And this is the blessing with which Moses himself, the man of God, blessed the children of Israel, before his death. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 33:1)
The book of Deuteronomy/Devarim is a series of speeches by Moses, sometimes in God’s name, sometimes in his own words, to the generation that is about to cross the Jordan without him. Moses repeatedly tells the Israelites that they have screwed up before, and God will punish them if they screw up again. The second-to-last Torah portion, Ha-Azinu, is God’s rather dark poem prophesying that they will, indeed, screw up again. But the last portion in Deuteronomy (the very last one in the Torah scroll) takes a brighter tone.
In this portion, Vezot Habrakhah (And this is the blessing), Moses blesses each tribe with prophesies of good outcomes: life, strength, religious knowledge, security, and plenty. After these unusually positive parting words, Moses climbs Mount Nevo and dies.
Before Moses blesses the first tribe, Reuben, he introduces his blessings with a few obscure poetic verses. Modern scholars view these verses as quoted from a much older poem, with some bits lost in the transmission. One piece of evidence for this theory is that the mountain where the Israelites received the “Ten Commandments” is called Mount Sinai, just as it is in the book of Exodus/Shemot. This is the only appearance of the name “Sinai” in the whole book of Deuteronomy; the rest of the time, Deuteronomy calls the mountain Choreiv (Horeb).
Here is the first obscure verse: And he [Moses] said:
God entered from Sinai
and dawned from Se-ir for them;
shone out from a mountain of Paran,
and came from holy myriads;
from Its right side is אשדת for them. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 33:2)
אשדת = ? These four Hebrew letters do not make a word anywhere else in the Hebrew bible. Commentators generally agree they indicate a compound word beginning with eish = fire. For the second part of the word, we have only the two letters ד and ת, corresponding to “d” and “t”. Traditional commentary assumes the two letters stand for dat = edict, a word borrowed from Persian that does not appear in Hebrew texts until centuries later. They translate the whole word as “fiery law”. Most modern scholars assume that d-t is a fragment of the word daleket = flaming, and translate the whole word as “fire-bolts” or “lightning”.
What does the verse mean? Se-ir is the land southeast of Canaan where, in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Esau founds the kingdom of Edom. The Talmud associates Se-ir with Rome. Paran is a wilderness south of Canaan where Ishmael settles in Genesis. The Talmud associates Paran with Islam.
Most commentary from the Talmud through the 19th century assumes that Moses is once again insisting that the religion of the Israelites is the only acceptable creed. The light of God, they said, is the Torah, and this verse means that God offered to Torah to the Israelites at Sinai, to the Edomites (standing in for Romans or Christians) at Se-ir, and to the Ishmaelites (standing for Muslims) at Paran. But only the Israelites accepted the Torah. The “holy myriads” are God’s angels, who do not need the Torah to instruct them on how to live properly in the world. So God’s right hand gives Israel alone the eish-dat, the fiery law.
I am not persuaded. Yes, Moses spends 40 years denigrating other religions and reminding the Israelites that God chose them– 40 years of warning and criticizing and yelling and laying down the law. But in Vezot Habrakhah, Moses finally drops that role and blesses the tribes with good fortune and plenty. He wants to leave the world with blessings rather than curses. In his softened mood, maybe he quotes part of an old poem not to reinforce Israelite triumphalism, but to hint that divine enlightenment can reach people who belong to other groups, other religions.
The simple meaning of the verse appears to be that God’s light shone on at least three different peoples south of Canaan. And I think the next verse continues this theme, despite traditional commentary’s insistence that it must mean God has power over all peoples, but loves only Israel.
One difficulty in translating verse 33:3 is that it seems to switch back and forth between referring to God in the second person singular and the third person singular. But this is not unusual in the Torah. To make the verse easier to read, I will use [God] instead of a confusing pronoun.
Indeed, [God] is a lover of peoples;
all of [God’s] holy ones are in [God’s] hand;
and they place themselves at [God’s] feet;
yissa from [God’s] pronouncements. (Deuteronomy 3:3)
yissa = he/it lifts; he/it carries
Traditional translations ignore the fact that the word amim means “peoples”, and change the word to “tribes” or “the people” in the singular. These translators assume that God would never be described as a lover of more than one people: the people Israel.
But why not take the Hebrew word for “peoples” literally? What if God really is a lover of many “peoples”, many ethnicities, many religions? Then, as the next line says, all of God’s holy ones, from every population, are in God’s hand. And they humbly position themselves at God’s feet.
In the last line of the verse, God lifts, or carries, from God’s pronouncements. Modern scholar Robert Alter, who translated the line as “he bears your utterances”, noted that its meaning is so unclear, it must have been altered in transmission from the original poem.
True, pronouncements are normally neither lifted nor carried nor borne. But I wonder if the word yissa is an abbreviation of an idiom. One common biblical Hebrew idiom is yissa rosh, “he lifts the head of”, and means “he pardons”. Maybe God pardons the holy ones at God’s feet for disregarding God’s pronouncements. Maybe, contrary to Talmudic thinking, God pardons the more righteous members of many religions when they transgress God’s decrees.
With such obscure Hebrew, it is all guesswork. But my guess is that the two verses together mean that the divine light is not like a laser focusing on just the children of Israel, but rather like the sun, that rises over every height where a people seeks inspiration. God offers enlightenment to everyone, in broad daylight. Furthermore, God loves not just the Israelites, but many peoples. The Roman Christians of Se-ir and the Muslims of Paran can also count as holy. God does pronounce laws and requirements; but all holy ones who transgress them can be pardoned, if they place themselves humbly at God’s feet.
This is the poem Moses quotes before he blesses the tribes of Israel and climbs up the mountain to die. After spending 40 years of his life browbeating his people into committing themselves to God, maybe Moses feels that his great task is finished. Now, at last, he can let go of his anger and frustration and give blessings–not just to the tribes of Israel, but to all peoples.
If only we let go of our prejudices, and listen.