Parashat V'zot Habrakha

If Not Now, When?

Rashi understands Moshe's final words to the people as an expression of Hillel's philosophy of self-examination, quoted in Ethics of the Ancestors.

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Now Rashi's midrash takes on a different meaning, for it hints that Moses blessing of the tribes was prompted by a whole philosophy of life, not just the urgency of imminent death. Moses could have said nice things to everybody and died basking in the adoration of the people--but "what am I" if I don't speak the truth, even if it's not pleasant? After all, his blessing for the tribe of Reuven--that they "live and not die"--is rather lukewarm, probably recalling earlier prophecies concerning their forefather Reuven in Genesis 49.

On the other hand, Moses is quite willing to mention his own role in the people's history, claiming in verse 3 that the Torah was "commanded by Moses," although it came from God. Again, think of our saying from Pirkei Avot: "If I am not for myself, who is for me?" Even though he was called a very humble man, he had every right to remind the people of what he actually did. Perhaps this gave his blessings more legitimacy and his words greater power.

By linking Moses blessing to Hillel's mini-philosophy of self-examination, Rashi seems to be offering an interpretation of the entire chapter, not only of this one verse. According to this reading, Moses spoke out of a sense of urgency, a sense of truthfulness, and a legitimate desire for recognition of his real contributions. Thus, Moses final blessing also becomes his final moment of teaching us by the example of his life, a life dedicated to ideals, actions, and truth. That's what makes him Moshe Rabbenu ["Moses our teacher"], not just Moses the leader.

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Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger

Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger is currently the rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Poughkeepsie, NY. A former student at Kolel, he served as Kolel's Director of Outreach from late 1999-2001. He was ordained in the first graduating class of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism, and holds a Master's of Environmental Studies from York University in Toronto.