Moses on the Edge Rabbi Paul D. Kerbel

By Paul D. Kerbel

The weekly cycle of our Torah reading concludes with Ve-Zot ha-Berakhah which is read on Simhat Torah as we celebrate the completion of the Torah and immediately begin anew with Genesis.

The dancing and excitement of Simhat Torah services overshadow the reading itself which conveys an important message on the meaning of life and death.

This short portion begins with Moses’s blessing to the 12 tribes.  Unlike the Song of Moses in Ha’azinu, which warns Israel of her wayward, disloyal ways and the successive disasters which would befall Israel in just retribution, the song which Moses sings is all blessing.  He speaks of a bright future for the people of Israel.  He concludes his song:  Happy are you, O Israel!  Who is like unto thee?  A people delivered by the Lord…

Israel, a unique people, in the care of a unique God, is blessed by Moses as he takes leave of his people.  These are his last words.

As the last and final chapter of the Torah begins, Moses ascends Mount Nebo and the Torah, in simple, bare prose, describes his solitary ascent to the mountaintop, his long gaze over the land of Israel, his lonely death on Mount Nebo.  God’s final words to Moses:

This is the land which I swore to Abraham, Israel and Jacob which I will give to your offspring.  I will let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross there.

Moses dies moments later.

The Torah says very little about Moses’ final moments.  What was he thinking?  What might he have said, or wanted to say to God that the Torah chose not to tell us?  Rabbinical literature is replete with such tales and legends.  The midrashim fill in the emotion missing from the biblical text.

Moses said to God, “Master of the universe, must I die after my eyes have witnessed all your glory and power?”  God replies, “What men can live and not see death?”  (Psalms 89:49).  Were there men comparable to Abraham, Israel and Jacob?  Yet, they had to die.  And though there was none like Moses who spoke with the creator face to face, God said, “The time is drawing near for you to die.”

When Moses realized that God’s decree concerning his death had been sealed, he drew a circle in the ground, stood inside it and declared, ‘Lord of the universe!  I will not move out of the circle until you repeal the decree.’  Moses put on sackcloth and ashes and stood in fervent prayer and supplication before God…but God ordered all of the gates of heaven to be closed against Moses’ prayers…”

Moses pleaded, “If you won’t permit me to enter the Promised Land alive, then let my bones be brought in, like the remains of Joseph.”  God said to Moses, when Joseph went down to Egypt, he did not hide the fact that he was a Hebrew; he told everyone his identity.  However, when you arrived in Midian, you appeared like an Egyptian.  God accuses Moses of now acknowledging his ancestry and religious identity…

In his portrait of Moses in Messengers of God, Elie Wiesel asks:  “Why was Moses so attached to life, to the point of opposing God’s will?  Was that his way of teaching Israel an urgent and timeless lesson:  that life is sacred – always and for everyone – and that no one has the right to give up?  Was Moses teaching us that as Jews, we must say yes to life, to fight – even against the Almighty – for every spark, for every breath of life?

Yes, he wanted to live and was not ashamed of it; he wanted to live at any cost, except at someone else’s expense.  The Midrash tells us that at the end God told Moses:  You insist on belonging to the world of the living, so be it, you shall live – but then Israel shall perish; it must be one or the other, you or Israel.  And Moses cried out; Let Moses die, let a thousand men like him die, only let not one child of Israel be touched.  For one may not go beyond a certain limit; to live is good, to want to live is human, but not at the expense of another’s death.

Nobody knows his resting place.  The people of the mountains situate it in the valley.  The people of the valley situate it in the mountains.  It has become neither temple nor museum.  It is everywhere and elsewhere, always elsewhere.

Nobody was present at Moses’ death.  And so, in a way, he lives on inside us, every one of us.  For as long as one child of Israel, somewhere, proclaims his law and his truth, Moses lives on through him, in him, as does the burning bush, which consumes man’s heart without consuming his faith.”