ZOT HAB’RACHAH Deuteronomy 33f
Our ancestors, when they were feeling good liked to call themselves Y'shurun, “straight forward ones,” rather than Yisrael, “God wrestlers.” Imagine the vibes of the triumphant new nation with its charismatic King Shaul. How wonderful that the eleven tribes had united and stayed together long enough to sustain a monarchy. For two centuries no one was in charge so they had fought each other like siblings. But now Y'shurun had a king–long may he live. They held a great celebration. Crowds gathered at Giv’ah, Shaul’s home in the mountains of Binyamin. They ate and drank and sang and danced. Sh’muel the prophet raised an altar and sent the smoke of offerings up to Yahh.
Someone who was good with words composed a toast to the tribes. Naturally, he opened and closed with lines about Yahh, God of Israel. Then with poetic style and imagery he characterized each of the eleven who had contracted with one another in order to make a single nation. Picture him bellowing out these lines to a crowd, clumped around their tribal ensigns. He pauses for cheers that follow each section. While we’re at it, let’s picture a pundit giving a running commentary on the toast, filling in details and maybe some spin.
1This is the b’rachah
which Mosheh, the man of God,
blessed B’neyYisrael before he died:
2Yahh from Sinai came, shining from Se’ir, appearing from Mt. Paran, lightning flashing from his right hand.
3Indeed an embracer of peoples! All his special ones at your hand
Gathered at your feet, uplifted by your words.
4Torah, Moshe commanded us, heritage for the Ya’akov community
5So that there would be a king in Y'shurun, national council, unified tribes of Yisrael.
Recent events make it clear that we have one formidable God: Yahh, king of the mountains. His right hand zaps! He has a heavenly host of who knows what and an earthly host–that’s us. For two centuries our tribes have been fighting one another and getting slaughtered by outside enemies. But now, we take Moshe’s Torah seriously and have united into a kingdom. We have finally figured out what Yahh wants. Watch out Philistines!
6Reuven lives! Dies not, few as he may be.
Reuven claims to be the firstborn of the tribes so that’s why the list starts with him. But the tribe is doing poorly in its space east of the Salt Sea. Let’s hope they hang in there.
7As for Y’hudah he said:
Hear, Yahh, the voice of Yehudah, bring him to his people.
Strengthen his hands and be a help against his enemies.
These Y’hudim are not doing as well as expected in their mountains south of here. They appear to be divided among themselves and they’ve had the brunt of the Philistines from the Gaza area. It’s hard, down south, to be a Y’hudi. In fact, there may once have been another tribe, Shim’on, to their south. They were wiped out. A pity. Would have made 12 tribes, a nice round number for the toast. Anyway, Yehudah needs help.
8Of Levi he said:
Your Tumim and Urim for your loyal one.
You tried and tested him at Masa and Meribah.
9He says he sees neither father nor mother nor recognizes his brother and knows not his children
Unless they keep your word and guard your b’rit.
10They teach your ways to Ya’akov, your Torah to Yisrael.
They set incense for your nose, burnt offerings on your altar.
11Yahh bless his strength–thus you accept the work of his hands.
Crush the loins of his adversaries, of his haters that they rise no more.
Now that’s a toast! These L’vi’im are a tough bunch. Story goes that their ancestor grabbed a sword and cut up a whole village of men when just one of them was accused of raping his sister. Of course the men were not at their peak strength because they had all just been circumcised, but that’s another story. Anyway, when it comes to loyalty to Yahh, Levi leads. Mosheh was a Levi and the rest have taken upon themselves to carry on his work. Among other things, they are experts at contacting Yahh with those flip chips, the Urim and Tumim. You go to them for a reliable answer to your questions for Yahh. They do good work. Crush the loins of his adversaries – sort of reminds you of the story of the first Levi.
12Of Binyamin he said:
Beloved of Yahh, he dwells secure near him.
God covers him all the day so that he dwells between divine shoulders.
Short and sweet. Our King Sha’ul, is a Binyamini. You can almost feel the presence of Yahh in the hills around here. That’s security.
13Of Yosef he said:
His land is blessed by Yahh with:
Fine fruit of heavenly rain and depths that lie below,
14Fine fruit produced by sun, fine fruit driven by moons,
15The best of ancient mountains, fine fruit of eternal hills,
16 Fine fruit of rich, full, earth,
Favor of the Presence in the Bush;
Its produce for the head of Yosef, for the pate of one distinct among his brothers.
