(photo credit: ROOM404.NET)
After reading Shirat Ha’azinu in this week’s Torah portion, the historic poem that describes the Jewish nation’s regular “circle of life” – choice, sin, punishment, return – we read of G-d turning to Moshe and informing him of his impending death: And the Lord spoke to Moses... Go up this Mount Avarim [to] Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, that is facing Jericho, and see the Land of Canaan, which I am giving to the children of Israel as a possession, And die on the mountain upon which you are climbing... For from afar, you will see the land, but you will not come there... (Deuteronomy 32:48-52)
If we read this appeal carefully, we see that it is phrased as a directive or request – “die on the mountain,” and not just as information. G-d turns to Moshe and instructs him to ascend the mountain and die. This point raises some difficulties since Moshe is not meant to actively do anything that would bring about his own death other than ascend the mountain. How can you ask a person to die? To understand this extraordinary phrasing we have to examine the special situation we are dealing with. Moshe Rabbeinu was Am Yisrael’s first leader.
Under his leadership, the nation was liberated from the burden of Egyptian slavery and freed; following Moshe, the nation crossed the Red Sea; through Moshe, the nation received the Torah at Ma’amad Har Sinai; all their hardships, complaints, requests and demands were brought to Moshe; he was the one who carried the nation “as the nurse carries the suckling” (Numbers 11:12); for 40 years, Moshe led the nation to its goal – the Promised Land, Eretz Yisrael, in order for them to establish their own independent national entity.
And here, a moment before entering the Land, a moment before reaching their long-awaited goal, G-d instructs Moshe to retire. The leadership is being passed on to another person, but Moshe is told, “For from afar, you will see the land, but you will not come there.” It’s tragic. But G-d does not carry this out without Moshe’s consent, and therefore he instructs him to go up the mountain and die there.
He asks him to agree, and understand that his job is finished and it is time for him to leave this world.
The sages of the midrash describe Moshe as someone who does not easily accept the end of his important job: [Moshe] said to Him: “Lord of the Universe, why am I dying? Is it not better for people to say ‘good Moshe’ from seeing it rather than ‘good Moshe’ based on rumor? Is it not better for them to say, ‘This is Moshe who took us out of Egypt, and split the sea, and brought down the manna for us, and did for us miracles and wonders’ rather than ‘This and that was Moshe, this and that was what Moshe did’?” [G-d] answered him: “This is my decree, which is the same for every person.” (Sifri, Dvarim, paragraph 339) Moshe Rabbeinu wishes to appeal the decision and asks to appeal the harsh reality of his life ending.
But G-d answers him: This is my decree, which is the same for every person. No one escapes death.
Every person’s role ends at some time or another, and you, Moshe, have the responsibility to understand this harsh reality and accept it.
It might be said that this is Moshe’s last trial: to agree to die.
The truth is it is not only Moshe who faced this difficult reality. Everyone faces it sooner or later.
Death, the threatening end, is scary. “This is my decree and it is the same for every person.” Nobody lives forever.
But the way one looks at death can have many facets. There are those who feel threatened and their impending fate paralyzes them. For others, the knowledge that life ends stimulates and pushes them to accomplish more and more. How does Moshe handle this? What does he do once he earnestly internalizes that his end has arrived? Surprisingly, he does not ascend the mountain right away. He takes advantage of his final moments to bless the nation, and as the next Torah portion read on Simhat Torah begins: “And this is the blessing with which Moses, the man of God, blessed the children of Israel [just] before his death.” (Deuteronomy 33:1).
Moshe taught us by this that the knowledge of the death that awaits us has the power to cause us to add blessing to the world, to benefit others, to want to have a positive impact on all who surround us.
With this wonderful learning we begin the new year; with the ability to turn threats and fears to blessings.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.