Vzot Habracha: It too is a Blessing

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

In one of the great mistakes in history, Alfred Nobel was lucky enough to read his own obituary—a result of an error of an editor who printed Alfred’s obituary instead of that of his recently deceased brother. Reading himself described as the “merchant of death” led him to donate his vast estate to charity and create the Nobel prizes. Many today are not even aware that Nobel was the inventor of dynamite.

Few and far between are those who can read their own obituaries, and even fewer are those who can hear their own eulogies. If we could, perhaps the world might be a much better place.

Meekzat shevachav b’panaf, limited praise [may be said] in one’s presence” (Breisheet Rabba 32:3). With its emphasis on humility, Jewish tradition eschews offering effusive praise in the presence of the one being praised. Such praise must wait until we depart this earth, at which point our good deeds will, G-d willing, inspire others to greater heights; “the death of the righteous [has the potential to] atone”.

Only after the death of Moshe do we read: “And there has not arisen another prophet in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face; in all the signs and the wonders, which the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh, and to all his servants, and to all his land” (Devarim 34:10-11).

What a wonderful eulogy, delivered by none other than G-d Himself!

Yet that is not the impression one would get from the reading when G-d last spoke to Moshe, in which He commands him, “Go up into this mountain of Avarim... and die in the mount which you ascend... Because you have trespassed against Me in the midst of the children of Israel at the waters of Meribath-Kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin, because you did not sanctify Me not in the midst of the children of Israel. For you shall see the land afar off, but you shall not enter into the land which I give the children of Israel” (Devarim 32:50-52). And this was not the first time G-d said words along those lines to Moshe (see Bamidbar 20:12, 20:24 and 27:14).

It is hard to imagine one more dedicated to the honour of G-d than Moshe, one who worked harder and did so much to sanctify the name of G-d. Moshe may have made a mistake and missed an opportunity for greater sanctification of the Name, but to mention it over and over and over again seems rather harsh—especially when G-d is calling Moshe to his eternal rest. All the more so when such does not appear to reflect G-d’s true feelings towards Moshe, those expressed after his death.

The harsh words become understandable when we internalize that the primary audience for this admonition was not Moshe, nor even the Jewish people in the desert, but rather us—the Jewish readers throughout history.

Remarkably, the next words in the Torah are v’zot habracha, “and this is the blessing” that Moshe blessed for the Jewish people before he died (Devarim 33:1). The simple meaning of v’zot habracha is an introduction to what follows, the blessings Moshe bestows on the tribes of Israel. However, the Torah text can and must be read from every vantage point so that these words of blessing can also be seen as a summation of what precedes them.

There is something beautiful in the fact that our leaders are held to almost unattainable standards. Having the best of intentions is not enough; inspiring, leading, helping and advising are wonderful, and were superbly done by Moshe (and Aharon and Miriam), but it is just not enough. Moshe had an opportunity to sanctify G-d’s name at a crucial juncture in Jewish history, and he failed to do so. And that is not acceptable. Perhaps earlier in his career, it could have been overlooked. But not now, 40 years later, as the Jewish people were on the cusp of entering the land. And we need to be reminded of that over and over again.

A nation is truly blessed when its leaders are held to such exacting standards. And Moshe understood this and thus, was able to immediately bless the people.

G-d did have one last message to give to Moshe. “And the Lord said unto him: ‘This is the land of which I swore to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, ‘I will assign it to your offspring’. I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross there” (Devarim 34:4). G-d reassured Moshe that his descendants would inherit the land, allowing him to go to his death knowing his mission was a success.

Moshe was denied his fondest wish due to a sin so minor we don’t even know what it was[1]. Life is not about getting all we want. It is about sanctifying the Name of G-d to the best of our ability. The Torah tells us that we, like Moshe, will not succeed all the time, and that is fine. If we do our best, others will complete what we have started.

That explains why we read of the death of Moshe on Simchat Torah. We can rejoice by doing our best to sanctify G-d’s name, accepting the fact that we will not always succeed. But we will keep trying as long as we are given the opportunity to do so.

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[1] The fact that there are at least 11 explanations (see Orach Chaim, Bamidbar 20:8) amongst the commentaries for his "sin" indicates that we have no idea what it was that he did that was so terrible. I recall one of the commentaries stating that he did not want to discuss this chapter as every commentator who does so manages to find a new, heretofore unknown, sin that Moshe committed.