Photo Credit: Jewish Museum
Moses Sees the Promised Land from Afar, Artist: Tissot, Photographer: John Parnell, Photo © The Jewish Museum, New York

It is natural to contrast Moshe’s blessings in Zot HaBeracha with those of Ya’akov at the end of the book of Bereishit. When doing so, we note that one of the most important differences is which tribes are highlighted:

Ya’akov distinguishes his two most illustrious sons, Yehudah and Yosef, by giving them what we could call “superblessings.” Both in length and in quality, the blessings of these two brothers suggest special treatment. Given the leadership they had shown during Ya’akov’s lifetime, it is understandable that he earmarks them to be at the forefront of the Jewish people in the future as well.

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Moshe partially follows Ya’akov when he also awards Yosef a superblessing. But with regard to the second superblessing, Moshe boldly replaces Yehudah with Levi. Not only is the blessing transferred to Levi, its focus is changed as well. When Ya’akov gave Yehudah his blessing, the emphasis was clearly on power and might: Yehudah is compared to a lion who is feared by all and who will have his hand on the neck of his enemies. He is to be the master of the scepter and the staff (Bereshit 49:8–10).

Not so with Levi. Although Moshe’s blessing to him concludes with an allusion to the blows he can land his enemies, the focus is clearly elsewhere. At the center is Moshe’s declaration that Levi will “teach Your statutes to Ya’akov and Your laws to Israel” on the one hand, and “place the incense before You and the sacrifice on Your altar” on the other (Devarim 33:8–11).

Moshe’s transfer and transformation of the superblessing clearly impacts on the balance of power: All of a sudden a new tribe is thrust into leadership, seemingly at the expense of Yehudah, the traditional front-runner for political power. But even more important than the change in who would lead was the change in how they would lead.

This change mirrors a certain transformation that had already taken place on the Jewish people’s way from Egypt to the Land of Israel. The Levite children of Amram had become the leaders of the Jewish people de facto. Beyond these three eminent personalities, the tribe of Levi had been promoted more generally via its new responsibility concerning the sacrificial rite and its trappings.

Of course, this did not mean the Levites had permanently displaced the tribe of Yehudah. Moshe knew Yehudah would likely be the leader of any long-term monarchy created by the Jews. He also knew that such a monarchy would represent a triumph of mundane worldliness, wherein the exigencies of state would often derail the nation’s spiritual agenda. Such a system is certainly not what Moshe had in mind for the future of the Jewish people.

Instead, he sought a state dominated by its spiritual leadership. His model of leadership was based on what he had largely created in his own day. Under the very unusual circumstances of the desert, Moshe had become the undisputed leader whose clear emphasis was on the spiritual. This is in line with the blessing he gives to Levi, where leadership is not defined by domination of the other tribes and military prowess, but rather by mastery in the fields of education, law and worship.

Clearly, Levi would still need a “prime minister” to run the temporal affairs of state, which is precisely why Yehoshua’s tribe of Yosef is given a superblessing. Yet it is clear that in “Moshe’s state,” it would be Levi that would set the tone. This was also reflected in Moshe’s desert administration. There, he was assisted in the more basic administration of the nation by his Ephraimite disciple and eventual successor, Yehoshua. In the desert as well as in Moshe’s ideal Jewish state, we see a political leader who is to the religious leader what the ‘moon is to the sun.’ It gives off light when the sun is not visible. But even then, it never emits anything that is not a reflection of the sun itself.

Yet in spite of Moshe’s best intentions, it is obvious that his blessings – as we have portrayed them – had little effect on the Jews once they reached the Land of Israel. Hence Moshe’s vision for a New Order could easily be discounted as one more tragic failure of a leader who set his sights too high.

But this is not the only way to look at what transpired when the Jews entered and settled their land. Visions are much more than just plans meant to be followed. They are at least as much about an ideal as they are about a prescription for the future. As such, the success of a vision need not depend on whether or not it materializes. Moreover, it is precisely because they are so far out of reach that they are so inspiring. For if a vision is not inspiring, it is – by definition – a failure. In the end, then, the failure of Moshe’s vision is not only a tribute to its greatness. It is also a tribute to its actual success.

Be sure to listen to the related podcast, Was Moses a Success or a Failure? 

(Based on and Excerpted from Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Deuteronomy) 

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