17His firstborn bull, his glory, horns those of a wild ox!
With them he gores peoples to the ends of the earth.
These are the myriads of Efraim, the thousands of M’nasheh.
Interesting. Most stories list Efrayim and M’nasheh as separate tribes but they are toasted as one, having been born in Egypt to Yosef, AKA Tsafnat Paneach, and the priest’s daughter, Asnat. Yosef is certainly the largest and most populous of the tribes when you count them that way. Fruit of the sun–that’s the figs and dates. Bounty of the moon – wheat and barley. Their enormous territory runs from the Great Sea, over the plains, up the hills and mountains, clear to Gil’ad beyond the Yarden river. They’ve got it all. The Presence in the Bush, a fine literary reference to Yahh who, so goes the story, first spoke to Mosheh from a bush burning on Mt. Sinai. Haven’t time now to tell you the stories about Yosef, but they say he was most distinctive. Anyway, his might is that of a long horned bull. Watch out peoples everywhere.
18Of Z’vulun he said:
Z’vulun, rejoice in your voyages, Yisachar, in your tents.
19They call peoples to the mountain where they offer suitable sacrifices
For they suckle abundance of sea and hidden hoard of sand.
Zev and Yis are neighbors and brothers like Ephrayim and Menasheh. I wonder why the writer reversed their birth order, though, for most of this toast, there is little attention to that old story of Ya’akov and his four women. The toast generally moves from south to north. These two live in the Emek Yizrael and the mountains to the north. They make the most of their access to both the Great Sea and the Kineret and they have learned to turn sand into glass. And here’s an irony: whereas Yosef is known for goring peoples, these two tribes invite the peoples to Mt. Tabor where they have a shrine to Yahh. No wonder they rejoice!
20Of Gad he said:
Blessed, the one who broadens Gad.
He dwells like a lion, and will tear arm and scalp.
21He sees the best for himself, though there’s the leader’s portion.
He walks among the heads of the people, having done justice for Yahh, his ways for Yisrael.
Like Reuven, Gad lives beyond the Yarden, but Gad is doing very well indeed, getting bigger all the time, following his ambition. He’s first and foremost a fighter, maybe even bloodthirsty, but he likes to say that he does it all for Yahh and Yisrael.
22Of Dan he said:
Dan is a lion cub, pouncing from the Bashan.
A short toast for a small tribe in the far north. Bashan, also known as Golan, is famous for its cattle but also for its panthers, and Danim are not cowherds.
23Of Naftali he said:
Naftali well satisfied, full of Yahh’s blessing, take possession west and south.
Nice, but not much character. Naftali’s in the mountains of the Galil down to the swamps of the upper Yarden. Life there sounds relaxed.
24Of Asher he said:
Most blessed of sons, Asher! Be he favored by his brothers. Dunking his foot in oil.
25Bolts of iron and copper. Strong as your day is long!
The toast here is obviously a word play on the name Asher which means “fortunate” or “happy.” Asher lives along the coast of the Great Sea. What a life! The area is known for olive trees and the oil dunking sounds like ultimate luxury. Anyway he’s strong and well protected with heavy metal.
26There is none like the God of Y'shurun!
Riding the heavens to your aid, his splendor in the clouds.
He subdues the gods of old, chops ancient arms.
He drove out enemy from before you, saying: “Destroy!”
28So that Yisrael dwells secure, alone, spring of Ya’akov.
In a land of grain and wine, indeed, whose heavens drip dew.
29Your happiness, Yisrael: who is like you, a people saved by Yahh,
Shield for your help, sword for your splendor!
Your enemies fail before you and you tread their heights!
Back to the super power of Yahh. Other gods haven’t a chance. Not only is there none like Yahh, but there’s none like Yisrael, championed by Yahh. With Him telling us what to do we are unbeatable. Anyone who wants to fight us had better just give up.
What a poem! Some lines were hard to hear and a challenge to comprehend, but the good feelings shine through. I interviewed the speaker earlier in the day. He prefers not to publish his name. In fact, he insists that he is no more than a performer, that the words themselves were written long ago by Mosheh himself. He claims the great man wrote them when he was 120 years old and about to die. It was a happy prediction two centuries into the future, sort of a final benediction, a b’rachah, and Moshe carried it with him to his unknown grave somewhere on Mt. Pisgah, back on the other side of the Yarden. The speaker won’t say how he got hold of Zot HaB’rachah. Sounds incredible to me and that’s the way it is.