The Final Blessing

Moses gives his last speech to his people.

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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.
women's commentary v'zot haberakhah
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.

Through prayer, we express our gratitude, ask for more blessings, and strive to reach beyond our present limitations. Acknowledging that which is not necessarily in our control, we hope for God's gifts of a healthy, secure, and bountiful life, a life of purpose and meaning. This is Moses' berakhah to us, then and now: to gather the best within and around ourselves so as to fulfill the "promise" of the Promised Land.

After Moses blesses the tribes, he then stands atop Mount Nebo and surveys the entire land. Viewing the Negev and the valley of Jericho----city of date palms south to Zoar, perhaps Moses is able to discard all the what if's, should have's, maybe's, and if only's. Perhaps he feels some sense of closure, an acceptance of what he could and could not accomplish in a lifetime. There is a certain humility in knowing our limits and recognizing when it is time to move on.

Part of Moses' blessing involves the ability to dream of what he will not see or experience directly. Affirming the future is what leadership is all about: knowing and accepting that our best dreams may be realized by others who come after us. Moses' words remind us that we need to pray and work for the blessings of justice, equality, and peace in order to fulfill our promise as individuals and to build the best family, community, society, and country that we can. We learn from Moses that sometimes we have to scale mountains in order to come closer to these blessings.

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Rabbi Naamah Kelman-Ezrachi

Naamah Kelman-Ezrachi is the Dean of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion campus in Jerusalem.