"You shall die on the mountain that you are about to ascend." (Deuteronomy 32:50)
In death as in life, he was Moshe Rabbenu—Moses, Our Teacher. With the greatness that was his alone, Moses taught us that we are all destined for a common fate.
Even such a momentous event as Moses' death is given only a few lines in this week's portion, Ha'azinu. Such is the spare beauty and compact genius of our Torah. However, we should not be surprised that our rabbinic tradition could not accept the stark simplicity of this text. Our rabbis had to dig for and search out the deeper, more profound meaning of the description of Moses' death. In so doing, they were trying to help us learn about the meaning of both life and death. As we approach the Yamim Nora-im—the Days of Awe—we have the opportunity to ponder the greatest and most complex of all of life's questions.
It may be a helpful exercise in confronting such questions to ask ourselves, "How are we like Moses, and how is Moses like us?" Like most of us, Moses was filled with contradictions. He struggled to determine his own identity, establish his leadership, and understand his relationship with God. He certainly struggled with his own sense of importance as he responded to God's call to lead this stiff-necked and rebellious people. A midrash assumes that in his last days and hours, Moses also struggled with the terrible knowledge that he could not oppose death. He knew, as each one of us knows, that we are mortal. But being the human being he was, Moses used every human emotion and device at his command to try to hold off his certain fate.
In Midrash Rabbah (Deuteronomy, New York and London: The Soncino Press, 1983, 181.ff.), Moses first makes light of his impending death and then scrambles to find prayers and mystical incantations that will keep death away. Of course, none of the above changes the decree of death. Next, Moses tries to bluff and bully God into changing his fate. It is all in vain. In the end, with many regrets and much unfinished business, Moses accepts his fate and submits to God.
What part of Moses' struggle with the end of life will be ours? Will we try to bluff God and bargain our way through those last days? Or will we, given Moses' example, begin right now to learn about how to live and also how to die? In this week's Torah portion, Moses says, "For this is not a trifling thing for you: It is your very life." (Deuteronomy 32:47) Because it is our life, let us make the most of our days on earth so that we give ourselves the precious gift of dignity and peace at the end of those days.