Out beyond ideas
of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field.
I'll meet you there.
---Jelaluddin Rumi, 13th century
I feel a little odd, during the ten days of repentance, quoting a mystic from 800 years ago talking about going to a place that is somehow beyond right and wrong-doing. But that’s what mystics do -- they break boundaries.
He helps me answer a question I’ve been struggling with for a couple of weeks.
Let me start at the end.
The last book of the Torah, the book of Deuteronomy can be divided into three distinct and unequal sections:
Torah, Shirah and Brachah: Teaching, Song and Blessing.
The Torah, the teaching of Moses, is by far the longest of the three -- 30 virtually uninterrupted chapters recounting the history of the Israelites in the desert and their obligations to God once they enter the promised land. The take-away might be formulated as follows: If you obey God, things will be good. If you disobey, not so much.
The Shirah, known as the Torah portion Haazinu based on its first word, has a similar message but it’s in the form of a poem, a song. As poetry it is a graphic island surrounded by a sea of prose.
The Brachah, the blessing, is the conclusion that we read on Simchat Torah, the final words of Moses to the tribes before he dies.
The Torah is to be written on plaster on the other side of the Jordan when the Israelites first enter the land and must be read out loud every seven years during the most important pilgrimage festival on the calendar, Sukkot, the feast of Tabernacles.
The Shirah is to be memorized by the Israelites. It’s a description of a future in which the people fall away from God, are punished, and then restored.
The Brachah, the blessing, has no instructions, merely a character description of each tribe, their strengths and weaknesses.
So here’s the question. I know what the teaching is for: to be a handy reference. I know what the song is for: to be memorized, internalized, made a part of us. What about the blessing? What is its role in the spiritual pedagogy of the Israelites and their descendants, the Jewish people, us?
Rashi’s laconic interpretation moves me towards an answer: It (the blessing) is recited on Moses’ deathbed for if he doesn't say it now, when will he?
Yosef Karo expands on Rashi's terse explanation. If one blesses before one’s imminent demise, those blessed might assume there is an element of self-interest involved in the blessing. They will also have time to feel slighted if a sibling received a better prognosis. Further, it’s assumed that on one’s deathbed, the soul is more connected to God and is better able to see into the future.
If I understand Karo,
Blessings exist outside the land of right- and wrongdoing,
outside the self-interest and flattery,
in between the worldly and the other-worldly,
a place where truths pop out unexpectedly.
Rumi as viewed through a Deuteronomic lens might go as follows:
The world of right and wrong must be traversed using maps for reference (Torah) and a good sense of direction (Shirah) if we are to arrive at and earn a shared ownership in the field of blessing which lies yonder.
May you all be blessed with a sweet, healthy, happy, meaningful, purposeful and, yes, blessed New Year.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah.