Haftara: Joshua 1:1 - 18
Reading Date: 21th October 2008 – 22th Tishrei 5769
V'zot Ha'bracha is a classic example of a Parasha that almost everyone knows by heart, but almost no one understands. That's because it is read numerous times, but its words are very difficult to translate. This week we try to 'break ice' by undertaking a basic analysis of the Parasha’s structure and theme.
Before we begin our study of what the "brachot" [blessings] are all about, let's begin with the two obvious problems that one encounters when studying their order. First of all, one tribe (Shimon) appears to be missing, i.e. his tribe is not even mentioned within Moses’ blessings. Secondly, the order of these blessings (tribe by tribe) proceeds in what appears to be a rather random sequence.
To better appreciate these two problems, the following table lists the tribes according to their order in V'zot Ha'bracha. To accentuate the apparent lack of sequence in this list, next to each "shevet" [tribe] is noted their respective matriarch and relative position according to birth.
* Note that the tribe of Shimon is missing!
Carefully study this list. Although the tribes are not listed according to age or common matriarch, they do clearly divide between the children of Jacob's wives (Rachel & Leah) and those of the maidservants (Bilhah & Zilpah). Within these two groups, however, there seems to be little logic in the progression.
For example, although it's pretty clear why Reuven is first, as he is the oldest, why does Moses skip to Judah? Likewise, why does Benjamin precede his older brother Joseph, and why do the children of Rachel 'interrupt' Moses’ blessings to the children of Leah?
Finally, why does Zevulun precede Yissachar, why does Gad precede Dan, and why do the children of Bilhah 'interrupt' the children of Zilpah?
Even in Parashat Bamidbar, where we find the tribes listed in various orders as they prepare to organize the camp around the Mishkan, we find no list that is even slightly similar to the order of the blessings in ‘vezot ha'bracha’. In summary, although the list is clearly not altogether random, it doesn't appear to follow any definite order, either. In the following study, we attempt to identify the underlying rationale behind the sequence of Moses’ presentation. To that end, we must first consider the nature and purpose of these blessings.
Vezot Ha'bracha is not the first time in Torah where we find that each tribe receives a blessing. Recall that back in Parshat Vayechi, Jacob blesses each tribe before his death. Unlike Moses, however, Jacob addresses his children in almost exact age order: Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Judah, Zevulun & Yissachar [note slight deviation], Dan (first born of Bilhah), Gad (first born of Zilpah), Asher, and Naftali. [The only problem, of course, is that Zevulun precedes his older brother Yissachar (for an explanation, see Seforno Br. 49:13, based on Midrash Tanchuma Vayechi 11.). Although Gad & Asher precede Naftali, they may very well have been born first, depending on how one understands Genesis 30:5-10.]
The reason why Jacob blesses his children in 'age order' is quite simple. Jacob (prior to his death) blesses each son according to his individual potential, as exhibited and manifest throughout each respective son's life. Therefore, whereas these blessings relate to personal destiny, it is only reasonable that they follow (more or less) the order of the sons' births. Moses, by contrast, is not the 'dying father' of twelve sons. He is rather the 'departing leader' of twelve tribes to whom he has given the Torah and who are about to conquer and occupy the Land of Israel. As we would expect, his blessings accurately reflect the setting and circumstances in which they are administered. As we will see, each blessing relates in one form or another to either:
* the forthcoming military conquest of the land, * the nature of the specific "nachala" (territory apportioned to that tribe), or* a leadership function charged upon that tribe.
We will first demonstrate that this is indeed the case, and then we will be able to answer our original questions concerning the order of the tribes' presentation.
THE 'GIST' OF THE BLESSINGS
First, let's quickly review the gist of each blessing. Notice that almost every blessing relates to either the defining characteristic of its tribe's "nachala" or the tribe's role in the imminent conquest of the land.
"Let Reuven live and not die, and let his numbers be counted." (33:6)
Rashi explains that this blessing addresses Moses' concern that Reuven may not receive any "nachala" at all! Considering that Jacob basically cursed Reuven instead of blessing him (on account of his sin with Bilhah), Reuven may have lost his right to a "nachala," just as he forfeited his claim to the "bechora" (birthright). Additionally, the tribe of Reuven had already 'set up camp' OUTSIDE the biblical borders of Eretz Canaan (in Transjordan), another reason to doubt whether Reuven would taken its place as an 'official' tribe of Israel. As Rashi explains, Moses’ blessing counters this fear and reassures Reuven that he will remain 'alive,' an integral part of the "nachala" of the Nation of Israel.Chizkuni, however, offers a 'military' explanation for Reuven's blessing. Since the tribe of Reuven had promised to fight as the "chalutz" [the front line attack force - see Numbers 32:20-32] in the conquest of the Land of Israel, Moses confers upon them a special blessing for protection in battle. He prays on their behalf that their 'number' ["mispar"] - population - should remain the same after battle as it was beforehand. [This approach also appears in the commentary of Rabbenu Yosef Bechor Shor.]
