A project in memory of Baruch Leib HaKohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya.
Most of this parsha is the song Hashem told Moshe to teach the Jewish people, to place in their mouths. Few of us remember that it’s one of the few parts of the Torah we are told to know well. Rashi adds more than a little to that — for all that it’s one of the shortest parashiyot in the Torah, there are extensive Rashis. Let’s look at a few.
Torah as a Source of Joy
The second verse, 32;2, has Moshe hoping that his sayings will descend like dew. As opposed to rain, which sometimes upsets people — travelers or those whose open-air cisterns were filled with wine (which would be damaged by being diluted by rain) — dew is always a source of joy.
There are various translations of כשעירים עלי דשא, the next clause. Rashi reads it as storm winds on grass, a reference to the fact that those winds strengthen the grass and help it grow. Torah too strengthens those who study it and makes them greater.
For Rashi, Moshe’s prayer is that the effect of his words will be joy and growth. Although there are also warnings in this Song, that’s not its intent or import. It is one last way for Moshe to help us remember the attitude to Torah we should cultivate, that it is, if we let it be, a source of joy and growth to greatness.
Seeing History Correctly
Verses six and seven focus on the role history can play in keeping us close to Hashem. Verse six refers to us as an עם נבל, which literally means ungrateful. Rashi says it’s that we forgot what had been done for us; the next words, ולא חכם, and not wise, mean that we don’t take account of the future, of Hashem’s ability to give us good or bad.
That’s the theme of the next verse as well, our need to remember “the days of old” which, for Rashi, refer us back to earlier generations who disobeyed or angered Hashem. Having insight into the generations includes the generation of Enosh, when midrashic tradition remembered a small flood (small is relative — like a tsunami), and then the generation of the Flood. An alternate interpretation says it’s a call to remember all the good Hashem is waiting to bring, the Messianic era and the World to Come.
The last element is who we can turn to for this proper view of history. The verse names אביך and זקניך, which Rashi reads as the prophets and the Sages. History is not simply a series of facts that anyone can decode with hard work. It is a series of facts that can be strung together in various ways, only some of which point us in the direction we (and the world) need to go, the direction of recognizing Hashem’s Providence in history.
History can show us what not to do, how to avoid the errors of the past generations that brought destruction to the world, can remind us of what lies in store if we do good, and — read correctly, by the right interpreters — can show us how to bring a future that’s better than the past.
The Favor Non-Jewish Oppressors Did Us
By the time Moshe Rabbenu gets up to verse 27 (I have skipped his predictions of the good Hashem brought us, the bad we did, the punishments we got), the tide has turned against the Jewish people, who have ignored all Hashem did for them and instead worshipped other gods. Verse 27 tells us לולי כעס אויב אגור, were it not for the pent-up anger of other nations, who would destroy the Jews given the chance, life might have gotten even worse.
It’s not that they would have killed us that’s the problem, it’s that they’d assume it was their gods that did it. Lacking in any counsel (גוי אובד עצות המה, in this reading, refers to those nations), or insight, they don’t see that their remarkable victory — one of them chasing a thousand Jews, and so on — came from a different source than their own military prowess.
Were it not for this stubborn refusal to see the true Source of what was happening, Hashem might have let them go further in the punishment we deserved. It is thanks to their blindness that we got less than we might have.
Doubting Their Leaders
More than once, we’ve seen that Chazal didn’t shy away from seeing flaws in the Jews of Moshe’s time, for all their many strengths. Verse 44’s reference to Hoshea bin Nun gives another example, while also showing one of Yehoshua’s outstanding qualities.
Rashi explains that Moshe had Yehoshua speak to the people in his lifetime with a תורגמן, someone who called out his words and explained them to the people (the way teachers made sure large crowds could hear them in the time of the Mishnah and Gemara). This was so they could not accuse him of usurping the top spot after Moshe’s death. Moshe worried they might taunt him that in his teacher’s life he was too abashed to speak at all, and now thought he could lead.
It’s not the first time, yet I find it remarkable each time. This strand of Midrashic reading thinks the people, after all that had happened, were still prone to doubting their appointed leader, and ridiculing him. Such that Moshe had to take pre-emptive action. Some people never learn.
On the other hand, Yehoshua himself is referred to as Hoshea, Rashi says, to tell us that he had not changed from the man who, thirty-eight years earlier, was sent to spy out Israel. For all that he’d had a name change, had been Moshe’s top disciple, one of two to outlive that generation, and was now stepping into the leadership of the nation, he was still whom he’d always been.
It’s a remarkable standard, not one most can handle. To recognize that doing great deeds does not necessarily make us any greater than others. It makes us successful, it can make us satisfied, it can give us a sense of accomplishment. If we started out as Hoshea, that’s who we should end up as, letting the rest wash off, to be used only when important for other higher purposes.
A Good Death
In verse 50, Hashem tells Moshe that he’s going to die, as did his brother Aharon. That last phrase indicates to Rashi that Moshe had been particularly taken with Aharon’s death. Aharon had disrobed, his son Elazar donning those same garments in front of his father. Aharon then lay down, put his hands at his sides, straightened his legs, closed his eyes and mouth (each step in response to a prompt from Moshe to do so), and passed.
Today, too, there is much discussion of a good death. While many of us would want Moshe’s passing away with all his faculties, physical and intellectual, this Rashi focuses on two other elements: seeing one’s child step into one’s place in the world and passing away smoothly, with a well-defined process and no apparent pain.
The second is still desirable to many if not most of us — it’s why people confuse suicide with a good death, when they expect their actual death will be pain-filled. I am more interested in that first one, the seeing of Elazar don the High Priest’s robes. In our individualistic society, we have forgotten that idea, that children taking over the family business, or going into medicine like the parents did, or the like, is also part of a feeling of a fulfilled life, that one’s place in the world will be taken, held, and (we hope) expanded by those we leave behind.
That part of it did not work out for Moshe, yet Rashi includes it in the description of Aharon’s jealousy-inducing passing. May we all be so blessed, after long and well-lived lives.
Although it’s not the last parasha in the Torah, this is the last essay in this series, which started last year with VeZot haBrachah. It has been a project in memory of a good friend, Baruch Leib HaKohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chayah, whose yahrzeit was just recently, and who did not merit the passing of Aharon in the sense of going into bed and passing peacefully away. It is my hope that the other part of it, the children he left behind, spend many years in health, adding to their father’s legacy, and that our joint study of these Rashis has been a merit to his memory and his soul.