Simchat Torah: Looking Back And Looking Forward

As we remember, Sukkot is “the season of our joy” – and the joy of Sukkot reaches its peak during its final day: Simchat Torah. Simchat Torah (lit. The Joy of Torah) is a holiday that marks the conclusion of the annual cycle of public Torah reading. We complete the cycle, and immediately begin the new cycle, reading from the first Torah Portion – Bereshit. In the previous years, I wrote a lot about this first portion; somehow, however, I’ve never written here about the last Torah Portion which concludes Deuteronomy and is read on Simchat Torah – V’zot HaBrachah (Deut. 33, 34). Therefore, even though Sukkot is over and Simchat Torah happened on last shabbat, I would like to say a few words about this very important portion.

The Blessing of Judah

We are in Deuteronomy 33. Just as Jacob had blessed his sons before his death, so does Moses now bless the tribes of Israel. Of course, from a New Testament perspective, the most important blessing is the blessing of Judah, because it is from the tribe of Judah that Jesus came! According to the book of Hebrews, Jesus coming from the tribe of Judah, not from the tribe of Levi, signifies a change from the Old to the New Covenant – but you won’t be able to comprehend the full meaning of this change if you are not aware of the blessing that Moses gives to the tribe of Judah before his death.

“Hear, Lord, the voice of Judah,
And bring him to his people;
Let his hands be sufficient for him,
And may You be a help against his enemies.”

Every word of this blessing is significant! First of all, it starts with the word “Listen” – Shema – the same word that begins “the Shema”, the most sacred and solemn Jewish prayer. Here we read: Shema Adonai – Hear Lord!  Undoubtedly,  this solemn beginning marks this blessing also as especially significant.

Hear, Lord, the voice of Judah”. Most of the commentators interpret this line in the sense that the Lord would hear the prayers of Judah’s descendants, starting from David and Solomon; and of course, I would agree with that. However, we discover an additional layer of the prophetic significance of these words, if we remember that New Testament speaks of Jesus interceding in Heaven for believers before the Father. “Hear, Lord, the voice of Judah”.

Then, we have this very enigmatic sentence: “And bring him to his people”. Rashi comments: bring him home in peace, from war (we remember that David, for instance, was often involved in military campaigns); but it seems to me that these words imply much more. Once again, this blessing becomes extremely profound if we juxtapose these words with the words of John “He came to his own, and his own received him not”! In the light of these words, the blessing of Moses sounds much more significant than just “bringing him home in peace”.

Finally, in the book of Revelation, Jesus is described as “the lion of the tribe of Judah” (see also Gen. 49:9), and here we also see the “conquering” side of Judah: Moses is prophesying of this tribe as overcoming, with God’s help,  his enemies.

“Let his hands be sufficient for him,
And may You be a help against his enemies.”

The descendant of the tribe of Judah, who overcomes his enemies with God’s help, whose voice God listens to and who will be brought to his people?..  I think, once again we have clear evidence that one really needs to know the Old Testament in order to understand the New.

The Blessing of Levi

Surprisingly, the blessing of Levi is also reflected in the New Testament writings – even though few students of the Bible are aware of that. You remember of course that while speaking about the cost of discipleship in Luke 14, Jesus says seemingly strange words about hating one’s father and mother, wife and children: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple[1].  For centuries, these words of Jesus have been the subject of different interpretations; some have even gone so far as to see in them the annulment of the fourth commandment (“Honor your father and mother[2]). Of course, Jesus could not contradict the Torah and therefore he clearly doesn’t cancel the fourth commandment. Yet, why did Jesus say these words? What did he mean?

We won’t fully understand this saying of Jesus unless we see it as echoing Moses’ blessing of Levi, where Levi’s devotion to God’s word is emphasized.  Moses says of Levi:

Who says of his father and mother,
‘I have not seen them’;
Nor did he acknowledge his brothers,
Or know his own children;

For they have observed Your word
And kept Your covenant.[3]

When we compare Luke 14:26 with the blessing of Levi, we clearly see that what Levi says in this blessing sounds very similar to the requirements of Jesus. As Moses before him and as many rabbis after him, Jesus was well aware of the fact that the Torah sometimes presented conflicting claims and that these situations might be resolved only by subordination of one commandment to another. According to Moses’ blessing, Levi signifies people whose love for God’s word surpasses even their love for their family – and this is the kind of disciples that Jesus speaks of in Luke 14!

 

So Moses … died

At the end of the last chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses dies: “So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord”[4]. It’s interesting to note that the words usually translated: “according to the word”, render the Hebrew word, which is derived from the word ‘mouth’. Therefore, some Jewish comments say that Moses died by the Divine kiss.

Finally, let us address a very traditional, but still very intriguing question: Who wrote the final verses of the book of Deuteronomy? If Moses wrote the entire Torah, then who described his death?  Who wrote the last eight verses?

I am sure, most of my readers would have sought an answer to this question at some point – therefore, I’ll present here the answer we find in Jewish tradition, since you may not be familiar with it. Of course, there are rabbis who say that the last eight verses were written by Joshua after Moses died. However, some disagree and say that the entire Torah was written by Moses, but from this point on, “the Holy One, blessed is He, dictated this, and Moses wrote in tears”[5]  As some Talmudic commentators explain: this does not mean that Moses was crying while writing these verses; it means that he literally wrote them with tears, that were like invisible ink, and only after his death became visible.

[1] Luke  14:26

[2] Exod. 20:12; Deut. 5:16

[3] Deut. 33:8,9

[4] Deut.34:5

[5] Sifre 33:34

 

If these articles whet your appetite for discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible, or studying  in depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insightsI would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding eTeacher wonderful courses[1] (juliab@eteachergroup.com) .

If you like the articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books,  click here to check them out. 

[1] At this point, we offer WTP course only in English, while DHB course is offered also in Spanish and Portuguese.

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Dorothy Healy

    With regard to Moses’ blessing over Levi:
    “Who says of his father and mother, ‘I have not seen them’; Nor did he acknowledge his brothers”,
    We might also note that Jesus never asks his followers to do anything that He did not do Himself. I believe Matthew had this very blessing in mind when he wrote the response of Jesus in Matthew 12, when told that his mothers and brothers were standing outside, seeking to speak with Him: “Who is My mother and who are My brothers? …whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother.” Did he dishonour them? No! He was applying His own teaching to Himself.

    1. Julia Blum

      Yes, Dot, Matthew 12 sounds like a very clear allusion to Moses’ blessing over Levi: both “mother” and “brothers” occur in both places! Thank you so much for this comment, it definitely adds a lot

  2. Bob Spies

    Where is the reference in the NT to Jesus interceding in Heaven for believers before the Father. “Hear, Lord, the voice of Judah”?

    1. Julia Blum

      Hi Bob, here are just the most clear and direct ones (I suppose you know them as well): “Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb.7:25); “It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us”(Rom 8:34).

  3. Luis

    Thank you Ms. Julia. I love to read your commentaries. They amplify my understanding of God’s word.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you, Luis, for your kind words. This is the purpose of this blog and of all my writings – to help my readers to see these additional layers and nuances of the Scriptures, completely lost in translation.

  4. Marge Schwartz

    Thank you for this great post! It seems that Luke 14, like Moses prophecy to Levi, predict a good disciple/priest will generally have a positive influence on their family, by putting the Lord first, even though it may lead to possible persecution, a sword (Word) coming between them.

    1. Julia Blum

      Yes, Marge, it’s like Lewis said: “Aim at Heaven and you will get Earth ‘thrown in’: aim at Earth and you will get neither.”