Endings And Beginnings (Edited Transcript)
Listen to audio I’d like to share with you some ideas about the very final parsha of the Torah, V’zot Habracha, which does not generally get much attention. It is right at the end, and it is read on Simchat Torah; it does not have its own Shabbos. With all the celebrations and activity on Succot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, it often gets neglected.
But there are important lessons for us in the unusual ending of the Torah. In chapter 24 verse 5 it describes the death of Moses: Vayamot sham Moshe eved Hashem b’eretz Moav al pi Hashem; vayikbor oto bagay b’eretz Moav… velo yada ish et kevurato ad hayom hazeh “and Moses the servant of G-d died there in the land of Moav according to the word of Hashem; and He buried him there in the valley in the land of Moav… and no man knows his burial place to this day.” According to one interpretation in the Gemara it was G-d who buried him. It is from here that we learn the mitzvah of burying the dead. We are commanded to imitate G-d: in the same way that G-d buried Moses, so too we have a mitzvah to see to the proper burial of a person who has passed away.
Moshe dies alone on the mountain. There isn’t even anyone there to bury him. G-d specifically takes him up the mountain because He does not want his grave to be known, so that it should not become a place of worship – Moshe was, after all, still a human being. Indeed he was the greatest prophet who ever lived, who spoke to G-d and who was instrumental in bringing the Torah into the world; but he was a human being nevertheless and should never be worshipped. So he dies alone on the mountain and the location of his grave is not known.
Thus the Torah’s conclusion is not a happily-ever-after fairytale ending. Before Moses lies the land of Israel which was promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The people had gone down to Egypt, into slavery. G-d had taken them out, promised them they would get the Torah on Mount Sinai and that they would then go into the Land of Israel. This was Moses’ mission – to lead the people not only at the time of the liberation from Egypt and to be their great teacher of Torah, but also to lead them into the Land of Israel. And yet he doesn’t; the Chumash just ends there, abruptly, with no grand finale. We would have liked it to end with Moses leading the people into Israel; that’s how it was meant to be. But as we know, various incidents occurred and sins were committed, because of which G-d decreed that Moses would not enter the Land of Israel.
The Torah’s truth is no fairytale This abrupt ending has an important lesson: although the story continues in the Book of Joshua, which talks about how Joshua led the people into the Land of Israel, the Book of Joshua onwards is completely different. The Five Books of Moses – the Chumash – is dictated word for word by G-d. From the Book of Joshua onwards – the Prophets, Psalms, Proverbs, etc. – all the books were written with Divine inspiration, even with prophecy, but they were not dictated word for word by G-d. The Chumash is everything for us, as dictated by G-d. This is why if there is even one letter missing or a seemingly minor mistake in the Torah scroll, we cannot read from it. We have the strictest laws with the Chumash and how to treat it, because it is the word of G-d. The fact that it ends here is very significant, teaching us that it does not simply continue with the rest of Scripture; the Chumash stands on its own.
We learn from this that the Torah is a book of truth; it’s not fables, mythology or fairytale. Fairytales have a happily-ever-after conclusion. Real life does not; it is filled with disappointments. The Torah is a book of reality, of truth. The authenticity of the Torah rings so loudly with its dramatic, unsatisfactory and sad ending.
Life is messy There is another important lesson we learn from this abrupt conclusion, and that is that life is messy. Rav Eliyahu Dessler, one of our great rabbinic thinkers of the 20th century, once said that we are born in the middle of things and we die in the middle of things; it’s not a perfect world. We don’t see a full picture, and don’t get to finish everything. A book of fiction can have a neat ending but in the real world, it’s messy. There are duties that begin here and don’t end; as the Mishnah says lo alecha hamelacha ligmor, it’s not for us to complete the work of our mitzvot. But on the other hand, velo ata ben chorin lehibatel mimena, we are not free to exempt ourselves from trying. A lot of frustration in life comes from not accepting this plain and simple reality. People have expectations that clash with the real world and this leads to disillusionment. We expect that reality will be neat, that the chapters of our lives will be complete and that we will be able to finish our tasks. But it’s not like that. There is messiness in life and we have to make peace with the incomplete nature of life because we are not in control of this world. G-d is in control and that is why the world at times appears messy to us. We would love to be in control of our lives. Resentment and frustration come in when we think that we are the masters of our own destiny, that we are the masters of the universe and that we are somehow going to achieve exactly what we want to and that we will reach all of the goals we have set out for us. But this is not so. G-d is in control of this world and things sometimes turn out different than we expect.
