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V’zot Ha’bracha: Moses Teaches Us How To Die

(This piece is adapted from a talk I delivered on Yom Kippur, 1997)

V’zot ha’bracha asher berach Moshe, ish ha’elohim, et B’nai Yisrael lifnei moto.

This is the blessing with which Moses, the man of God, bade the Children of Israel farewell before he died. (Deuteronomy 33:1)

That poignant line opens the very last portion of the entire Torah, V’zot Ha’bracha – “This Is the Blessing.” Oddly, this is the one and only Torah portion that is never read as part of the annual weekly cycle of reading. The only time it is heard in synagogue is on the holiday of Simchat Torah, which falls this year on this coming Monday evening, October 5. Because V’zot Ha’bracha is not part of the regular rhythm of Torah readings, we don’t study this portion with regularity.

The parsha begins with a lengthy poem in which Moses gives a specific blessing to each of the tribes of Israel. Then in the final chapter of the Torah we hear about Moses’ death: “Moses ascended from the plains of Moab to the summit of Mount Nebo, across from Jericho, and YHVH showed him the entire land…” (Deut. 34:1)

Moses looks out over the entire Promised Land, which he will never enter, and he dies on the mountaintop. The people mourn, and the Torah ends, “Never again did there arise a prophet like Moses, who knew YHVH face to face…and displayed YHVH’s great and awesome might before all of Israel.” (Deut. 34:10, 12)

In its typically succinct way, the Torah does not elaborate greatly on Moses’ death. He goes up to the mountaintop and he dies. But in a seventh-century midrash collection called Petirat Moshe – “The Death of Moses – a fully human Moses emerges, ambivalent and conflicted, to confront his own death. In classic midrashic fashion, Petirat Moshe draws out clues in the Torah text to tell a much more nuanced and elaborate story. In the midrashic retelling, Moses becomes an everyman, an everywoman, and we see ourselves reflected in the text. I would like to explore the midrashic narrative with you now*. The midrash tells us:

Moses waited forty years before approaching God with his request to be permitted to enter the Promised Land with the Children of Israel. When God commanded him to appoint Joshua as his successor, Moses finally saw that God actually intended for him to die without entering the Promised Land, although God had decreed so ten times. Moses had thought: “Look how often God annulled the punishments he had decreed for the people, whenever I intervened on their behalf! Surely God will accept my prayers on my own behalf.”

The first reaction of Moses to the awareness that he is soon to die is to ignore it. So it is with all of us. I will walk away from a dying person’s hospital bedside, full of the consciousness of death and the poignant preciousness of life, and liter- ally within minutes I’ll be composing my “to do” list for the rest of the day. We are, all of us, addicted to life.

But on the seventh day of Adar, Moses hears a heavenly voice: “Take heed, O Moses, for you have only one more day to live.” What does he do then? As Louis Ginsberg writes it: “He wrote thirteen scrolls of the Torah, thinking, ‘If I occupy myself with the Torah, which is the tree of life, this day will draw to a close, and the impending doom will be as naught.’”

Moses tries to outwit death, to outflank the malach hamavet (the Angel of Death). Welcoming our death is only the last resort. We busy ourselves, fill our moments with the details of living, distract ourselves from the void that hovers at the edge of our every day. Yet Moses does realize that his activity, no matter how righteous, cannot stave off the decree, and so he begins to bargain. Joshua and all of Israel are sitting before him when a voice from heaven again breaks through: “Moses, you now have only four hours of life.” The midrash continues:

Now Moses began to implore God anew: “Ribono shel olam! If I must die only for my disciple Joshua’s sake, consider that I am willing to conduct myself as if I were his pupil; let it be as if he were high priest, and I a common priest; he a king, and I his servant.” God replied: “I have sworn by My great Name, which ‘the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain,’ that you shall not cross the Jordan.” Moses: “Ribono shel olam, let me at least, by the power of the ineffable Name, fly like a bird in the air; or make me like a fish, transform my two arms to fins and my hair to scales, that like a fish I may leap over the Jordan and see the land of Israel.” God: “No one can avert the decree.” Moses: “Ribono shel olam, cut me up, limb by limb, throw me over the Jordan, and then revive me, so that I may see the land.” God: “Moses, it is your time to die.” Moses: “Let me at least skim the land with my glance.” God: In this point will I comply with thy wish.”

God, just let me live until my grandson’s bar mitzvah . . . until I finish writing that book . . . until my daughter finishes high school . . . until I can reach my goal . . . until I can see the Promised Land.

