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The End of the Torah

Death of Moses, Alexandre Cabanel, 1851.

The Torah begins with a bang—the Big Bang, the creation of the universe.  But it ends with a whimper, albeit a whimper concealed by a very loud noise of another kind.  Let me explain.

Relevant Links
Famous Last Words  Moshe Sokolow, Jewish Ideas Daily. Moses’ last will and testament take up virtually the entirety of the final portion of the Torah. Its most unusual feature is its anonymity. (PDF)
Odds, Ends, and Leftovers  Jeffrey Fiskin, Forward. Shemini Atzeret is quiet and thoughtful. Simhat Torah is loud and joyous. Why are two such different holidays celebrated together?
Theology and Themes  MyJewishLearning. On Simhat Torah, the cycle of Torah readings is mirrored in traditional circle dances.  

The system universally practiced among Jews nowadays is to read the entire Torah, from Genesis through Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers to Deuteronomy, each year.  (Originally, this was a strictly Babylonian custom.)  In some synagogues the entire weekly portion is read while in others just a few verses are read; but everyone is reading from the same set portion of the Torah.  Occasionally the second day of a festival will occur on the Sabbath, but only (of course) in the Diaspora, leaving Israel (and some congregations elsewhere) reading a week ahead of the rest of the Jewish world.  But before too long Diaspora Jews combine a couple of shorter portions and catch back up with Israel.  In this way, the entire Torah is completed in the course of a single year, Sabbath after Sabbath—with one exception.

As the Encyclopedia Judaica notes in the fine print to its "Table of Scriptural Readings on Sabbaths," the final portion of the Torah, V'zot Hab'rakhah (Deuteronomy 33–34), "is not read on Sabbath but on Simhat Torah."  Though it is read (this year) intermittently during three weeks, it is the only one of the 54 "weekly" portions that does not get a Sabbath of its own.  Instead, it is read only during a holiday service when many Jews will be at their jobs rather than at the synagogue.  Even for those who are at the service, the hoopla will far overshadow the actual content of the reading.  For as well as ending the annual reading of the Torah, V'zot Hab'rakhah marks the end of the three festival-packed weeks of the month of Tishrei: two days of Rosh Hashanah on the 1st and 2nd of the month; the Fast of Gedaliah on the 3rd (this year, because the 3rd of Tishrei fell on a Sabbath, the fast was postponed until the 4th); the Day of Atonement on the 10th; Sukkot, the Festival of "Booths" or "Tabernacles," from the 15th to the 21st; Shemini Atzeret on the 22nd; and finally, Simhat Torah on the 23rd.

Bible readers will recognize that Rosh Hashanah (though not under that name), the Day of Atonement, Sukkot, and Shemini Atzeret are all biblical holidays (see Leviticus 23:23–36 and Numbers 29).  Simhat Torah, though, as late as talmudic times, is merely the Diaspora's second day added to Shemini Atzeret.  Even today, this "ninth" day of Sukkot is technically invoked in the festival additions to the prayers and to Grace after Meals as Shemini Atzeret, the "Eighth Day Feast" (in the words of the well-worn Birnbaum prayer book), not as a separate day of "Rejoicing in the Torah."  It is indeed called zman simhateinu, "our Festival of Rejoicing," but that applies to Sukkot as well.  Nonetheless, by medieval times the day had acquired a celebratory character of its own.  By now, it seems, Shemini Atzeret itself has been overshadowed in Israel by the unruly younger twin that has taken over the day.  There is no room for the more solemn festival and the raucous one simultaneously.  Honors for the person called up to recite the blessings over the final reading, dancing, singing, and (yes) drinking mean that the simhah, the "rejoicing," receives far more attention than the Torah itself.

There is even an aspect to the reading that removes V'zot Hab'rakhah from the limelight.  The end of Deuteronomy is followed by a uniquely schizophrenic pair of further readings.  In one, the Haftarah, or concluding passage from the prophetic books that comes after every Sabbath and festival Torah portion, the reading is (for once in the year) continued in the "natural" way: read the last chapters of Deuteronomy, turn the page, and go on with the first chapter of Joshua, which continues the story.  But before that can happen, there is an alternate universe of reading in which the end of Deuteronomy is followed—as if it were Finnegans Wake—by an immediate return to the beginning of the Torah, to resume the story at its beginning, with the first chapter (and a bit of Chapter Two) of Genesis.  So the final chapters of Deuteronomy barely have time to take a bow before two competing alternatives, a return to the beginning of the Torah and a couldn't-put-it-down rush forward into the sequel to the Torah, jostle it off the stage.