Hence we have a very beautiful custom to always say “please G-d” when referring to a future event – we say please G-d, or in the Hebrew, Im Yirtzeh Hashem: please G-d I will be there tomorrow, please G-d the wedding will take place on such and such a date. We say please G-d, because who really knows? G-d is in control. We need to make peace with life’s messiness and to accept that we are born in the middle of things and die in the middle of things. Moses’ job was not finished, because it was the will of G-d that he not enter the Land. He begged G-d for the opportunity to go into the Land of Israel. But G-d said no and Moses had to accept the decree. Thus the conclusion of the Torah teaches us how to accept the nature of life, the incompleteness of things.
Torah is the essence of our identity There is a third message in the Torah’s conclusion, which relates to the essence of Jewish identity. What does it mean to be a Jew? Where were we born as a people? Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch makes a very interesting point in various places in his commentary on the Chumash as well as in his famous work, The Nineteen Letters, where he sets out a comprehensive philosophy of Judaism. Rabbi Hirsch explains that we are a people created by the Torah. We were born at the foot of Mount Sinai when G-d gave us His Torah, when we heard the Ten Commandments, when Moses brought down the tablets to the people and taught it to us throughout the forty years in the desert. That is what created us and that is what has sustained us throughout the generations. There is no historical record of any segment of Jews remaining in existence without some connection to the Torah. If there is no connection to Torah, then Jews cease to exist as such. This is our very nature: our nationhood differs from the nations of the world. Rabbi Hirsch explains that an ordinary nation is born within a land. It is a group of people who live in the land, forming groups and tribes, who then they form a national identity based on the piece of land they share.
Rabbi Hirsch says the formation of the Jewish People was different. In order to create the Jewish People, G-d took us out of the Land of Israel. He promised the land to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob but He engineered things in such a way that Joseph and his brothers would end up in Egypt, the people would then get enslaved, and eventually be taken out of Egypt to become a full people with a mission and a sense of national identity at the foot of Mount Sinai. Nobody knows where Mount Sinai is. Although some tourist guides claim to know where Mount Sinai is, we don’t actually know where it is – in the same way that we don’t know where the grave of Moses is – because G-d did not want us worshipping a mountain either. He wanted the Torah to come into the world specifically in the desert. We were not a nation in the Land of Israel and then given the Torah in Israel. We had to first become a nation solely by the identity of the Torah in the desert, in no-man’s land, so that our Jewish identity and people-hood would come from the Torah alone. Only then did G-d bring us into the Land of Israel, saying this area is going to be the platform for the furtherance and the practice of the mitzvot, the Torah, which I have given you. Right from the beginning G-d said the land of Israel is given to you, as promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We have a longer connection to it than any other people on earth have to their land. Abraham was given the instruction Lech lecha, “go to the land” almost 4000 years ago. But the land is on condition: G-d says, realise this land is there to help you uphold the Torah’s values. If you don’t uphold those values, you may lose it. Hence we are the only people on earth who have the concept of exile. We did not listen to the mandate of G-d – to use the land to carry out the values of the Torah – and were therefore exiled. The land is the platform for the fulfilment of the mitzvot of the Torah.
Based on Rabbi Hirsch’s writings, perhaps we can say that this is why the Chumash ends so abruptly. One might suggest that the Chumash itself should have incorporated the Book of Joshua, with the people entering the Land of Israel. However, based on the philosophy of Rabbi Hirsch, perhaps the message is that G-d wanted to make clear that the Five Books is the document outlining the overarching philosophy of what the Jewish mission and Jewish identity is – a people created at the foot of Mount Sinai. Once we have our mandate, our plan and our mission, we can then implement it. The Chumash ends with the mandate having been achieved, with the identity of the people having been formed. Now begins the implementation phase, which is in the Land of Israel, the platform for carrying out the mitzvot of the Torah. Therefore the Torah had to end here, to emphasise that our national identity is not like any other people on earth. The very essence of Jewish identity and Jewish people-hood is the Torah. It is Judaism that makes us who we are and defines our essence.