"Hear YHVH the [battle] cry of Judah and help him lead his people. Make his hands strong for him, and help him against his enemies." (33:7)
[See Rashi/Ibn Ezra]Clearly, the blessing to Judah relates to his military leadership, as Moses foresees that the soldiers of the tribe of Judah will be particularly enthusiastic and diligent in the conquest of their portion in the Land (see Joshua 14 Judges 1).
"[After a short reference to Aaron, the tribal leader and Cohen Gadol]... They shall teach Your laws to Jacob and Your instructions to Israel; they shall offer KTORET – incense ... and whole- offerings [OLOT] on the MIZBAYACH. YHVH should bless his CHAYIL - forces and favor his undertakings. Help him smite the loins of those who rise against him, and don't allow his enemies to succeed." (33:8-11)
The focal point of Levi's blessing is his responsibility to provide spiritual leadership, to teach YHVH’s laws and officiate in His Temple. Interestingly, however, even this function is presented in 'military' jargon ["chayalo" in 33:11]. [Note also 33:9, an apparent reference to the sons of Levi's preparedness to prosecute and execute those who sinned at Chet Ha'egel – the golden calf (see Rashi 33:9 and Exodus 32:26-29). Indeed, their conduct at that point was of a "military" nature.]
Whereas all other tribes earned a "nachala," a specific, designated portion of land, the tribe of Levi was scattered among the various tribes in order to serve as teachers throughout the country (note Deuteronomy 18:1-2, "Hashem hu nachlatam"!). Understandably, then, their blessing relates to their leadership role, rather than their allocated portion in the land.
"Beloved to YHVH, He shall allow His SHCHINA to dwell securely within him. He constantly protects [surrounds] him, as He rests between his shoulders." (33:12)
This blessing focuses on the special quality of Binyamin's "nachala," its designation to house the Bet Ha'Mikdash – Temple - in Jerusalem.
JOSEPH [Ephraim & Menashe]
"God's blessing is given to his land, with the bounty of dew from heaven... with the bounty of the earth in its fullness... His 'horns' are like those of a wild ox, with them he gores other nations... these are the 'tens of thousands' of Ephraim and these are the 'thousands' of Menashe." (see 33:13-17)
The precise translation of this blessing is somewhat elusive, but it clearly speaks of the bountiful nature of the "nachala" apportioned to Joseph. It appears that Joseph will bear the responsibility of forming the backbone of Israel's agrarian economy (as was Joseph’s job in Egypt). The final verse alludes to Joseph’s military competence that will grant him victory over enemy nations. Specifically, Rashi understands the final verse as a reference to the leadership of Joshua - a descendant of Ephraim - who led the Children of Israel in their conquest of Eretz Canaan.
ZEVULUN & YISSACHAR
"Rejoice Zevulun as you go out [to war; compare with Exodus 27:17] and Yissachar in your tents. [Their prosperity will catalyze] a call to other nations to ascend YHVH's mountain where they will offer proper sacrifices, for they draw from the riches of the sea and from the hidden hoards of the sand." (33:18)
The opening sentence may refer to Zevulun's military prowess, but the conclusion of the verse clearly relates to the importance of his "nachala." His territory was situated along the sea [the coast from Caesarea to the Acco/Haifa bay area], thus forming Israel's gateway to foreign trade and, consequently, economic relations with other nations. Moshe anticipates that these business alliances will lead to the recognition on the part of those nations of the God of Israel - the primary long-term goal of the Nation of Israel (see Deuteronomy 4:5-8).
The "nachala" of Yissachar, too, facilitates international trade (and influence), as it lies in the Jezreel valley, at the heart of the VIA MARIS - the ancient trade route connecting Egypt with Mesopotamia. The Rashbam (Genesis 49:14) understands the "tents" of Yissachar as a reference to this tribe's involvement in agriculture, while Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor (here) associates Yissachar's tents with the cattle industry. All this, too, relates directly to Yissachar's portion: the fertile soil of the Jezreel valley renders it an ideal location for both agriculture and livestock breeding.
"Blessed be He who enlarges [the "nachala" of] Gad. He is poised like a lion to tear off arm and scalp [i.e. military strength]. He chose for himself the best ['nachala']..." (33:20-21)
[The rest of the verse is very difficult, but most likely refers to his nachala as the chosen spot for Moshe's burial site - see Rashi.]Once again, Moshe's blessing focuses on the unique nature of the given tribe's "nachala", Gads initiative to widen his inheritance in Transjordan, as well as their military capabilities.
"Dan is like a lion's whelp that leaps from the Bashan." (33:22)
Dan's blessing obviously relates to their military might and the location of their "nachala" - at the western slopes of the Golan Heights [Bashan is the biblical name for the Golan - see Deuteronomy 3:8-10], today the area of Tel Dan and Kiryat Shmona in the Chula valley of the Upper Galilee. Anyone who has been on a tour to the Golan, and visited the old Syrian bunkers that overlooked the Chula valley and the area of Tel Dan and Kiryat Shemona, can easily understand how the phrase "yezanek min ha'Bashan" – to throttle from the Bashan, describes the nachala of Dan.
