Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – V’zot Habrachah

Comrade Lenin stands before the crowd, victorious in his revolution. He announces to the people that it is time for Mother Russia to come together. He has a letter from Comrade Trotsky apologizing. It is time to make amends. He reads the letter.

“Comrade Lenin, you were right. I was wrong. I should apologize.”

The crowd cheered except for one old man standing near the front. Lenin looked at him and said, “Comrade, why are you not cheering?” the old man answered, “With all due respect, Comrade. Comrade Trotsky is Jewish. You read the letter wrong.” Enraged, Lenin screamed, “Well, then, how should it be read?” The old man took the letter, saying, “You know us Jews, we question everything.”

“V’zot Habrachah – These are the blessings.” The Torah portion begins with these words, and then it lists each of the tribes and their “final” blessings before Moses rides off into the sunset with God. Each tribe gets called out for good tidings, even though out of order in terms of the birthright. For the favored children, Moses devotes several verses to each. The rest get a smattering of praise. Of course, the lost tribes of Israel get lost in the mix – a few have to share a single verse of blessing, not even getting one to their own. Even in the moment of blessing, the reader has to acknowledge that Moses (or God) picked favorites.

On a simple level, this reading could serve to validate the religious hierarchies that we throw at each other, “Mine is more important than yours.” To read the text in this light, we must remember that the text has no punctuation. We would have to read the Torah thusly, “THESE ARE THE BLESSINGS?” It is as if to say, “Such a blessing we don’t need.” Or, as the reader, “Is this any way to bless?”

Blessings for some and not others foment hostility between folks. History has demonstrated that axiom pretty clearly. Revolutions happen because of the disconnect between the haves and have nots. Even one of the first Biblical stories calls “favoritism” into question. Without precedent or instruction, Cain brought God an offering from the crops he grew and reaped. Seeing this demonstration, younger brother Abel went out to his fields, selected the choicest animal (of which he had no control in developing), and cooked it for God. God liked the cooked meat over the vegetables (such a guy thing to do). Not only did God reject Cain’s offer, but God then shamed Cain for being disappointed. “Sin crouches at your door!” In the aftermath, Cain kills his brother. Commentators argue that God’s capricious behavior makes God complicit in Abel’s murder. The Torah says that in the aftermath, God protects Cain rather than punishing him.

That begs the question here, “How can we expect this type of blessing (Deut. 33:1) to be God’s final words to the people?” A simple answer would be that they are not God’s final words. God keeps speaking through prophets and sages across the boundaries of tradition and community change: our real-world experience. These are, however, the last words from Moses, who claims to speak on behalf of God. Moses is not happy with the people. He gave up his peaceful old age to return to Egypt to secure their freedom and lead them to freedom. Repeatedly, they rebelled. He blames them for God’s decision to keep him from crossing into the Promised Land. We don’t know what God told Moses. We know what Moses told the people on behalf of God. What if he manipulated the message? What if God wanted to demonstrate an equal blessing for all, but Moses did not? As revered as he is, as strong a leader and advocate as he was, perhaps we forget that he was still human. Whether we agree with his assessments and admonitions over the course of the story, we have to remember that he is human. No different than Lenin or Cain, Moses sometimes made egregious errors of judgment. Our immediate response is condemnation, but we have to wonder as to our complicity in the affront. The old man helped set Lenin straight as to Trotsky’s intention. Who worked with Moses to set him straight? Who helped Cain understand that it was not his fault that God rejected him? When things go wrong in the world, some may be guilty, but we are all responsible. If we speak about blessings, and we should, let’s make sure everyone benefits from them. Some will always have more or different than others, but no one should be without equal and egalitarian dignity.

Shabbat Shalom.