Bless the Tribes and their Children
Parshas v’Zos HaBrachah is unique among the 54 parshiyos of the Chumash, in that it is never read on Shabbos in the Diaspora, because it is read only on Simchas Torah, which can never occur on Shabbos outside Israel.
In the previous week’s Parasha, Ha’azinu, we noted that while Moshe again reproved the Children of Israel in his song, it was a “kinder and gentler” rebuke, insofar as (a) it was phrased as a prophecy, which at least had a chance of not coming true; (b) its tone was less harsh than the first two tochachas; (c) it concentrated more on the relationship between the Jewish People and Hashem than on our prospective sins.
Now we come to V’Zos Habrachah, the last of the three parshiyos recounting the momentous final day of Moshe’s extraordinary life. This time, following the treatment by Rav Dovid Hofstadter in Dorash Dovid [Series I, Parshas V’Zos Habrachah, “Each Man According to His Blessing,” pp. 499-506 ], we contrast Moshe’s final blessings to the Israelites with those of Yaakov to his sons. Superficially, both blessings appear to be quite similar, with the “father figure” blessing each tribe according to its characteristics and role in the community. As we examine more closely, however, differences appear. It is immediately obvious that while Yaakov addresses his sons in order of their birth, whereas Moshe follows a sequence whose inner logic isn’t apparent.
Then we look deeply into the specific motivations for the blessings. Yaakov admonishes his three eldest sons – Reuven for moving his bed from Bilhah’s tent to Leah’s, and Shimon and Levi for massacring all the people of Shechem because the prince molested their sister Dinah. We note that Yaakov cursed Shimon and Levi’s anger, not them, saying that he would divide them within Yaakov and scatter them in Israel, which is exactly what happened: the Levites were divided among 48 cities throughout the land, while Shimon’s descendants had no territory of their own, but were dispersed within Judah’s territory.
Yaakov follows by praising Judah, presumably for defending Binyamin, which seems to overlook that Judah was the one who proposed selling Yosaif to the Midianites and concocted the scheme of dipping Yosaif’s coat of many colors into the blood of a slaughtered sheep to make their father think his favorite son had been devoured by a wild beast.
Moshe, on the other hand, dealt with these first four sons from the perspective of two centuries later, seeing how their descendants had evolved into tribes. Reuven set a shining example for doing teshuvah; he tried unsuccessfully to rescue Yosaif from his brothers by persuading them to cast Yosaif into a pit rather than killing him, even though he had lost the birthright to Yosaif. And his descendants bravely offered to be in the vanguard when the Israelites invaded Canaan. Thus Moshe consoled Reuven with the knowledge of his having been accepted back into the family. As for Shimon and Levi, their descendants’ paths diverged over the years. Levi did teshuvah, and his offspring defended Hashem by slaughtering the three thousand men who offered incense to the Golden Calf. In contrast, Shimon’s descendants failed to reform, as exemplified by their Prince Zimri’s open immorality with the Midianite princess Cozbi, and the 24,000 Shimonites who committed idolatry. Consequently, Moshe blessed the Levites at length while not mentioning Shimon at all. (If you have nothing good to say, say nothing.)
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Yaakov’s and Moshe’s blessings is that they are connected, that is, Moshe’s is a continuation of Yaakov’s. How did the Sages determine this? As Rabbi Hofstadter explains, [Dorash Dovid op.cit., “Breaking the Luchos – Building for the Ages,” pp. 512-513 ]
“The final parshah in the Torah begins with the statement (Devarim 33:1), ‘And this is the blessing with which Moshe, the man of G-d, blessed Bnei Yisrael before his death.’ Sifri (Devarim #342) comments on the letter vav, meaning ‘and,’ that appears at the beginning of the pasuk: ‘And this is the blessing’ – [The word ‘and’ indicates that] this is an addition to the initial blessing with which their father Yaakov blessed them….Thus, we see that from the place where Yaakov Avinu finished blessing the Jewish people, Moshe began blessing them.’
“Elsewhere (Bereishis Rabbah, ch. 100, par. 12), Chazal explain in what way Moshe’s blessings to the Jewish people are considered a continuation of those of Yaakov. Chazal discuss the pasuk, ‘And this is what their father spoke to them’ (Bereishis 49:28), addressing the question of why Yaakov’s blessings end with the word v’zos (‘and this’). Apparently, the word ‘v’zos’ at the end of Yaakov’s blessings indicate that Yaakov was hinting to another part of the Torah where the same word appears. Thus, Chazal explain, ’[Yaakov told his sons,] ‘In the future, a man like me will bless you and will continue from the subject with which I concluded,’ as the pasuk states, ‘And this is what their father spoke.’ When Moshe arose, he began with the same word: ‘And this is the blessing…’: ‘I will tell you when you deserve these blessings – when you accept the Torah, as the pasuk states (Devarim 4:44), ‘And this is the Torah’… [Thus,] Moshe began with that with which Yaakov had concluded.’ According to either explanation in this midrash, the unifying characteristic of both Moshe’s blessing and Yaakov’s blessing was that both were contingent on Bnei Yisrael’s having the merit of the Torah.”
In conclusion, the connection between Yaakov’s blessing and Moshe’s blessing exemplifies the remarkable continuity of Judaism over not only centuries, as in this case, but millennia.