THE BRACHOT OF YAAKOV AND MOSHE
Overshadowed as it is by Succot, Shmini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah, and thus not having a Shabbat to itself, the final parasha in the Torah, V'Zot HaBeracha, often receives far less attention than it perhaps deserves. Moshe Rabbeinu's final words to the people that he led for forty years are poetic and exceedingly deep in meaning. While analyzing the exact meaning of each blessing is a bit beyond the scope of this forum, we would like to focus on one particular aspect of the blessings given by Moshe to the people, and look particularly at how Don Issac Abarbanel viewed these blessings.
One of the most natural tendencies when looking at the blessings of Moshe is to compare them to those given by Yaakov to his sons before his death (Bereishit 49). In both places, all of the sons/tribes are listed and the father figure speaks to them directly, making some statement about their past, future, or personal characteristics.
However, Yaakov and Moshe do not give the exact same blessings. More than that, there are a number of differences in the basic format of the two sets of blessings. The most notable is the order in which the tribes are listed. Yaakov more or less goes in the order of their birth or at least in some logical familial order. He begins with Reuven, Shimon, Levi, and Yehuda, and then handles Zevulun and Yissachar together, thus covering the six sons of Leah before moving on to bless his other sons. The four sons of the maidservants are then blessed, followed by the last two sons, Yoseif and Binyamin. While there are some inconsistencies in the chronological pattern, the various commentaries deal with them and they are beyond our goal here. Moshe, on the other hand, deviates from this pattern. While he does begin with Reuven, he then moves on to Yehuda, Binyamin, Levi, and Yoseif. Only after those five have been blessed does he adopt an order somewhat comparable to that of Yaakov.
The second difference that will concern us is one of omission. While Yaakov blesses every one of his sons, Moshe leaves out Shimon entirely! While the Sifrei (favored by Nechama Liebowitz) suggests that this is because Shimon not only never repented for the actions that led Yaakov to curse him, but compounded his iniquity by leading the way when the Jews sinned with the daughters of Moav (Bamidbar 25:1-9), we will follow the view ofRamban and Abarbanel in explaining Shimon's absence from these blessings.
Don Issac Abarbanel, as per his style, takes an overall perspective of each set of blessings, in an attempt to determine if there are any guiding principles that bind them all together. By the blessings of Yaakov, he raises the following issue. It seems that it is nearly impossible to classify all twelve "blessings" in any coherent fashion. This is because some of the brothers receive blessings, while others are chastised; some hear about their future while others do not; some hear about their future inheritance while others are told nothing at all about where their descendants will ultimately settle. This being the case, is it at all possible to say that Yaakov had a single goal in mind?
Abarbanel claims that there is one factor that can be seen running through all of the blessings of Yaakov. Yaakov realized that there was one issue that would have to be settled by the various tribes in the future, and he sought to forestall any possible civil war by deciding the issue before his death. He was aware that eventually the tribes would form a nation and would be charged with the duty of selecting a king. Knowing that such a selection process could lead to fierce competition among the tribes, Yaakov used his blessings not to curse or praise the brothers just for the sake of the curse or praise, but rather he delineated why each brother did or did not possess the necessary characteristics to lead the Jewish people. Thus, Reuven is told that, while he was indeed the first born son, his tragic flaw of rushing into things disqualified him from the kingship. Shimon and Levi, while their annihilation of the town of Shechem was done in defense of their sister, nevertheless displayed the fact that they were too willing to punish others before considering all of the potential consequences. All of the blessings can be seen in this light (and Abarbanel explains each one), and only Yehuda emerges as the one fit for assuming the throne for the nation that could claim to be the heirs of the glorious tradition of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov.
Fast-forward now to the end of the Torah. Moshe Rabbeinu has no kingship issue to deal with, as Yaakov has already settled the matter. Rather, Abarbanel claims, Moshe uses his opportunity to bless the Jews as one final platform to express his desire to complete his mission and lead them into the Land of Israel. According to Abarbanel, the guiding principle in these blessings is where each tribe would settle in the Land and the way in which the Land would be conquered. Thus, Reuven is spoken to first, as they were the ones who would lead the battles in the conquest of Canaan (see Bamidbar 32:17). After Reuven, Moshe turns to Yehuda, who would eventually assume the role of primacy in war (see Sefer Shoftim 1:2). Binyamin follow Yehuda, as their portion in the land was to be adjacent to that of Yehuda (the two tribes shared dominion of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount and its surroundings). Levi comes next, as they had no real portion, but were centered at the Beit HaMikdash, and Yoseif follows, as his two tribes are next in line geographically speaking. The remaining tribes are then blessed in a pattern that more or less follows their inheritance in the Land.
This approach of Abarbanel solves our second question as well - why is Shimon not included by Moshe? As Ramban claims, Shimon is omitted here since Shimon's portion in the land was eventually swallowed up by Yehuda. As such, they do not merit any individual mention in the final statements of Moshe. However, Abarbanel claims that there is at least a reference to Shimon hidden in the blessing to Yehuda. Moshe states "sh'ma Hashem kol Yehuda," a hint to the naming of Shimon back in Bereishit - "ki shama Hashem et koli." Since Shimon was to be absorbed by Yehuda, claims Abarbanel, his blessing is absorbed as well.
I believe that there is a further aspect to what Abarbanel says. Using his interpretations of these two sets of blessings, we can see them as perfect endings to the books in which they appear. Sefer Bereishit is a story of familial struggles. Kayin kills Hevel, Avraham emerges as their heir to his father's mission to Canaan, Yitzchak and not Yishmael receives the divine blessing given to his father by Hashem, and Yaakov swipes his father's blessing from Esav. Only once we reach the generation of the twelve tribes is there no longer any struggle of the same kind. All of the brothers are poised to be part of the nation of Israel, to inherit the blessings given to Avraham. However, Yaakov foresaw that there was still one struggle left to go - not the struggle over who would be part of the nation, but rather the struggle over who would lead it. Thus, he ends Bereishit by pointing towards that potential conflict and by deciding it far before the fact (this may help explain why the end of Sefer Ruth, where the lineage of David is given, is the only time outside of Sefer Bereishit where the phrase "eileh toledot" is written - it is the conclusion of the historical process that began with the forefathers).
By contrast, Sefer Devarim has one notable focus - the entry into the Land of Israel and what the Jews will do when they arrive. Despite the book's being known as "Mishne Torah" - a "second" Torah, very few commandments are repeated here, and most of the ones stated here for the first time are those which will take effect only once the land is settled. Alongside that theme, Moshe states several times that he wanted to be the one to lead the Jews into the Land, only to be rebuffed time and again by Hashem. Thus, Moshe concludes his term as leader as well as Sefer Devarim with blessings that point to the continuation of this book. He lays out where everyone will live, setting the stage for the fulfillment of all of the commandments that he taught them in the final weeks of his life.
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