I write this during the short shloshim for a good friend and chavruta, Baruch Leib HaKohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Doba Chaya, who passed away Motsa’ei Shabbat Shuva. In thinking of an appropriate way to commemorate him—a man who loved all things Jewish, who attended minyanim faithfully and joyfully, who learned Daf Yomi for many years, who gave generously of his time and energy to multiple causes, especially shuls and schools, who valued talmidei chachamim, was honored by their presence in his life, and reveled in his relationship with them—I came up with a project to accompany the first year after his passing.

I hope to study five comments of Rashi’s each parsha (ten for a double), to show how much richer and more mind-expanding it is to encounter him as adults than as elementary school students. After a year of entering each Shabbat with Rashi’s ideas in mind, I believe we’ll see themes or foci to which he returns repeatedly, linchpins of his worldview.

That doesn’t mean we’ll know his whole worldview—five is by no means a statistically significant sample and, since I’m doing the choosing, it may say as much about me as about Rashi—but I think we’ll find that it’s more than a good start, and that we’ll be better off for it. (These essays are also available as an email sent to you each week; you can sign up for that by emailing me. My address is my first initial, the first six letters of my last name, at gmail.)

For Parashat VeZot HaBrachah, here are my five.

Five Rashis a Week: A Project in Memory of Baruch Leib HaKohen

Esh DatThe Primordial Torah

Before Moshe Rabbenu blesses each tribe, he speaks of Hashem and His relationship to the Jewish people and to the world. In Devarim 33;2, he refers to Hashem giving the Jewish people אש דת (flaming fire, but a reference to the Torah) from His right hand, as it were.  Rashi comments that the words indicate the Torah since it was written before Him in black fire on white fire, which Hashem then engraved on the Tablets Moshe received at Sinai.

The idea appears in earlier sources as well, but is easy to ignore as overly mystical or Kabbalistic. Rashi doesn’t clarify exactly what was written in that Torah, but the fact that it’s fire on fire suggests that it need not be literally the Torah we have. Rashi and the Midrash could be saying that certain principles underlie the Torah, and that those principles, the essence of Torah precede the world. This precedence would be chronological but, more importantly, conceptual; if Torah predates the world, its laws underlie the world as well, more so even than the physical laws of Nature.

This Rashi gives a primacy to Torah that even many observant Jews have relinquished. Many of us relegate religion to a set of values and mores that enrich our lives, but as an added benefit, not as core to what life has to include or be about.  Ordinary people can be good without religion, this line of reasoning goes, while others also have religion.

Rashi seems to me to disagree. If Torah precedes the world, it means that being in accordance with Torah is as crucial as being in accordance with the laws of physics, chemistry, or medicine.  If there are good people who don’t know the Torah, it’s because some or many of their actions are consonant with what Torah wants without their realizing it.

A Nation of Nations

In the next verse, Moshe refers to Hashem as חבב עמים, a lover of nations, an odd plural in the context of the Jewish people.  Rashi notes that each tribe is considered an עם, a nation. This comes from the angel’s blessing Ya’akov that he would produce nations, when the only son he had not yet fathered was Binyamin.

The derivation interests me less than the very modern-sounding view of the diversity of the Jewish people—each tribe had its distinct character (this has halachic ramifications, such as in each tribe’s bringing a separate sacrifice for certain kinds of national errors), making it a nation of its own. Being Jewish united all of us at one level, but people of Zevulun were in many ways a different nation from people of Shimon or Dan. To be a good member meant finding your place within your tribe’s particular take on service of Hashem. We none of us were born with a blank slate—we were born within a family, and a clan, a tribe, and a Jewish people. Our job was to find and make our place within each of those pre-existing frameworks.

The Meaning of Dedication

33;9 is Moshe’s characterization of the tribe of Levi, the model of retaining fidelity to Hashem in trying circumstances (the slavery in Egypt and during the frenzy of the Golden Calf). Rashi points out that since no one in Levi sinned at the Calf, Moshe’s praise of the tribe’s readiness to kill parents, spouses, or children must mean relatives through the mother, maternal grandparents, half-siblings, daughters’ children. (I offered a portrayal of this incident, from the perspective of a Levite family, in “You Can’t Change Human Nature,” the opening story of Cassandra Misreads the Book of Samuel).

In that same verse, Rashi interprets the words כי שמרו אמרתך, for they watched Your word, as specifically referring to not having other gods, and ובריתך ינצרו, guarded Your covenant, as a reference to their circumcising their sons throughout the Egyptian exile.  For the entire time in Egypt, Levi’im were the oddballs of the Jewish people, staying away from idolatry (despite its being the universal mode of conduct) and adhering to an old (in others’ eyes, outdated) tradition to circumcise their sons.  Those relatively small acts seem to be what fortified them enough to give the proper answer when Moshe asked to make a stand for Hashem, even as it forced them to be the agents of punishment for family members.

Since it is that aspect of Levi that launched them to being the functionaries of the Beit haMikdash, we might think of that as conduct to aspire towards, to emulate in our lives.

Writing His Own Death

34;5 says that Moshe passed away on top of Nevo. As the Gemara noticed, the verse challenges us to understand how Moshe could write about his own death. One opinion has it that Yehoshu’a wrote these last verses, while R. Meir says that would make a falsehood of an earlier verse’s (31;26) statement that Moshe gave “this Torah” to the Levi’im.  Rather, he held, Moshe wrote it silently or in tears, with Hashem dictating it, which makes this part of the Torah somewhat different than the rest (such as possibly needing to be read as one unit).

Rashi reminds us that tradition grappled with many (if not most or all) of the problems some people look outside of tradition for answers they see as somehow more sophisticated or intellectually honest than the ones of tradition.  But tradition read these texts as carefully as contemporary readers: we choose answers to accept based on personal assumptions, not any objective standard of truth (a point I learned from Prof. Haym Soloveitchik thirty years ago).

To use this example as a paradigm, those who believe in Hashem can easily imagine either option the Gemara offers. Where you start determines a lot about where you finish.

Leadership Is and Isn’t a Popularity Contest

33;8 says that בני ישראל cried over Moshe’s passing for thirty days. Noting the contrast with Aharon (about whom Bamidbar 20;29 says that “all the house of Israel” cried), Rashi says that Aharon chased peace, reconciling friends and spouses who had fallen out.

While this sounds like an implied critique of Moshe, since his passing did not meet with such universal mourning, I think it more likely that Rashi was noting a positive characteristic of Aharon’s which might not have been appropriate for Moshe to adopt. A focus on finding and creating peace comes at a cost, perhaps, in that leader’s ability to enforce and promote adherence to the law (a kohen, after all, isn’t about enforcement, he’s about helping people repair, improve, or celebrate their relationship with Hashem).

Moshe did his job as well as anyone, but that job wasn’t going to earn hosannas from the general laity. That was Aharon’s good fortune, and the difference in their roles shows in the reactions to their deaths.

In my decidedly unscientific sampling of Rashi on VeZot HaBracha, Rashi shows us a sense of the Torah as more essential to the world than “just” as a religious document, tells us that each tribe had its own identity and goals, gives insight into what kept the Levi’im connected to Hashem and how that expressed itself, makes clear that textual problems were spotted much earlier than modern textual critics sometimes admit and, finally, reminded us that popularity is not always the way to gauge how well a job is being done. Shabbat Shalom.