After Moses finishes looking upon the land, he is one hour nearer to death. A voice again sounds from heaven, warning him that there is no escape: He has three hours left. Moses keeps praying, however: Ribono shel olam, let me stay on this side of the Jordan. Ribono shel olam, even if I can’t enter the Promised Land, let me live. Even as a beast of the field, let me live and see the world! Then God commands him to be silent.

I just want to live! No goals, accomplishments, roles — just precious life itself! When I was looking at the leaves one day this week, I said aloud, Dear God, I couldn’t bear to miss this sight — let me live.

Then the Children of Israel come to Moses to bid him farewell, but he says, “Wait . . .”

This reminds me of bedtime with my kids. We are programmed to want to be awake and alive! We are voracious for life.

The midrash has thus far described all the strategies we humans have to focus on life in the face of death: denial, distraction, bargaining . . . But what is left to do, when, as God says to Moses, “You have used too many words,” and there is no recourse left but to acknowledge that our time on this earth will end?

This is the consciousness that Yom Kippur, which we observed just last week, is intended to call forth. It is a day to confront our mortality, face-on. All the regular patterns of life are suspended, all the comfortable patterns are interrupted, so that we might ask ourselves the terrifying yet utterly vibrant question: In the full consciousness of my own mortality, how do I want to live? Traditionally, we visit our ancestors’ graves in preparation. We purposefully remember the dead at yizkor. We don’t eat, we wear white. We approach death rather than waiting for death to approach us. This is not morbid fascination, but part of the genius of Judaism, which forces us to suspend all the strategies we normally employ to keep death at arm’s length.

So what does Moses now do? According to the midrash:

The people now came to Moses and said, “The hour of your death is at hand,” and he replied: “Wait — until I have blessed Israel. All my life long they had no pleasant experiences with me, for I constantly rebuked them and admonished them to fear God and fulfil the commandments, therefore do I not now wish to depart out of this world before I have blessed them.”

Moses blesses the people, and asks them to forgive his sternness. They do so, and in turn they ask his forgiveness: “We have often kindled your anger and have laid many burdens upon you, but forgive us now.” Moses does so. He gathers the Children of Israel around him, he offers them his blessings, and he asks for their forgiveness as well. This is teshuvah. Before departing this life, Moses does his best to reconcile with his loved ones and with his extended family.

Now Moses is ready. People come to him and say, “The time has come.” Moses says, “Blessed be God.” Yet even then, our tradition portrays Moses as nothing more than human:

Moses said, “I pray you, when you shall have entered into the land of Israel, remember me still, and my bones, and say, ‘Woe to Moses who ran before us like a horse, but whose bones remained in the desert.”

Fully accepting his fate, Moses nevertheless has regrets about his unmet life’s goal, the Promised Land. We are complicated like Moses — accepting death yet still, ever, ever, desiring life. We are human.

Then the people say to Moses: “What will become of us when you are gone?” He tells them to place their trust in God, and urges them to dwell in peace, and promises to see them again in the “world to come.” Then everybody weeps, with lamentations that reach to the heavens.

We weep: for the love we shared, and for the love we have never succeeded in sharing. We weep: for the utter joy of being here and the sorrow knowing that we will one day have to leave. We weep for the heartbreaking, ecstatic leaves of autumn. Our hearts break and overflow with tears. On a beautiful radio program, the host explained that when she was a child she didn’t understand why the adults cried on Yom Kippur. She hadn’t lived long enough. But now she cries with them.

Finally, Moses lays down on his death bed. He is ready. Now, the Torah states that Moses then died al pi Adonai, at the command of God. But the Hebrew can also mean, Moses died “from the mouth of God.” And so the midrash explains: God took Moses’ soul by kissing him on the mouth. Moses dies with a kiss from God.

And so we reach the very end of the Torah. God draws the breath of life from Moses, and that breath returns to the Source. But this portion never stands alone in the Jewish liturgical cycle. When the death of Moses is chanted on Simchat Torah, it is immediately followed by the chanting of Genesis, In the Beginning: “And YHVH blew the breath of life into the human’s nostrils, and the human became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7). Perhaps our Sages wanted us to read the very end of the Torah only in conjunction with the very beginning. Perhaps our Sages wanted to remind us that although the Breath of Life will be withdrawn from each of us when our time comes, other beings will receive that Breath in their turn, and Life will always return and be restored in new form. Perhaps our Sages placed this confluence on the festival of Simchat Torah, the festival of rejoicing and dancing with the Torah, so that we can practice rejoicing with our entire beings, aware that our length of days here is unknown, knowing that our life has been breathed into us, and that one day our time will come to offer it back, like a kiss, to the One who breathed life into us. While we are here, between that first and last breath, let us rejoice in the gift of life as fully as we are able.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Rabbi Jonathan

*My source is Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews, an indispensable resource for the investigation of Jewish lore.