“And this is the blessing that Moses, the man of God, blessed the children of Israel before his death” (Deut. 33:1). So begins Parashat Ve-zo’t ha-Beracha. This parasha, whose opening verse combines death and blessings, seems eerily suited to the present state of affairs. We have lived through a summer of multiple conflicts around the globe, none closer to my heart than that between Israel and Gaza. Too many deaths and too much destruction will linger too long in the minds of both peoples. Better then to turn to blessing because that is what we all desperately need. I have set out to understand more about the noun beracha, ‘blessing,’ in Torah and the content of this, Moses’ last blessing.
The noun “Beracha” in the Torah
The noun beracha, appears almost exclusively in just two books of Torah: Genesis and Deuteronomy. Thus at the beginning and again at the end, blessing provides a frame in which the story of the people Israel is told. Deuteronomy 28:6 proclaims “blessed are you in your comings and blessed shall you be in your goings,” knowing that in moments of transition and flux, we need blessings to strengthen us for what lies ahead.
Genesis: Inclusive vs. Exclusive Blessings
Beracha first appears in Gen 12:2 precisely as Abraham embarks on his journey to an unknown land. God reassures him “and you shall be a blessing (וֶהְיֵה בְּרָכָה).” This is an exceedingly important idea in Torah. God relies on humans to bring blessing into the world. We only have to think of Abraham’s subsequent conversation with God (Gen 18:22-33) in defense of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah or Aaron’s priestly blessing (Num 6:22-27) to further illustrate the point. Yet humans, and even blessings, are often sources of anguish and strife. So it is in the next story in which ‘blessing’ appears- -that of Jacob and Esau.
Jacob takes the blessing meant for Esau and engenders resentment in his brother (Gen 27: 12, 35, 36, 38, 41). The tension long boiling between the brothers explodes once Isaac prepares to bless only one of his sons. Thus does the story problematize an exclusive blessing given at the expense of another. Many years later Jacob offers Esau a blessing that leads to reconciliation (Gen 33:11). Blessings are most efficacious when extended to others.
Unfortunately, Jacob does not live by his own life experience. In the passage that bears most resemblance to Deut. 33, Jacob’s deathbed speech, he offers a ‘blessing’ only to Joseph in 49:25 and 26.
25 The God of your father who helps you, And Shad-dai who blesses you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that couches below, blessings of the breast and womb. 26 The blessings of your father surpass the blessings of my ancestors, to the utmost bounds of the eternal hills. May they rest on the head of Joseph, on the brow of the elect of his brothers (NJPS).
Parts of Jacob’s speech sound more like bitter curses than blessing: ‘unstable as water, you shall excel no longer (פַּחַז כַּמַּיִם אַל־תּוֹתַר)’ or ‘cursed be their anger (אָרוּר אַפָּם).’ Even at the end, Jacob nurses old grievances and favors Joseph over his brothers. ‘Blessing’ has mixed results in Genesis. Competition, resentment and exclusion threaten to overshadow possibilities for reconciliation.
Deuteronomy: The Power of Blessings
Deuteronomy’s treatment of blessings is altogether different; the book trusts in the sheer power of blessings. While the threat of curses hovers over the people Israel, blessings can counter them (11:26, 29 and 30:1, 19). God even transforms a curse into a blessing: “And YHWH your God turned the curse into a blessing for you for YHWH your God loves you” (23:6).
Moses gives his last blessing—Deut 33—to all the children of Israel. It opens with God’s arrival from Sinai and other southern environs to join the people Israel. God’s southern locale is mentioned in other poems of great antiquity including Deborah’s Song in Judges 5 and a few psalms, helping to date this poem to the same early period. Tigay points out that the tribes appear in Moses’ blessing in an order based on where each of them settled geographically. In Deut 33:4, we are reminded that God has given Torah to the people as an inheritance for the generations. This is a poem meant not only for the generation of Moses but also for us.
Blessing Joseph with Bounty and a Legacy
Just as Jacob singles Joseph out in Genesis, so now in Deut. 33: 13-17, Moses singles out Joseph by offering him the longest blessing. Unlike Jacob, however, Moses also extends his blessing to the other tribes. But Joseph’s blessing offers the reader a deeper glimpse into an essential dimension of biblical blessings as well as reinforces the notion that human beings are agents of God’s blessings in the world.
One word stands out in Joseph’s blessing — ‘bounty’ (מגד). It appears once in verses 13, 15, and 16, and 2x in v. 14. Its repeated use suggests that ‘bounty’ is an essential aspect of Joseph’s blessing. It is a rare word, appearing only in this poem, and again in Song of Songs (4:13, 16, 7:14). Its use in the Song suggests luscious fruits that would delight the palate in an atmosphere of love and appreciation. That context suggests that, in Deuteronomy, Moses blesses the tribe of Joseph not just with an abundance of food, as important as that may be in an agricultural society, but with a sustenance that expresses God’s love for Joseph and his descendants.
An unusual reference in verse 16 – ‘the Dweller in the Bush’ – links Joseph more directly to Moses as God’s particular partners in bringing blessing into the world. Both characters protect and shepherd the people Israel and hence, deserve God’s continuing favor. Joseph keeps his family alive and brings them safely down to Egypt. Moses leads the descendants of that family, the people Israel, out of Egypt toward the Promised Land.
The Meaning of the Blessing
Although Moses singles out Joseph with extra blessings, he promises agricultural success — a land well watered by dew that produces ample quantities of grain and wine — to all the tribes of Israel as well as success in trade through extracting the riches of the seas and sands. Sustenance and prosperity are gifts indeed. Moses also blesses the people Israel with survival and victory over their foes. Above all, he promises them security in the blessing’s final verses. Note that ‘untroubled’ is the blessed consequence of feeling ‘safe’.
28 And Israel shall dwell in safety
untroubled is the fountain of Jacob
In a land of grain and wine
Under heavens dripping dew
29 O happy Israel who is like you?
A people delivered by YHWH ….
Conclusion: Extending the Blessing
It is quite moving to discern Moses’ longing for his people to live in safety and in peace as the blessing ends. But Genesis has taught that ‘blessing’ works best, without unintended grievances, if extended to others (Jacob offers his blessing to Esau). In Deuteronomy Moses expands ‘blessing’ to include all of Jacob’s sons, the tribes of Israel.
The next step would be to spread these blessings beyond the people Israel. How much all the peoples of the earth need such blessings is beyond dispute. Blessings and curses remain ours to choose and reject. Both are actualized through people, God’s agents in the world.
Note that in the Jewish calendar Ve-zot Ha-berachah is chanted not on Shabbat as part of the weekly, annual cycle of Torah readings, but on Simchat Torah. We hold this ancient blessing close on that holiday by dancing with and celebrating the Torah in which it is written. Let us take its words to heart.
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November 5, 2014
October 20, 2019
Dr. Adriane Leveen is Senior Lecturer in Hebrew Bible at Hebrew Union College. She received her Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from the University of California and her M.S. in Social Work from Columbia University. Leveen is the author of Memory and Tradition in the Book of Numbers and has contributed essays to the Oxford Handbook to Biblical Narrative and The Torah: A Women’s Commentary.
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