The answer of this week's Torah portion – Torah's very last one, and also prelude to Torah's very first one – derives from Moses' very last words to the Children of Israel before he died. These words equally herald the end and the beginning, the ends and the means, the endless cycle of time, and our collective first purpose in a world lurching forward.
V'zot Ha-Berakhah 5784 (2023)
At last, today you see its entrance – a suddenly green valley just across a river. It's beautiful. It's so close – which means that today you will die. What are your last words?
"This is the Blessing"
This final Torah portion (V'zot Ha-Berakhah) opens by narrating Moses' last words as "the blessing" he gave the Children of Israel. This labeling itself is meaningful. Moses models for us keen awareness about how one might wish to be remembered, what lasting impression one may wish to leave our beloveds and friends, and how to fulfill these intentions. (These notions birthed Judaism's tradition of writing a spiritual will.)
What was "the blessing" that Moses gave the Children of Israel? He began:
יהוה מִסִּינַ֥י בָּא֙
וְזָרַ֤ח מִשֵּׂעִיר֙ לָ֔מוֹ
הוֹפִ֙יעַ֙ מֵהַ֣ר פָּארָ֔ן
וְאָתָ֖ה מֵרִבְבֹ֣ת קֹ֑דֶשׁ
מִימִינ֕וֹ אֵ֥שׁ דָּ֖ת לָֽמוֹ׃
אַ֚ף חֹבֵ֣ב עַמִּ֔ים
וְהֵם֙ תֻּכּ֣וּ לְרַגְלֶ֔ךָ
תּוֹרָ֥ה צִוָּה־לָ֖נוּ מֹשֶׁ֑ה
מוֹרָשָׁ֖ה קְהִלַּ֥ת יַעֲקֹֽב׃
וַיְהִ֥י בִישֻׁר֖וּן מֶ֑לֶךְ
בְּהִתְאַסֵּף֙ רָ֣אשֵׁי עָ֔ם
יַ֖חַד שִׁבְטֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
YHVH came from Sinai,
And shined on them from Seir.
[God] appeared from Mount Paran
And approached from Rivevot-kodesh,
Lightning flashing at them from [God’s] right.
Lover, indeed, of the nations,
All of their holy ones are in Your hand.
They followed in Your steps,
Accepting Your pronouncements.
When Moses commanded Torah to us,
As the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob,
[God] became sovereign in Jeshurun,
by the nation's heads gathering themselves,
unifying the tribes of Israel.
Count me doubly confounded, actually. Thanks to Sefaria (the free online living library of Jewish spiritual texts), I researched history's classical interpretations about these verses. Not a single one of them answered these seemingly obvious questions. They didn't even ask!
History's only interpreter who got close was Hayyim ben Moshe ibn Attar (حاييم بن موشي بن عطار), a 1700s Moroccan rabbi who wrote the Torah commentary book Or HaHayyim ("Light of Life," a pun on his own name). He noticed that Moses suddenly began speaking of himself in the third person, but he didn't really offer an explanation for why.
I imagine that when Moses started speaking of himself in the third person, he spoke not as himself in his present moment but as his people in the future. Moses' blessing was to speak into being his prediction for what the people could achieve.
Read that way, to me Moses' words are striking. Someday, Moses predicted, the people will look back and say of the Torah that Moses commanded onto them, in essence, "When we made this Torah our inheritance – when we center our lives on the right and ethical ways of living that Torah encodes – God became truly sovereign. Our leaders finally came together, and all the people were unified as one."
If so, then the context of Moses' prediction is especially poignant. Speaking his last words at the doorstep of the Land of Promise that he'd give anything to enter, Moses proclaims that Torah, not the Land of Promise, is the true inheritance. It's not to diminish the Land of Promise as a beacon and homeland, but to position the Land as a fulcrum of learning and living Torah. The Land is a pointer: it's not the point.
It's Up to Us: Even God is Up to Us
And something even more profound. If we really get it, if we live Torah (both the Five Books of Moses and the broader corpus of Jewish spiritual teachings) as our true inheritance, then God will be sovereign. It's all up to us.
Jewish theology and spirituality are nuanced and multi-layered. God, holiness, the nature of the universe, are understood to exist and transcend whether or not we experience them. And at the same time, our experience or non-experience is understood to be one of the key ways in which we live, relate, wrestle, pray, love and act in this world. Both are "true."
In this understanding, prophets can say things like "You are My witnesses, says God, that I am the Eternal One" (Isaiah 43:10), but what if we don't actually witness? Then, say the mystics, it is as if "I am not, as it were, God" (Pesikta d'Rav Kahana).
Put another way, we are the channels by which divinity flows into the world. When we live in that way, divinity becomes sovereign on our human plane, and then leaders naturally come together and the people naturally unify. In this vision, as Zachariah 14:19 put it in words that would become the end of our Aleinu liturgy:
יִהְיֶ֧ה יְהֹוָ֛ה אֶחָ֖ד
l'melekh al kol ha-aretz
yihyeh Adonai ehad
YHVH will be
sovereign over all the earth
On that day,
YHVH will be One
and God's name One.
Thus Moses and Torah meet their end: a beginningless beginning, an Eternal forming cosmos from chaos titrated until we – all humanity – are called to become the channels for what will be. And with this ending comes a new beginning for our calling, for our understanding, for the blessing we are called to become, for the flow of the sacred in this world.
And with this beginning, a new beginning for Torah as we roll the scroll from end to start and begin again, when the Eternal began without beginning the flow of creation, and everything was a jumbled void, and darkness hovered on the surface of the deep, and the holy spirit fluttered on the surface of the deep. And the Eternal said, "Let there be..." –