This weekend — in Israel, on Saturday; on the Diaspora schedule, on Sunday — we are reading Parashat V’zot ha-Bracha, the last of the 54 weekly Torah readings, and the only one of the 54 that is not a “weekly” reading. It’s read on the festival of Simchat Torah, when we finish the annual cycle of Torah readings and celebrate.
We also follow the (supposed) advice of Yogi Berra, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” In this case …
- We immediately circle back and read the beginning of the Torah again, from Gen 1:1 through Gen 2:3.
- We also continue straight ahead (for the prophetic reading) with Joshua 1. (Ashkenazim and Sephardim have differing traditions about how much of that chapter to read.)
So there’s a lot to talk about. Since I’m busy preparing to move to Jerusalem (more on that at the end of the column) I’m going to offer some general comments about what we’re reading rather than a deep dive into one word or another, as I sometimes do.
A friend once told me that he visited a small synagogue where they had three Torah scrolls but (according to the synagogue president) were trying to save up enough money so they could buy all five. That’s not how it works, of course. Those synagogue scrolls, no matter their size, all contain the entire Torah, as if it were a single book.
In a Miqra’ot Gedolot, the traditional kind of Jewish Bible if you want a book in print, the Torah is five volumes, not one. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are each a separate physical book, not just a “book” by name. Since some of the connections between them can be a bit bumpy, they may well have started out their literary lives in this separate way.
But there’s also a third perspective on the Torah, one that says it falls into two separate sections, rather than one or five. Section One is the book of Genesis, with all the familiar stories we learned in Sunday school: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, and then the long sequence of stories about our founding family and its patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Although he’s not usually mentioned along with those three, a surprisingly long section of the book is devoted to the story of Joseph.
Then — rather quickly in the course of the liturgical year — we move into Exodus. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are gone. There are still a few weeks of “Bible stories” to get the Israelites out of Egypt, across the Red Sea, and into the wilderness. But from then on it’s all Moses all the time, right on up through the end of the year and the final day of the reading which involves Moses ‘s final words and then his death, as he blesses the Israelites before they cross into the land of Canaan.
So it’s worth remembering that the second to last chapter of the Torah, Deuteronomy 33 (sometimes called the Blessing of Moses), parallels the second to last chapter of the book of Genesis, the Blessing of Jacob. In each case, they are “blessings” — rather obscure, some of them, and quite poetic, not clear narrative statements — that indicate the futures of the 12 sons of Jacob who founded the 12 tribes of Israel.
In Genesis 49 it’s Jacob saying these things to his actual twelve boys; in Deuteronomy 33, it’s Moses saying these things to all Israel. When he says Judah, he doesn’t mean Jacob’s son Judah, he means the tribe of Judah, which understands itself to have been descended from the Judah who was Jacob’s son. Nonetheless, the parallel between the two chapters is very clear.
I’m not going to compare what is said in those two chapters today in any depth, but let’s have a look at Judah to get a flavor of the difference between them.
Here’s the blessing of Judah in Genesis 49 (in the NJPS translation):
8 You, O Judah, your brothers shall praise;
Your hand shall be on the nape of your foes;
Your father’s sons shall bow low to you.
9 Judah is a lion’s whelp;
On prey, my son, have you grown.
He crouches, lies down like a lion,
Like the king of beasts—who dare rouse him?
10 The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
Nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet;
So that tribute shall come to him
And the homage of peoples be his.
[this space left blank by JPS]
11 He tethers his ass to a vine,
His ass’s foal to a choice vine;
He washes his garment in wine,
His robe in blood of grapes.
12 His eyes are darker than wine;
His teeth are whiter than milk.
“You, O Judah, your brothers shall praise” is Yehuda, atta yodúkha aḥékha; call it literature, folk etymology, or simply a pun, but Yehuda / yodukha is obviously a deliberate play on words. This is followed by five verses of the poet’s own praise of Judah, including the famous words in v. 10 that say “the scepter shall not depart from Judah … ad ki-yavo shiloh” — whatever that last contentious phrase might mean.
Contrast Deuteronomy 33, where the blessing for Judah is just one verse:
7 Hear, O LORD the voice of Judah
And restore him to his people.
Though his own hands strive for him,
Help him against his foes.
A footnote in NJPS suggests “Though his own hands strive for him” would make more sense if we read רָב with a short arather than a long a: “Make his hands strong for him.” And that’s it. Judah is in battle and needs help against his enemies. He’s not “the king of beasts,” the mighty lion from whom “the scepter shall not depart.”
As you can see, there is plenty to be learned by studying the differences between the blessings of the sons in Genesis 49 and the tribes in Deuteronomy 33. My point this week is that, when we swing back around from the end of Deuteronomy and start Genesis all over once again, V’zot ha-Bracha is a reminder to us that even Deuteronomy, the 24-hour Moses Channel, has not forgotten what happened in the book of Genesis.
I like to think of it in terms of musical composition. Those themes of the twelve sons of Jacob, in the second-to-last chapter of Genesis, recur once more here in Deuteronomy 33, and we’re reminded that the Torah as a whole is about the descendants of Jacob — the family of Jacob, which even today Jews consider themselves to be. Israel, after all, is just one of Jacob’s nicknames.
Despite the different voices one can hear in the Torah, despite the sometimes awkward transitions from one book to another, despite the variations and sometimes even contradictions between books, the fact that Deuteronomy 33 is a reprise of Genesis 49 reminds us that the Chumash [חומשׁ], the PENTA-teuch, consists of five separate books that are nonetheless meant to be read as a sequence.
So when Genesis ends this year — as it always does — more quickly than we expect, let’s not forget Jacob’s 12 boys. They will be back before the story is over. Let’s try to keep them in mind all year as we read through the Torah.
And, as I said at the top of the column, I expect to be reading it in Jerusalem. I’ll be pausing the blog while I get settled. I appreciate those who’ve been following me all year, and I especially appreciate those of you who have been following me for much longer. Reminder: Two complete years of my Torah Talk podcast, 5781 and 5782, are still available on my WordPress blog. Go there and search on the name of the parashah (or click on the podcast category and browse).
In the meantime, those who want to follow my close reading of Genesis can join us on my other Substack, The Bible Guy, where it will be Parashat Bereshit for at least another year and perhaps longer. See you there. In the meantime, thanks for reading!