Moses died this past week. Unlike the rest of us, he’ll soon come back to life. This testifies to nearly 3,000 years of Jews venerating the written word.
Last Tuesday night/Wednesday marked Simchat Torah—Joy of the Torah. Ashkenazi Jews complete the annual Torah cycle, reading V’zot Hab’rachah (Deuteronomy 33:1–34:12) and starting anew with the first verses of B’reishit (Genesis), tomorrow’s portion (Gen. 1:1–6:8).
The conclusion of V’zot Hab’rachah narrates Moses’ death at 120. The Israelites’ journey continues with the Book of Joshua in a new section of the Hebrew Bible called Neviim—Prophets. But only portions of Joshua are read intermittently as the Jewish year progresses.
As the Torah concludes, Moses’ blesses the Israelite tribes. God then allows him to look out over Canaan, the Promised Land, from Mount Nebo on the eastern side of the Jordan River. Moses may not, despite his pleadings, enter Canaan. What’s considered the likeliest spot for Mount Nebo, in today’s Jordan, is a beautiful place with a beautiful view. Moses’ pain must have been considerable.
But God has issued Moses’ punishment—hero that Moses is—and declared his end. The narrative is succinct: “So Moses the servant of the Lord died there, in the land of Moab, at the command of the Lord”(Deut. 34:5). How? We don’t know. The Hebrew literally says, “by the mouth of the Lord.” A tradition arose that God took Moses with a divine kiss.
Mortality established by Adam and Eve (in this week’s portion), Moses could not live forever. Nor would Jewish monotheism allow him to resurrected as Christians believe to be the case with Jesus.
Yet Moshe Rabbenu—Moses our teacher—lives on in our study. Every annual cycle returns him to us, starting with the Torah’s second book, Exodus. As I wrote some weeks ago regarding the death of my brother-in-law Herb Zaks, we live on in others’ memories. Eventually, we’re forgotten. Not so Moses.
A small confession: The death in Torah that most saddens me is that of Moses’ brother, the High Priest Aaron. In Numbers, God instructs Moses and Aaron, “Let Aaron be gathered to his kin…” (Num. 20:24) Atop Mount Hor, “Moses stripped Aaron of his vestments and put them on his son Eleazar, and Aaron died…” (Num. 20:28).
Parents must acknowledge their children’s adulthood and empower them. Eleazar had been waiting in the wings. But Aaron enjoys no retirement ceremony, no period of celebration, no displays of gratitude. He is stripped of his vestments. It’s over. Despite his 123 years, Aaron’s end strikes me as sad. Then again, death comes quickly, and Aaron does see his oldest son succeed him. Maybe he got a good deal after all.
Tomorrow, Jews will study the creation of the world starting at the beginning. Well, almost the beginning. God first separates the waters—the stuff of the universe—to create the heavens and the earth. Where did the waters come from? The Sages, perhaps fearing opening a can of worms they could not seal and more involved with history, chose not to wrangle with that question.
Still, Moses’ life will reappear in the Torah. Once again, Jews will not focus on his death but on his life. As always, Moses’ teachings will guide our own lives.
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