5768 - #04


Someone once posed a most interesting question to me: how is it possible for us to celebrate on Simchat Torah when the basic reading of the day, V’Zot HaBracha, concludes with the death of Moshe Rabbeinu? How is it possible to be happy when we read of Moshe’s death? The question is a powerful one. The exuberance of the Simchat Torah spirit may lead us to overlook the exact nature of the words that we read on this day. We are concluding our yearly reading of the Torah; there is excitement, anticipation -- but what about the words that we are actually reading? This is Moshe’s final address to the nation. I would think that, when Moshe delivered these words, there was sobriety and sorrow in the air. The nation knew what was occurring; they knew that this would be the great man’s final act on this earth. And then the parsha concludes with Moshe’s death. The emotions that surround this reading, it would seem, should also be ones of sadness and seriousness. Yet, we read these words on Simchat Torah – in fact, only on Simchat Torah – a time of joy, in fact a unique time when joy is paramount and fills the synagogue. This person truly had a legitimate query.

             A perusal of T.B. Baba Batra 15a leaves no doubt that the final verses of the Torah text are filled with grief. According to Rabbi Shimon, the final eight verses of the Torah are unique for Moshe wrote them with tears. The gemara further states that these verses can only be read by one person. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Devarim 34:5 explains this gemara as declaring that this section cannot be divided into two aliyot, two separate readings, but must be read as one section.1 This, Rabbi Hirsch explains, is the general practice with all painful, public readings of the Torah. Just as T.B. Megilla 31a states that we do not divide the reading of the curses but rather only call up one person to read these entire sections, the same rule is to apply to the reading of Moshe’s death. The conclusion of V’Zot HaBracha is clearly a painful reading. We do not call up more than one person to read this section -- yet, from the atmosphere in the synagogue, this perception of a painful reading is totally absent. These verses are actually part of what many feel is the most honoured aliyah, Torah reading, of the year, Chatan Torah.

            .The question may be simply better than any answer. The simple reality is that there is a paradox between the behaviour that surrounds this Torah reading and the actual reading itself. We are in a state of joy; the actual reading is a sad one. There may be no way of explaining how we could be happy given what we are reading. The reality is simply this paradox – yet, perhaps, there is a way of explaining this paradox. So many books of the Tanach end on a sad note. Kohelet, which we just read, and Eicha immediately come to mind. In response, in the public readings of these works, a verse reflecting hope is added at the end, thereby ensuring that we do not conclude our reading with a depressing thought. This is even done on Tisha B’Av when grief fills the room. Perhaps this thought lends an additional significance to the reading of parshat Bereishit immediately after we conclude V’Zot HaBracha. We cannot conclude our reading of the Torah – another book of Tanach, we, perhaps, should mention – on a sad note. We thus read the hope that inherently must be tied to the story of Creation. Can this reading, though, completely override the sorrow that resonates with the end of V’Zot HaBracha? From a broader perspective, we may also wonder why the Torah does conclude on a note of sadness?

             In Nishma Spark of the Week, 5756-01: Completing the Circle: Connecting V’Zot HaBracha to Bereishit,2I contended that the yearly cycle of the Torah reading, in a certain way, challenges the idea that there really is a beginning and an end to our study of the text. In a certain way, V’Zot HaBracha also leads into Bereishit. Ntziv, HaEmek Davar, Devarim 34:12actually explains that our very understanding of Bereishit is affected by our prior reading of the complete Torah and Moshe Rabbeinu’s infusion within the nation of the knowledge of God. The question emerges as to how we could say Yizkor, the memorial prayer, on a holiday. A holiday is a time of joy when, in fact, all (public) forms of mourning is forbidden. The answer that is often presented is that the saying of Yizkor is not an act of mourning or even of grief. It is an act of remembrance that actually brings forth a moment of quiet joy.3 We are sad that we no longer are able to share our lives with our loved ones; we miss them. But there is also joy in that we did have them in our lives and we remember their positive effect upon our lives. The same is true with Moshe Rabbeinu. We are better because he lived and instructed us in Torah. This does not explain the paradox of joy as we read of his death – but it could explain the joy of reading Bereishit anew. We study again for we can gain, thereby, greater understanding – thanks to the teachings of Moshe Rabbeinu.

             We often overlook the fact that the Torah is not just a manual but actually presents a completely different perspective on life. Rashi, Bereishit 1:1 informs us that the nations of the world may call us thieves for taking the land of Israelaway from its inhabitants. It is acceptance of the truth of Torah that declares us not to be thieves for the land actually belongs to God Who can give it to Whomever He wishes. The difference is in the frame of reference. To one who does not accept Torah, we are thieves. To one who does, we are the God-given proprietors of the land. Our whole perspective on life is shaped by our recognition of the truth of Torah and the ideas embedded in this all-encompassing corpus of thought. This is Moshe Rabbeinu’s legacy. We are sad upon reading of his death, or should be. But there is great joy in that he lived, we benefited from his teachings of God’s Torah – and in that we will meet him again in Shemot.


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Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1 See, also, Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 428:8. It should be noted, though, that the actual language of the gemara does not necessarily support Rabbi Hirsch’s explanation of the law. See, for example, Mishneh Brura, Orach Chaim 428:21 for a more straightforward explanation based on the language of the gemara. This language, though, also does not necessarily contradict Rabbi Hirsch’s explanation. It should, perhaps, also be noted that there are other ways of explaining the gemara so that it has no bearing on the number of individuals called up to the Torah. See, for example, the first view in Tosfot, Baba Batra 15a, d.h. Shemona.


3 This further explains the dominant custom to not say Yizkor in the first year after a loved one’s death. During this year of aveilut, the grief is still raw and dominant. It is only after the year that we are able to feel the quiet joy of remembering. .

Nishma, 2007


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