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Moses’s Death, God’s Breath

  • Moses’s Death, God’s Breath

    Sh'mini Atzeret - Simchat Torah, Holidays Deuteronomy 33:1–34:12, Genesis 1:1–2:3
D'var Torah By: 

Death closes all: but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done,

Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

(Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "Ulysses," Poems, vol. 2, 1842)


Before the birth of virtually every significant male character in the Bible, extraordinary tales are told about how he was brought into being. But in Moses's case, the miracle stories are told not about his birth but about his death. The biblical scene recounting Moses's death is remarkable not only in its dramatic potency, but also because it delivers comfort and blessing along with its cargo of sorrow.

As he has done in the past (see, for example, Exodus 15:1-19 in Parashat B'shalach and Deuteronomy 32:1-43 in Parashat Haazinu), Moses responds to a climactic moment of emotional intensity by reciting words of poetry. But the opening of the Torah's final parashah, V'zot Hab'rachah, reminds us that this poem is not intended simply for aesthetic effect; it comes to deliver blessing to the community of Israel. "This is the blessing," the parashah begins, "with which Moses, the man of God, bade the Israelites farewell before he died" (Deuteronomy 33:1).

After this preface, Moses launches promptly into verse, describing God's powerful presence and gratefully extolling God's love and care for Israel. But after two verses, the poem's voice shifts abruptly. All at once, it becomes clear that Moses is no longer speaking the words of his own poem-the Israelites are. Suddenly, the poem has begun referring to Moses in the third person: "Moses charged us with the Teaching as the heritage of the congregation of Jacob" (33:4).

In that barely perceptible moment, Moses's character has passed an invisible and irreversible boundary. His identity as the political leader of a fractious and ungrateful people has now been eclipsed by his identity as Moshe Rabbeinu-the mythical and masterful teacher Moses. The Talmud, perhaps recognizing the significance of this transformative stage in the development of Moses's character, teaches that this verse's words are the first words a child should learn from the Hebrew Bible:

As soon as a child knows how to speak, his parent must teach him Torah. And what does "Torah" mean? Rav Hamnuna said: The verse "Moses charged us with the Teaching as the heritage of the congregation of Jacob." (Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 42a)

Rav Hamnunah urges us to place Moses's words in the mouths of even our youngest children. Moses's breath, in this way, becomes the breath of all humanity; his words become our words. The shift of poetic voice in Deuteronomy 33:4 lays bare the astonishing process of spiritual ventriloquism by which, each time we open our mouths, we marvel to find Moses's words tumbling out.

Salman Rushdie has written, with no small measure of delight, that "the human being is a storytelling animal . . . the only creature on Earth that tells itself stories in order to understand what sort of creature it is" (ed. Salman Rushdie, The Best American Short Stories [New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008], p. xvi) Proudest, perhaps, among the "storytelling animals," we Jews delight in weaving identity out of storytelling. Jewish self, story, and blessing are braided into a glittering Möbius strip, endlessly twining.

When, at last, Moses dies, his soul departs al pi Adonai, literally, "by God's mouth" (34:5). Mouth to mouth, the breath of Moses is drawn in and subsumed into the breath of God. God tenderly inhales Moses's final breath and then pauses. As we begin our cyclical reading of Torah once more, God exhales, filling Adam's nostrils and giving life to all creation.

Moses is never referred to as a "prophet" in the Torah except in this parashah (34:10). His prophecy is confirmed and made real only once we know that Moses's breath will flow forever through the lungs and lips of Israel. His words awe and inspire us not only because of their power and insight, but also because we share his breath. This, then, is the wondrous way in which we find consolation after Moses's death. He dies again every year, but year by year, his words open still wider to us with ever-deepening weight and wisdom.


What we hear inside a seashell is not the ocean. Instead, we are hearing the ambient hum of all life around us, funneled inward by the shell and mingling in a glorious tumult. Even the rush of our own blood singing in its course, salty, fierce, and alive, joins in the frothy susurrus. A thousand tiny thunderclaps roar together and remind us of the waves that carried the shell to our hand. The awareness that we are alive, that we yet breathe, reminds us that we are all propelled by the Source-of-All that surges insistently within.

We are small, but Moses's breath is in us. And so, like Tennyson's Ulysses, aged but untamed, we are driven forward by what pulses steadily inside us.

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,-
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
(Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "Ulysses," Poems, vol. 2, 1842)

That which we are, we are. We are Israel: explorers, pilgrims, wanderers all. We steel our navigators' hearts and set ourselves anew to the work of our people.

A year's reading from the Torah is now complete. We pronounce together, with humility and hope, the ancient mantra of fulfillment and renewed determination: Chazak, chazak, v'nit'chazeik, "Strength, strength, let us strengthen one another."

Let us be strong and let us strengthen one another in unending journeys through Torah-striving, seeking, finding. And let us accompany each other ever forward, our sails and our songs filled with the breath of God.

Rabbi Oren J. Hayon is associate rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas. He received his undergraduate education at Rice University, and received rabbinical ordination from the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2004.

It’s Not Just about You
Davar Acher By: 
Michele Brand Medwin

As we come to the end of Deuteronomy, we are once again confronted with an event in the Torah that is so hard to accept. God speaks to Moses as he overlooks the Land of Israel and reminds him, "I have let you see it [the land] with your own eyes, but you shall not cross there" (Deuteronomy 34:4). Moses, who did so much for the Israelite people, who led them out of Egypt, who brought them the Ten Commandments, who put up with their incessant complaining in the wilderness, who the Torah says no other prophet is like, is prohibited from going into the Promised Land.

Sometimes the most difficult Torah verses are the ones that can give us the greatest insight. I teach classes on spirituality trying to help people find a way to connect to God. When I talk about ways to enrich one's life and become a better person through a connection to God, there is always someone who reminds me that they can do all of this without having to believe in God. To me, believing in God, no matter how you envision God, is important because it reminds you that there is something greater than you, that life is not just about you. There is something beyond what you think is right or wrong. It helps to put your life in context as being part of a greater whole.

As great as Moses was, God's disallowing him to go into the Promise Land teaches us an important lesson. Despite the fact that the Torah is called The Five Books of Moses, it really isn't about Moses. Rather, the Torah is a sacred book containing guidelines to help us improve ourselves and the world around us.

Rabbi Michele Brand Medwin is the rabbi at Temple Sholom in Monticello, New York.

10/05/2009
Reference Materials: 

Sh'mini Atzeret–Simchat Torah, Deuteronomy 33:1–34:12, Genesis 1:1–2:3
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,569–1,588, 18–22; Revised Edition, pp. 1,418–1,435, 19–22