V'zot Hab'rachah, the concluding parashah of the Torah, is centered around the death of Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our Teacher. Generations of Bible readers have wondered about the stated reason why Moses was prohibited from entering the Promised Land. The sin for which he is so punished, which occurred in Numbers 20:10-11 (for striking rather than speaking to a rock in order to bring forth water for the people), seems insignificant in comparison to his accomplishments and his obedience to God. Moses could have been taught the point that all people die just as well if he had been allowed to lead the people over the river and then had been allowed to die in the land of Canaan.
The Midrash discusses both this issue and Moses' humanity in its commentary on Moses' resistance to God's decree. According to the Midrash, Moses begs God for favor and forgiveness for his sins. He tells God that he has been held to a higher standard and prays 515 times for a reversal of the decree. Moses pleads with God to make him into an animal and let him at least touch the land, but God refuses. God then relents a little and allows Moses to view the Promised Land. Other midrashim also contain the same general theme.
In contrast to the image of Moses begging to be turned into an animal, the Midrash grants Moses a beautiful death. At the end, God leans down from the heavens and ends Moses' life with a soft, gentle kiss. This is derived from Deuteronomy 34:5, where it is written, "So Moses, the servant of the Eternal, died there, in the land of Moab, at the command of the Eternal." The Hebrew reads, al pi Adonai, "by the mouth of the Eternal." Hence the legend about God kissing Moses at his moment of death.
According to the Midrash, God wept after Moses died, as did the heavens and the earth. Deuteronomy 34:6 tells us that "God buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, near Beth-peor; and no one knows his burial place to this day." Moses deserved the honor of having God perform his burial because, the Midrash says, during the Exodus from Egypt, when everyone else was looking for gold and silver, Moses was looking for the coffin of Joseph. And when Moses found it, he carried it on his own shoulders. Thus Moses helped to fulfill the oath made to Joseph in Genesis 50:25: "So Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, 'When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry my bones from here.'" The honor and respect that Moses paid to Joseph's last wish to be buried with his ancestors are rewarded when God buries Moses, a singular divine act.
Thus we find that even though the decree of death cannot be overruled, God displays great compassion and empathy for the greatest prophet that ever arose in Israel, "whom the Eternal singled out, face to face." (Deut. 34:10) Would that each of us be granted the same gentle and loving death.
As we end this year's annual Torah reading cycle and complete our reading of Devarim, the fifth and final book of the Torah, we say Chazak, chazak ve'nitchazek! "Be strong, be strong, and let us be strengthened!"
Jonathan Stein is senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel, San Diego, California.
Have you ever thought about the important leaders in world history who labored long and hard and then, just when their dreams and efforts seemed to be on the verge of being fulfilled, were denied the opportunity to savor success? Death snatched them and denies them the opportunity to see their goals realized. In American history, figures like Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King, Jr., come immediately to mind. Parashat V'zot Hab'rachah describes the death of Moses, a man who is considered by many to be the greatest of all Jewish leaders, yet one who was denied the reward of entering the Promised Land.
Rabbi Stein teaches us through references to the midrashim that Moses' humanity sealed his fate, since all mortals must die. Despite the sin committed by Moses (i.e., striking the rock in anger), God recognizes his great accomplishments and his devotion. The midrash teaches that although Moses is denied the chance to enter the Promised Land, he is given the opportunity to see it from afar. God then grants Moses a beautiful death and ends his life with a kiss. Contemporary leaders have not been that well rewarded: None (as far as we know) was given a glimpse of the future.
With the possible exception of Martin Luther King, Jr., we know little about the spiritual lives of our national leaders and their relationship to God. Our nation cherishes the principle of separation of church and state. And yet, is it possible not to see the hand of God in the work of these men?
I can remember the day FDR died, April 12, 1945, and the outpouring of sorrow and mourning that followed as the news of his death spread throughout the land. His death was not the result of an act of violence, as has been the case with many of our recent leaders. One can imagine that perhaps he, unlike the later martyrs in our history, was given the opportunity to reflect upon his life and deeds. Did he perhaps plead with God to lengthen his days so that he might savor the Allied victory in World War II? Was he, like Moses, punished for his human flaws and sins?
Rabbi Stein teaches us about God's compassion and about God's empathy for the "greatest prophet that arose in Israel." Stein states quite beautifully, "Would that each of us be granted the same gentle and loving death." But how are we to explain the violent and premature deaths of great leaders like Lincoln and King, given their remarkable leadership qualities? Why were they denied the gentle and loving death they so richly deserved?
As we end the cycle of Torah readings with this parashah, we are left with many questions. Once again we begin anew, remembering the words of Ben Bag Bag: "Turn it [the Torah] over and over, for it contains everything." (Pirke Avot, 5:22)
- Who among us will ever get to see most or all of our dreams come true?
- Imagine a dialogue between Moses and Martin Luther King, Jr. Write a midrash based on such an exchange.
Glenda Orchant is the educator at Congregation Albert in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
V'zot Hab'rachah, Deuteronomy 33:1‒34:12
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,580‒1,588; Revised Edition, pp. 1,418‒1,435
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,271‒1,290