Parashat Ve-Zot Ha-Berachah and the Uniqueness of Israel

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September 30 2009

Parashat Ve-Zot Ha-Berachah begins with an extraordinarily difficult verse, in which various places from which God “approached” the children of Israel are mentioned. It states (Deuteronomy 33:1-2):

This is the blessing with which Moses, the man of God, bade the Israelites farewell before he died. He said:

The L-RD came from Sinai;

He shone upon them from Seir;

He appeared from Mount Paran,

And approached from Ribeboth-Kodesh,

Lightning flashing at them from His right.

Rashi’s comment, taken from the Sifre and from the Gemara in Massekhet ‘Aboda Zara (2b) is well known: He writes (Deut. 33:2) as follows: And He shone upon them from Seir: For He proposed to the children of Esau that they accept the Torah but they did not want to… From Mount Paran: For He went there and proposed to the children of Ishmael that they accept it but they did not want to. (The children of Esau lived at Seir: see Genesis 36:8; the children of Ishmael lived at Paran: see Genesis 21:21.) This is the famous Aggadah that these nations refused the Torah, but only benei Yisrael accepted it.

(Most recently, Bezalel Naor, Mitsvat Hashem Barah: an Elucidation of the Seven Noahide Commandments [Spring Valley, NY, 2008], published together another of his works, an edition of Ma‘amar al Yishmael, by Rabbi Solomon ben Abraham ibn Aderet {the Rashba c.1235- c. 1310} [Spring Valley, NY, 2008] discussed the problem that many classical aharonim, such as R. Yosef Engel, had with the Sifre, which explicitly mentions that the reason why Esau and Yishmael refused the Torah was due to the prohibitions of murder and adultery. There prohibitions were part of the Seven Noahide laws, and were not part of the unique revelation of the Torah in any case!)

It is important to note that according to manner in which Rambam understands prophecy, not to mention and the necessary part that the unique prophecy of Moshe Rabbenu had in kabbalat ha-Torah, Rashi’s interpretation of these verses becomes quite difficult to sustain.

The Rambam writes: …We shall find many texts, some of the scriptural and some of them dicta of the Sages, all of which maintain this fundamental principle that God turns whom He wills, whenever He wills it, into a prophet- but only someone perfect and superior to the utmost degree. But with regard to one of the ignorant among the common people, this is not possible according to us- I mean, that He should turn one of them into a prophet- except as it is possible that He should turn a donkey or a frog into a prophet. It is our fundamental principle that there must be training and perfection, whereupon the possibility arises to which the power of the deity becomes attached.  (Guide of the Perplexed II:32, Pines ed., p. 362)

Now, there is certainly no evidence of a prophet of any measure, that is, one who according to the Maimonidean standards possessed both moral perfection and intellectual perfection, among the people of Esau or Ishmael at the time of qabalat Ha-Torah. Moreover, one of the thirteen Maimonidean articles of faith is that the prophecy of Moses was unique. Thus, there could not have been anyone comparable to Moses among the people of those nations. What, then, can be the interpretation of the initial verses in Ve-Zot Ha-Berachah if one accepts Rambam’s requirement of a Moshe Rabbenu figure as an imperative for qabalat ha-Torah and one does not posit the existence of a Moses-like figure among the nations of the world who could apprehend God and be the agent through whom a divine law would have been promulgated (a premise that the Rambam, in any event absolutely and categorically denies)?

R. Abraham ibn Ezra (1089 or 1092-93- c. 1164 or 1167), who rejects this Midrashic interpretation of the verse, quotes R. Sa‘adiah Gaon (882-942), who claimed that all three terms (Sinai, Paran and Seir) refer to Har Sinai. According to this approach, the verses are only describing (in poetic fashion, by repeating the name of Har Sinai in its various forms) the giving of the Torah by God at Sinai. The ibn Ezra adds that the verse speaks only about the children of Israel. Moshe’s blessing consisted of general praise of the children of Israel as a whole, and subsequently a blessing for each individual tribe.

Interestingly, Ramban (1194-1270) also interprets this verse in a manner different than Rashi, although he rejects the ibn Ezra’s approach as well. Ramban writes:

And He shone upon them from Seir: For after they journeyed from Sinai the cloud abode in the wilderness of Paran (Numbers 10:12), and from there Moses sent the spies, as it is said: And Moses sent them from the wilderness of Paran (ibid. 13:3). As a result of the spies’ report, the people were banished, and there was no divine communication to Moses until they came to Seir, at the border of the children of Esau, at the end of the forty years… He appeared from Mount Paran- He regarded them and placed their needs in light of His countenance emanating from Mount Paran. The sense thereof is as follows: the beginning of their entry into the great wilderness was from Paran…then God shone forth upon them to see what they needed in the great and dreadful wilderness (Deuteronomy 8:15) {Ramban: Deuteronomy, Chavel ed., pp. 372-73.}

In other words, God continued to guide the children of Israel after their receipt of the Torah, through their sojourn in the desert, from Sinai, to Paran, to Seir. Although specific communication through Moshe stopped in the intervening years, God’s guidance, His hashgahah peratit, never left the children of Israel. Although Ramban quotes the Midrash that Rashi quotes at the end of his remarks, he clearly point towards another explanation. Before his death, Moshe was proclaiming the eternal Providence that God maintained over his people, and that would continue after Moshe’s death. 


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