Remembering Moses

Vezot Haberakhah | Shemini Atzeret Simhat Torah By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Sep 27, 2002 / 5763 | Torah Commentary | Holidays

My father died twenty years ago. The day of his yahrzeit has never been hard for me to remember. It follows by one day the day affixed by the Talmud for the death of Moses (BT Kiddushin 38a). Moses died on the seventh of Adar, the last month of the Jewish calendar, and my father on the eighth. Thus the Hebrew date of my father’s passing is forever anchored in my memory by its proximity to the traditional date for the demise of Moses. Reciprocally, that convergence has heightened for me the yahrzeit of Moses, which is barely noted in most Jewish calendars.

My father did not die by a kiss from above (bi-neshikah). The final image we have of Moses as he ascends Mount Nebo to die alone is of a man whose eyes “were undimmed” and whose “vigor was unabated.” (Deuteronomy 34:7). It was God’s will that his life end at this point, and the Rabbis read the phrase “al pi ha-shem” not metaphorically as “at the command of God” but literally as “by God’s mouth,” that is by a kiss. The term neshikah came to mean a death without suffering. My father’s end was painful and unheroic. He withdrew emotionally before he died physically. But time rights the balance. His life is what I remember.

The link to Moses for me is the manner in which my father lived. He too was “a servant of God” (Deut. 34:5). In an age when industry and bureaucracy and ideology magnified the horrors that humans could inflict upon each other, Judaism was the ballast of his life and the rabbinate a calling. His deep faith brought comfort to many a jettisoned soul. Neither despair nor skepticism could undermine his love for “the teaching (Torah) which Moses had charged us with, the heritage of the congregation of Jacob” (Deut. 33:4). I have no idea if this verse with its ringing affirmation of pride and ownership was the first my father learned on the lap of his father, as parents are instructed to do by the Rabbis (BT Sukkah 42a), but he surely lived as if it were the Archimedean point from which he moved the world around him.

Rabbinic imagination embellishes the austerity of the Torah’s final chapter. Moses died atop Mount Nebo unaccompanied. Who, then interred him? The verb “and he buried him” (34:6) is tantalizingly vague. Ibn Ezra, rationalist to the core, follows the view that Moses entered a cave to await his death, that is, he buried himself. Rashi, more mystically inclined, prefers the view that it was none other than God who buried Moses. The basis for this extravagant claim is the Rabbis’ conviction that human affairs are governed by the moral principle of measure for measure. God’s act of kindness came to reward Moses for a comparable good deed. Before the hurried departure of the Israelites from Egypt, Moses had tarried to exhume the bones of Joseph for reburial in Canaan. Ego did not stay his hand from performing an act of compassion beneath his dignity. Thus Moses, who though outranked by no one had deigned to disinter Joseph, merited the attendance of God at his own death (Mishnah Sotah 1:9).

God’s act of unsolicited kindness toward Moses prompts another midrash to observe that the Torah closes with the same generosity of spirit with which it opened. Whereas God intervenes at the end to prevent the corpse of Moses from being desecrated by the offspring of nature, at the beginning of the human odyssey, God clothed Adam and Eve with skin garments before expelling them from the garden in Eden (Genesis 3:21). That narrative wraparound highlights the paramount importance of spontaneous deeds of unalloyed goodness (gemilut hasadim). For humans to become God-like means to ennoble their behavior toward others. Ultimately, Judaism comes down to elevating the quality of our interpersonal relations.

In truth, however, the closing narrative of the Torah needs no midrashic embellishment. The plain meaning of the text pulsates with meaning. The Torah chooses to end soberly rather than triumphantly. Not only does Moses die short of completing the task that absorbed the last forty years of his life, but his people remain in exile. Were we authoring the final episode, we would most likely have finished with the conquest of Canaan. God poignantly grants Moses no more than an unobstructed view of the sweeping vista that will become the homeland of the people he forged into a nation. But reality has a way of tarnishing our dreams. As history would show, to conquer is easier than to govern. The prophets are a constant reminder of how rarely the political and religious institutions of ancient Israel realized the vision that gave them birth.

The greatest of these iconoclasts was Moses. Yet posterity is denied any knowledge of his burial place. His words and deeds are his only tombstone. The Torah regards magic as anathema because it compromises the sovereignty of God. Earlier Moses had admonished: “Let no one be found among you who consigns his son or daughter to the fire, or who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, or sorcerer, one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead” (Deut. 18:10-11). The unadorned choreography of his death conforms to this admonition. Our veneration of Moses is not to express itself in pilgrimages or necromancy but in conducting our lives in accord with his injunctions. As long as our consciousness is home to his words and deeds, Moses lives on beyond the grave.

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Shmini Atzeret – Simhat Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.