Yet these two final chapters of the Torah are worth our attention both in themselves and for what they say about the Torah as a whole.  They are completely different in character:  Deuteronomy 33 is a chapter of poetry with an apparently prosaic purpose, while in the simple prose of Deuteronomy 34 a great mystery is hidden in plain sight.  Deuteronomy 33 is "the Blessing of Moses," offering an oracular pronouncement about each of the tribes (but for Simeon) matching Jacob's own blessing of his sons in Genesis 49.  Despite its linguistic difficulties, on a macro level it matches the expansion of the Torah's story from that of a family (in Genesis) to that of an entire people (in Exodus–Deuteronomy).  It is clearly full of allusions to Israel's later history, even when the allusions themselves are not so clear.  For example, when Benjamin is blessed as "beloved of the Lord," we are told that "he dwells securely near him" (Deuteronomy 33:12).  One of these pronouns must refer to Benjamin and one to the Lord; we do not know which, but this must nonetheless be an allusion to the Temple in Jerusalem, which was on the border of Benjamite territory.

Deuteronomy 34 provides a literary linkage to Genesis as well—though both the strictest of the fundamentalists and the strictest of the documentarians might deny that the Torah is a work of belles-lettres.  But in fact this is the passage that ties the entire Torah together, for it parallels Genesis 1, if more subtly than Deuteronomy 33 parallels Genesis 49.  This is the chapter in which Moses dies—and then:  "He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor.  To this very day, no one knows his burial place" (34:6).  It must be God who has buried Moses, and without witnesses.  As in the story of creation, we are forced to ask:  How can this event that no one saw be described in such straightforward, plain Hebrew prose?  Each time, only God was present; yet He is a character in the story, and not its voice.

Literarily, the Torah ends as it began, invoking the historical story of the Jewish people in a cosmic frame.  The Big Bang of Genesis 1 distracts us from the silent mystery of the instant "before" creation (if that is indeed a theologically or scientifically possible moment at all).  The silent mystery returns as the Torah comes to a close, with the desert wind whistling over the freshly covered grave of Moses.  Now the noise that distracts us comes not from the Torah itself, but from the singing, the dancing, and (yes) the drinking.  But when the tumult and the shouting have died, the mystery will remain.

Michael Carasik is the creator of The Commentators' Bible and of the Torah Talk podcastHe teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. 

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Jacob Silver on October 17, 2011 at 8:49 am (Reply)
An excellent summary of Deuteronomy 34 and link of its text to Beraschit. There is always a new way to look at the Torah, despite its 2,200-2,300 year history.
Larry Silverstein on October 17, 2011 at 9:06 am (Reply)
O my G-d, how stupid we Jews have become! Just like a gramophone record that sticks and keeps repeating on and on, we Jews keep going over old ground. Listen! It's finished, we must move on. No wonder we are the source of so much trouble in the world. How many Holocausts do we have to experience, before we get the Message: "G-d has rejected us because we broke the contract!" We rejected His Messiah, and now we are trying to repeat history by disobeying Him again and creating an atheistic, pagan Israel. (Study Judges 2:1-23.)
Madel on October 17, 2011 at 10:41 am (Reply)
Jacob, the Torah has a 3300 year history, not 2300. And Larry, YHVH will NEVER break His contract with the Israelites. Rather, the history of the Jews reinforces the current validity of the contract through the experience of the blessings and curses. As Devarim 30:1-3 states, after the curses have ended (the Holocaust being the last, see VaYikra 26:38), YHVH will gather the Jews, from wherever they have scattered, back to the land of Israel. In 1948, that process began in earnest, and now we await the second return of Israel to YHVH as stated in Devarim 30:8.

If you want to know what that second return is, read the brilliant new novel Haazinu (Listen Up) by Yerachmiel ben Yishye, published bt Gefen of Jerusalem. It ties in beautifully with the discussion here of V'zot HaBrachah (see 33:10), which we ignore too often, but will be critical to that second return.
David Aharon Lindzon on October 17, 2011 at 11:08 am (Reply)
I wish first to take issue with the remarks of Mr. Silverstein about rejecting G-d's Messiah. It is inappropriate to equate our suffering with rejecting Yeshu. We suffered during the loss of the First temple, too. There is one thing we have not corrected in the area of human relationships: unwarranted hatred and speaking evil against our fellow man. The Holocaust was foretold long before Yeshu came on the scene (see Parshat Ki Tavo); and look at Josepheus for some line-by-line proof, eerie as it seems, of the fulfillment of these words.

Having said that, I wish to address the parsha comments. On Simchas Torah (in Israel it's Shmini Atzeres), we end the Torah and begin anew with Breishit to reaffirm our belief in the never-ending cycle of Torah. If you look at the last letter in the Torah (lamed) and and the first letter (beth), they spell "lev," whose numerical value is 32. In Sefer Yetzira, the opening Mishna talks about 32 paths of wisdom--in the kabbalistic literature, the 22 Hebrew letters and 10 arabic numerals.

For those interested in politics in Israel today, read the 1st Rashi and Rambam on Breishit 1:1. When we are told to give back the land we "stole" from the Seven Nations, we should answer that the universe belongs to Hashem. He took the disputed land from them and gve it to us.

