Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Moses' Blessing

On Simchat Torah it is customary for all males (and females in some shuls) to get called up to the Torah for an aliyah for the reading of Moses' final blessing to the children of Israel before he dies. The poetic language used in the blessings is all-too often overlooked, maybe because the blessings are rushed through a dozen or so times in as many corners of the shul as there are Sifrei Torah in the building to use for the aliyot.

But it's a shame - the blessing carries a haunting echo of the origins of the Jewish people. It demands in depth study.

Here is a very short thought on the opening verses of the blessing:

Deuteronomy 32:2 reads

The LORD came from Sinai, He shone upon them from Seir, He appeared from Mount Paran and approached from Ribbeboth Kodesh.

Apart from Sinai, the places from which God is said to have shone, appeared and approached from are not clear at all. Also,
although we know the Torah uses anthropomorphisms - what are we to make of these words shone, appeared and approached?

Some commentators say that Seir and Paran were hills that were geographically close to Sinai and the verse refers to the national revelation described in Exodus. This is understandable, as the unique story of a national revelation at Sinai is fundamental to the Jewish tradition.

Other commentators refer to a midrash that relates the story of both Esav's (whose descendants lived in Seir) and then Yishmael's (whose descendants lived in Paran) rejection of the Torah, before God's finally offering it to the children of Israel. This midrash reminds us that the children of Israel not once but twice came close to missing out on receiving the Torah. Abraham's eldest son was Yishmael, (and he chose to pass on God's blessing through his younger son Isaac), and Isaac's eldest son was Esav (who sold his birthright to Jacob and later only receives Isaac's blessing second, after Jacob).

The second (midrashic) answer hints at the transfer of God's blessing through the generations, and as far as stories of origins go is more satisfying. But if it explains the significance of Seir and Paran, where (or what) was Ribbebot Kodesh? Also - should the use of words like
shone, appeared and approached be explained as Moses' poetic description of the transfer of God's blessing through the generations?

Rashi is of the opinion that Ribeboth Kodesh was not a physical place, but rather a description of the holy myriads from which God came to bless the Israelites. This explanation allows us to understand the use of all three names, Seir, Paran, and Ribbebot Kodesh.

Interestingly however, there is also another place in the Torah that quotes Seir, Paran and a place called Kadesh. Genesis 14:6-7 reads

and the Horites in their hill country of Seir, as far as El-Paran..... and they came to En-Mishpat which is Kadesh

The text here relates the story of a war between kingdoms in which Abraham (then Abram) became involved because his nephew Lot was taken captive. In an act of
pidyon shevuyim Abraham succeeded in freeing Lot, and at the same time frees the captives and booty of the defeated nations. The story finishes with the king of Sodom praising Abraham and God, and making a banquet. At the banquet, Abraham refuses to take any of the booty that the king offers him, because it might detract from the glorification of God's name. Genesis 15.22-23 reads

But I swear to the LORD God Most High Creator of heaven and earth: I will not take so much a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours ; you shall not say 'It is I who made Abram rich!'

So here we have potentially another link to the opening verse of Moses' blessing. Seir, Paran and Kadesh were all places involved in possibly the first act of
Kidush Hashem recorded in the Torah. Also, as a final thought, since a Kiddush Hashem involves the creation of a positive impression - could there be a specific calling for use of the words like shone, appeared and approached which hint at the creation of such an impression?

(note - my wife bought a Concordantzia this week which helped me find the verse!)

(note -
He shone upon them from Seir can also be translated as He shone for them from Seir, as the Hebrew word Lamo can be found in both forms in Tanach. This second translation would be more appropriate for a reading that connects the verse to the story of Abraham and the King of Sodom, because the use of the plural in He shone upon them is hard to explain given there were no Israelites yet. He shone for them could however describe the first act of recognition of God by non-Israelites, and this could indeed be described as an act for the Israelites.

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