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Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
Moses‘ final blessing to the tribes of Israel forms the coda for the five books of the Torah traditionally attributed to Moses. Often in Deuteronomy, Moses has admonished the people of Israel, sometimes threatening or even bullying them. Throughout the book, however, he also has offered the people blessings and a vision of God’s love and potential rewards. Now, at the very end, Moses fills the people with hope and promise as he speaks to their best selves. As the greatest of teachers, Moses puts into words what they instinctively know what they long for but cannot quite articulate.
Moses and Israel began together as an erstwhile prince leading a band of slaves to freedom. Now, the people Israel are not only free, bur also they are about to be responsible for their own lives in their own land. As they become a sovereign people, Moses (as it were) stitches them together, tribe after tribe, weaving a dramatic finale: “Thus Israel dwells in safety, / Untroubled is Jacob‘s abode.” (33:28) This stunning statement confirms the Israelites’ greatest hope, as well as ours today, envisioning a time even beyond the battles that lie ahead, when they finally will live in security and safety.
This parashah contains Moses’ last blessing, indeed his last words to the entire people, one nation with many attributes and possibilities. Our Jewish religious tradition of blessings is not one of passive acceptance or recognition; instead, blessings demand action. This is why, for the most part, we recite a blessing before we carry out an action.
The Root of Blessing
Some say that the Hebrew word for blessing (berakhah) shares the same root as the word for knee (berekh), as in “bend the knee.” (Although there are scholars who dispute that theory, certainly our rabbis delighted in such wordplays.) When we recite a blessing, we bend ever so slightly, diminishing ourselves so as to affirm the Other and look deep into ourselves.
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