For those who wish to write me, I can reached at
[email protected].
Aryeh on October 17, 2011 at 2:21 pm (Reply)
Larry, I am a observant Jew but also a new Testament scholar. I would suggest that if you believe in the Jew Yeshua as your messiah, you are obligated to leave Christianity and follow him in his faith--Judaism. Kol Nidrei was a good opportunity for you to have negated the oath you made to a foreign faith, but nothing stops you from doing it now. Feel free to contact me.

Rabbi Aryeh Baruch
Jacob Silver on October 17, 2011 at 7:20 pm (Reply)
I was timing the origin of the Torah from the last decades of the Babylonian exile, when it was probably written. The problem with the 3,300-year date is that the Hebrew language was not yet reduced to writing at that time, and wouldn't be for the next 250-plus years. The Torah was written to bring the leadership and the Hebrew people together. It still performs that function. That is the most amazing part of our amazing, sacred text.
David Aharon Lindzon on October 19, 2011 at 12:16 am (Reply)
In reply to Mr. Silver: According to our sages, the Torah, written by Moshe Rabbeinu just before his death, was put into the Aron together with the two sets of Luchos (the fragmented one and the one done by Moshe). He also wrote 12 copies and gave one to each shevet (tribe). According to Rashi, he also wrote copies B'er Heitev, in the 70 languages of the world. In addition to the written sets, there was an oral tradition passed down until the days of the Mishna, when it was written down so that the Torah would not be forgotten. Later, the rabbis compiled the various expansions into the Talmuds (bavli and yerushalmi), all in manuscript form until the printing press was established.

A scribe is required to copy from a copy according to exact rules written in the laws of writing STAM (sefer Torah , tefilin, and mezuza). And here's the interesting point: Among all the Torah scrolls in use today, there are just five known discrepancies among the scrolls of all the groups--Ashkenaz, Sephard, Yemenite, and other. Try applying that same ratio with Shakespeare, l'havdil.
David Aharon Lindzon on October 19, 2011 at 12:35 am (Reply)
Michael Carasik writes that "it [the final portion of the Torah] is read only during a holiday service when many Jews will be at their jobs rather than at the synagogue." Alas, it seems hard to swallow that many assimilated Jews have missed the chance to take a day off to really discover their roots; and this is in America, in spite of all the progress made during Rosh hashanah and Yom kippur.
Michael Tupek on October 19, 2011 at 2:02 pm (Reply)
I cannot tell if Mr. Silverstein is being serious or sarcastic; but, as an evangelical Christian, I would agree with his comments. I would disagree with Mr. Carasik's anticlimactic view of the Torah as having, really, a rather meaningless purpose: to be cycled-through, over and over, as traditional reading without really having attention paid to what it is saying.

Yahweh had a more glorious purpose for it: being charged with an inescapable meaningfulness for everyone, ultimately, both Hebrew and gentile. If we are honest readers, paying attention to the plain sense of the passages (which is all that the later prophets cared about, despite the rabbis), it does not end gloriously for the majority of the covenanted Israelites; and all the writng prophets testify to this general failure of the covenant experiment. The Isrealites are roundly condemned as having failed the covenant experiment that Yahweh graciously provided. This is seen in Moses' song of indictment (Deut 32) as well as Yahweh's prediction of their general defection (Deut 29, 30, 31).

Therefore, the Torah teaches two core lessons: (1) the seriousness of the sinful nature that every person is born with (despite the Hebrews' election and their privilege of having a close, personal, miraculous encounter with Yahweh and his revealed will, they still failed to keep covenant because of the strength of this evil nature) and (2) the fearful necessity of transforming grace in the heart, given by Yahweh to whomever he wills, because it is not until he "circumcises" the heart of a man that anyone will persistently and correctly love God (Deut 30).

We must also pay attention to the rest of the Tanakh. The later prophets understood the disappointing tension recorded in the Torah's events. That is why they go on to speak of a "new covenant" (Jer and Ezek), with every participant permanently changed by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. They also speak of a child's being born who will be known as, really, Yahweh and say that this anointed servant will die as a sacrifical, atoning animal for these new covenant believers (Is 7, 9, 11, 52, 53). They say he will accomplish this appearance for the sake of redemption, and be killed, before the destruction of the known temple (the second temple)--that is, before 70 CE (Dan 9 and Mal 3).

This view is far more glorious and meaningful. I have written a book detailing these concerns, and I hope it will be published.
Jacob Silver on October 19, 2011 at 5:34 pm (Reply)
David Aaron Lindzon provides an accurate retelling of the legend of Moshe's writing the Torah from Elohanu's dictation. However, I was referring to the latest scientific findings. First, the land that became the Land of Israel was occupied by Egypt at that time, with a base at Megido. So, Moshe would have led his people out of Egypt--to Egypt. But there is no archaeological evidence of a large migration across the Negev in 1300 B.C.; 1,200,000 people would have left ample evidence. Second, the Hebrew language did not have an alphabet at that time. So, God could have dictated; but what would Moshe have written? Third, the seven-day week and the prohibited foods, as well as other references in the Torah, give evidence of its being written in Babylon.

It is still an ancient document, and it is ours.

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