout Tanach. Jacob’s prophecy was fulfilled also in regard to Levi, only that it assumed a different form: Although Levi was not given any portion or inheritance, “G‑d is his heritage.”8
The blessing here to Levi bears an important message, which becomes especially clear when compared to Jacob’s blessing. Apparently, the destiny of a person or of a whole community is predetermined and cannot be changed. Even after numerous efforts and changes in direction, life’s general outline remains unchanged. Nevertheless, there are ways in which inner changes, teshuvah, and good deeds can give a new aspect to one’s predetermined fate. Even though there is a certain outline that cannot be fundamentally changed, nevertheless, every person has the power to change the meaning of this outline.
Similarly, our sages say that every newborn infant already has, from the beginning of his existence, contours that determine his characteristics, his achievements, even the nature of his personal life, yet he nevertheless has the freedom to change all of these.9 This does not contradict what was preordained but, rather, changes its meaning.
At end of the parshah, the Torah’s description of Moses’ death is quite obscure. On the one hand, G‑d fulfills His promise to Moses and shows him the Land of Israel. Our sages explain that He shows Moses not only the geography of the Land of Israel but also everything that is destined to take place in it.10 Moses gazes and sees not only the mountains and the sea but also the history, its rises and its majesty as well as its pains and its desolation.
Nevertheless, since Moses dies alone, his death is, in many respects, a mystery. From Israel’s point of view, Moses does not die; he returns to his own plane of existence. Moses is described as “a fish that leaves the sea and walks on dry land,”11 meaning that although he walked and lived his life within our reality, he belongs and exists in a different world entirely. For this reason, Maimonides, who was a great admirer of Moses, writes in the introduction to his Commentary on the Mishna, “This was his death for us, since he was lost to us, but [it was] life for him, in that he was elevated to Him.
As [our sages], peace be upon them, said, ‘Moses our Master did not die; rather, he ascended and is serving on high.’12” Moses dies only from the standpoint of his absence from the world, the world of human beings, but not in the sense of coming to an end.
The Torah implies that Moses is buried by G‑d Himself; hence, Moses’ burial is itself a supernatural event. In addition, we read in Pirkei Avot that Moses’ burial is one of the physical creations that do not fully belong to the material world.13
We see, then, that Moses’ death was not a consequence of bodily deterioration and ruin, for “his eyes had not dimmed and his vigor had not departed.”14 Hence, Moses’ death was merely a “departure” – histalkut, in the lexicon of Kabbala: an uplift, an ascent.
The grand summary regarding Moses and his life’s work raises here what Maimonides counts among the major principles of our faith: that the prophecy of Moses is the highest prophecy of all; that there never was nor will there ever be anyone like Moses, whose prophecy is the last word, the final summation of G‑d’s word to the world.
It is certainly fitting to conclude the book with the following mysterious words, which we would not have believed had our sages not uttered them: “What is the meaning of ‘Moses, man of G‑d’15? From the middle of his [body] downward, [he was] a man; from the middle upward, [he was] of G‑d.”16
2. I Chr. 7:26–27.
3. Bava Batra 75a.
4. Deut. 33:17.
5. see Rashi, Deut. 33:21.
6. Gen. 49:7.
7. Genesis Rabbah 99:6.
8. Deut. 10:9.
9. Niddah 16b.
10. Mechilta, Beshalach2.
11. See Zohar, Balak 187–188.
12. Sotah 13b.
13. Avot 5:6.
14. Deut. 34:7.
15. Deut. 33:1.
16. Deuteronomy Rabbah 11:4. By Adin Even-Israel (Steinsaltz) Rabbi Adin Even-Israel (Steinsaltz) (1937-2020) was internationally regarded as one of the leading rabbis of this century. The author of many books, he was best known for his monumental translation of and commentary on the Talmud. To learn more visit his website. Koren Publishers Jerusalem and Maggid Books have been publishing the works of Rav Even-Israel (Steinsaltz) zt”l for over a decade. To purchase the complete edition of Talks on the Parasha or any of Rav Even-Israel’s books, commentaries, or translations, visit www.korenpub.com.Art by Rivka Korf Studio, a Miami-based art design studio run by Rivka Korf, a coffee lover and mother. Rivka uses her expertise and creativity to run a team that creates masterful compositions and illustrations for corporate and large nonprofit organizations.