This most remarkable period of the year, which begins with the stern seriousness of Rosh Hashana repentance and its wailing sound of the shofar, and concludes with the rapturous joy of Simhat Torah, is not a medley of diverse festivals with fascinating but disparate themes; all of the festivals are linked together, expressing the majestic unity of the Jewish vision and explaining in very human and even practical terms how that vision can be achieved - by the nation as a whole as well as by each individual son and daughter of Israel. And the climax of our vision is expressed in Simhat Torah.
The key to understanding the entire picture painted by this entire festival season lies in what seems to be the problematic nature of the Torah reading for this most joyous holiday. The "Bridegroom of the Torah" (hatan Torah) is called with the utmost ceremony to make his initial blessing; then the Torah reading describes the death of Moses! Indeed, the cantillations with which these last biblical verses are read are the very same sad-sweet, slightly mournful, heartfelt melodies to which we are accustomed from the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur biblical readings. But the reading of Moses's death seems a jarring disconnect to the otherwise almost unbridled joy accompanying the circuits of Torah dancing and singing which otherwise mark the celebration of the day.
And Moses's death is especially poignant when we realize that - unlike Abraham - he does not die in a "good old age" seeing the fruition of his life's labors. The goal of his ministry, the objective of the Exodus from Egypt, was to have brought the Israelites into the Promised Land. Not only was this not to be accomplished in his lifetime, but even Moses himself is denied the opportunity of walking on the land and eating of its fruits. We cannot even say that he died in the knowledge that he was a beloved and respected leader, venerated by the nation he had redeemed from slavery. No, he died in the midst of contentious carping and envious infighting, raucous rebellions and challenges to his authority. Although his position and integrity are clearly supported by God, the masses of Jews respond to the rebels with deafening silence. Were Moses asked if he thought he had succeeded, I fear his answer would be agonizingly in the negative. If this is all true, how can it be fitting to read of Moses's death on Simhat Torah? Finish the Torah on the Sabbath of the intermediate days of Succot, read of Moses's death on the same day that we read the Book of Ecclesiastes, and leave Simhat Torah for the joy of beginning again with the creation of the universe!
It is also fascinating to note that until this very day no one knows Moses's burial place. An apocryphal story is told that a small, out-of-the-way town in Europe had great difficulty in finding a young rabbi to replace their older rabbi who had died. The town was quite small, and although its inhabitants tried to be pious, they were quite ignorant of our traditional Torah texts. Young and aspiring rabbis were seeking positions where they would be challenged by intelligent and learned congregant students.
A synagogue official was dispatched to the famed Yeshiva of Volozhin to find a young rabbi, and instructed not to return until he found a rabbi for their town. He spent a few days observing the rabbinical students, spoke to a few of the more impressive young men, but no one was interested in going to his town. And then he noticed a very sincere, devout student who seemed to be a bit of a "space cadet," very much in tune with Torah but not so much in tune with reality. The official offered him the pulpit, and in answer to his question about the nature of the congregation and the scholarship level of the congregants, the official cleverly said: "I can only tell you that Rabbi Akiva, Maimonides and the Hatam Sofer are all buried in our town. That should tell you the whole story."
The young man, who was very conversant in our legal codes but was largely ignorant of history and geography, was extremely impressed; if such great luminaries had lived in that town, it must be a center of Torah learning. Upon arrival, he became very disappointed; after his first sermon - and the blank faces which greeted his talmudic commentaries - he feared he had made a mistake. He summoned the official and asked to be taken to the cemetery; at least he would like to commune with the Sages of generations past. "You didn't understand what I was saying to you," he explained. "In your yeshiva, as I overheard the students studying, they were quoting the Sages of bygone years as if they were still alive: 'Rabbi Akiva says, Maimonides rules, the Hatam Sofer elucidatesâ€¦' In our town, these luminaries are not even known; they are dead and buriedâ€¦."
Moses may have been frustrated in his generation, but he is the greatest light of all the generations. His burial place is unknown because he is not buried anywhere: wherever people study the Torah, both the written and the oral, Moses lives. We began Rosh Hashana with our vision of God's universal Kingship, and our Divinely given charge to bring the message of the Bible - a God of love, compassion and peace - to the world. Yom Kippur is our day of forgiveness, when God demonstrated His unconditional love by giving us the Second Tablets, a second chance to undo our sin of worshiping the Golden Calf, another opportunity to bring Torah into the world.
Succot, the Feast of Tabernacles, enjoins every home to erect a mini-Tabernacle, symbolic of the Holy Temple, to which the nations of the world will eventually flock to hear God's Torah from Jerusalem. And Simhat Torah reminds us that all who labor in the vineyard of Torah participate in eternity and in the eternal vision of our faith, as symbolized by Moses, who is never buried but continues to live on in the Torah he received from God. An eternal nation with an eternal Torah dare not become frustrated because of a setback in a specific generation.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.
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