Parashat Vezot Haberachah
Tishrei 23, 5780 – October 11, 2020
Torah Reading: Deuteronomy 33:1 – 34:12
Haftarah: Joshua 1:1-18
Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Vezot Haberachah, which is Hebrew for “and this is the blessing.” As I mentioned last week, this is not a normal, weekly Torah portion – it’s read at the conclusion of the annual reading cycle on Simchat Torah(meaning “Rejoicing of the Torah”), a holiday where the Torah scrolls are taken out the ark, people are called up to the bimah for aliyot, and everyone dances. The dancing is, of course, celebratory but it’s also a somatic expression of the theme of unity. In this parashah, Moshe gives his final blessing to the Israelites. “Like Jacob who blessed his sons while he lay on his deathbed (Genesis 49), Moshe blesses the tribes of Israel.” The repetition of the word vezot (“and this”) – at the end of Jacob’s blessing and at the beginning of Moshe’s blessing – is an indication that this is the continuation of a tradition. It’s worthwhile to note, though, that Moshe’s blessing is also prophetic – he “blesses each tribe according to their responsibilities” and “looks ahead to a time when the tribes will enjoy prosperity and security.” This positive vision for the future is linked with the idea of Jewish unity: achdut. In verse 5 we read: “whenever the people gathered…the tribes of Israel [were] together.” There’s a Chasidic teaching that describes the progression from Ahavat Yisrael to achdut – the biblical commandment to “love your fellow like (you love) yourself” (Vayikra 19:18) still maintains two separate entities: “your fellow” and “yourself.” Achdut is not a biblical commandment, as it is thought to be “a direct consequence and an inevitable progression [of Ahavat Yisrael].” Dancing, during Simchat Torah, is considered a reflection of this ideal. Because wherever you are in your journey with Torah, we all unite together and come to celebrate on the same level, by dancing with our feet.
The responsibilities, and the corresponding blessings, of the twelve tribes are embedded in ecology. Upon entering the Land of Israel, each tribe is given an allotted section of land – a geographical region within which tribal members would live, work, and serve Hashem. Most notably, the blessing given to Joseph’s territory indicates that it was the most fertile region – “Blessed by Hashem is his land” we read, “with the heavenly bounty of dew, and with the deep waters crouching below; with the bounty of the sun’s crops, and with the bounty of the moons’ yield…” (33:13-14) Zevulun and Issachar also had a unique partnership. The tribe of Zevulun was known to be successful in maritime trade which allowed Issachar’s dedication to Torah study. But it was this advanced Torah study that contributed to the formation of the Jewish calendar and an understanding of the lifecycle. In the field of biology, other environmental sciences, and integral ecology this would be a partnership characterized by symbiosis. The two tribes worked together for the benefit of the collective, which helped mitigate the deficiencies of one region by sharing of the blessings of another. In this way, the blessings of a particular tribe, such as the “abundant and delicious produce [of Asher]” helped evolve the particular relations that linked a tribe with all others. And the conditions of one territory involved processes that affected the health and status of the collective. Tribal life is all about relations – relations that are limited to certain geographies, but adaptable to changing conditions when operating as a collective. In this sense, there is “no developmental individuality” as all the tribes are “literally ‘becoming with the other.’” The tribes may have had autonomy, but certainly not developmental individuality, and this is a demonstration of ecological symbiosis. In this respect, the Land of Israel – as a literal and metaphorical entity – could be considered a “holobiont.” This is a new, fancy term being developed and explored within the field of integral ecology. In short, a “holobiont” is a “critical unit of life” – “an organism plus its persistent communities of symbionts.” This is fast becoming a concept that has become relevant for biology, ecology, many sciences, and even the environmental humanities. The concept of the holobiont has contributed to new ways of thinking about how individuals embed themselves within larger processes, respond to “reciprocal interactions,” and operate within the greater web of life. It is an ecological idea, as much as it is a social one. The tribes had a symbiotic relationship with their region, with each other, and with the Land of Israel. It exemplifies how the blessings, and prophecy, of Moshe was actually an attunement to the spatial equilibrium of nested ecosystems.
After blessing all the people of Israel, Moshe “ascended from the plains of Moav to Mount Nevo, to the summit of the cliff that faces Jericho, and Hashem showed him the entire Land.” (34:1) There Moshe moved on from this world, but before he passed, he was granted access to the elusive 50th gate of understanding. “According to Chasidic teachings, every Jew possesses a spark of Moshe within [their] soul.” In this way, Moshe was a type of seed soul, and with that seed we – too – have the ability to reach new heights by transforming the material world into a resting place for the divine. And we, too, have the ability to see all the Land. This project, Torah for the Earth, has sought to demonstrate that the wisdom of the Torah is inherently ecological and that the material well-being of the earth an inherent extension of that wisdom. The word Torah comes from the root of the word Horaah, which means “instruction.” And it is this very instruction that is designed to lead to action. I hope that this series has inspired you to take action in the world by fighting for the earth. Given the current condition of our planet, there is much hidden wisdom that has yet to be revealed, and I hope that we can all unite together in the interest of a sustainable future. This concludes the Book of Deuteronomy and the Torah. With this we say, for one last time: “Chazak! Chazak! Venitchazeik!” Be Strong! Be strong! And may we be strengthened! B’ezrat Hashem we can heal the earth.
Topics Include: Achdut and the unity of Israel, the Land as a “holobiont,” and the relationality of tribal blessings in the spatial equilibrium of nested ecosystems
Eskenazi, Tamara Cohn, and Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss, eds. The Torah: a women's commentary. CCAR Press, 2017.
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Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt, Nils Bubandt, Elaine Gan, and Heather Anne Swanson, eds. Arts of living on a damaged planet: Ghosts and monsters of the Anthropocene. U of Minnesota Press, 2017.
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The Torah for the Earth Podcast and Audio Essays are Copyrighted to Charles Scott Forbes Jr, 2019.