Even though Deuteronomy 4:43 indicates that the Golan region itself was included in Menashe's nachala, not Dan's, the Targum here explains, our verse means that Dan lived near the Bashan, and the land in his region was watered by the streams flowing down from the Bashan. Note as well that Ibn Ezra (and others) explain Moses' blessing as having nothing to do with Dan's actual portion, rather the tribe's military strength. He interprets "yezanek min habashan" as modifying the lion to whom Dan is compared, rather than the tribe of Dan itself.]
Additionally, Rashi explains the lion metaphor as a reference to Dan's location on the border, standing guard against enemy intrusion. [Very prophetic!]
"Naftali should be satiated [for his "nachala"] is full of YHVH's blessing, to the west and south (of his brother Dan) he shall/must conquer his land."
Again, Moses' blessing relates to the agricultural potential of this "nachala" and the conquest of that portion. Naftali's nachala is situated in the fertile and beautiful region of the Upper Galilee, to the west and south of Tel Dan (including Tzfat & Mount Meron).
"May Asher be the most blessed of sons, may he be the favorite of his brothers and may he dip his foot in oil. Iron and copper are your door-bolts, and your security should last for all your days." (33:24)
These verses require further explanation, but what is clear is that they relate to two unique characteristics of Asher's "nachala": its abundance of olive trees (and hence olive oil) and its location on Israel's northern border. [See Ramban's interpretation, that Asher's portion guards the country's northern border (and thus serves as an "iron lock" securing the country).
As we review all these blessings, it becomes clear that they all focus on the nature of each "nachala" and the conquest of the land. In fact, almost all the commentators, especially Ibn Ezra, Chizkuni, and Seforno (in addition to Rashi and Ramban), relate to this aspect of the "nachalot" throughout their interpretation of these verses.Hence we conclude that Moses, aware of the military capabilities of each tribe and the anticipated geographic division of the land, blesses each tribe to encourage them to achieve their fullest potential in the forthcoming conquest of Eretz Canaan.Based on this understanding of the basic purpose behind these blessings, we can return to our original question and make some sense out of the seemingly random order of their presentation.
As you have probably guessed by now, since the blessings focus on the "nachalot," it stands to reason that the division of the Land of Israel among the tribes serves as the basis of the sequence of presentation in this parasha. Let's see how it works. Moses begins his blessings with Reuven. He does so not because Reuven is the oldest, but because he is the first tribe to take his "nachala," as recorded in Numbers Ch.32 (see also Deuteronomy 3:16-19).Next, we would expect to find Gad, who joined Reuven in their request to take their "nachala" in Transjordan. However, there is one important, 'overriding' rule in the blessings - that the tribes from Jacob’s wives (Leah & Rachel) take precedence over the tribes from the maidservants (Bilhah & Zilpah).[This principle explains why Gad later precedes Dan, even though Dan is older (and the head of a "machaneh"!). Gad is blessed first because he took his "nachala" first.]This also helps clarify the content of Reuven's blessing. Moses must emphasize that EVEN THOUGH Reuven's "nachala" lies outside the borders of Eretz Canaan, they retain their status as an 'official' tribe as explained earlier.
Once we skip Gad, Reuven is followed by Judah - the first of the tribes to successfully conquer his portion of land, as detailed both in Sefer Yehoshua (chapters 14->15) and in Sefer Shoftim (1:1-15). This also explains why Yehuda's blessing focuses on his military power.
A 'SOLUTION' FOR SHIMON
Once Moses begins with Judah's portion, the most southern region of Eretz Canaan, he now works his way 'up north,' through Benjamin to Ephraim and Menashe. As we will show, this principle will explain the order of the remaining blessing.
First of all, this explains why Benjamin precedes Joseph, for his nachala is located north of Judah, but south of Ephraim. This also may provide us with a clue as to why there is no blessing for Shimon. Considering that Shimon's "nachala" is later included within the borders of Judah (see Joshua 19:1 & 19:9!), one could conclude that Shimon basically never received their own nachala (a fulfillment of Yaakov's 'blessing' to Shimon in Genesis 48:5-7).
Furthermore, in the aftermath of "chet bnot moav" – the sin of the sons of Moab - their numbers were severely reduced (see Numbers 26:14, compare 1:23!), hence we can conclude that their army may not have played a major role in the conquest of the land as well.[Note Rashi on 33:7 (towards the end), where he quotes a Midrash Tehilim that the blessing to Shimon is actually 'included' within the blessing to Judah: "shma YHVH" contains the first letters of Shimon's name, "shin.mem.ayin." In fact, the same wording is used when Shimon is first named by his mother: "ki SHAMA HASHEM ki snuah anochi" (see Genesis 29:33!).]