The Death of Moses and The Torah’s End

Every year, like clockwork, we get to the last chapter of the Torah on the very last holiday of the fall season, Simhat Torah (literally: “rejoicing with the Torah”) coming exactly 23 days after Rosh Ha-Shana (the new year.)   On Simhat Torah, we read Deuteronomy chapters 33 and 34, describing the death of Moses, the greatest prophet of Israel, the last to speak with God face to face.  Then we begin the Five Books of Moses (aka the Torah) all over again with Bereshit (Genesis) chapter 1 verse 1.  Since Bereshit typically gets all the press (who can resist the story of creation with its Garden of Eden mysteries…) perhaps it’s worth a moment to reflect on the end of the torah, called, V’zot Ha’bracha (And this is the blessing).

Moses winds up his lengthy speech (basically the entire book of Deuteronomy) by speaking to each tribe and bestowing a final blessing, in the form of a poem. Each tribe is reminded of its past and the figure after whom it is named—each of Jacob’s sons.  NEW SENTENCES:  After all, the tribes need some final message as they are at the brink of going into the Land promised to their forefathers, way back in Genesis.  They will continue under new leadership—under Joshua—and will finally take hold of their special inheritance. 

Back in Deuteronomy, after Moses’s final poem, we read a prose narration of how Moses, at the ripe old age of 120, takes his leave of this life.  He has a final conversation with his best friend and confidant, God; God tells Moses to take one last look at the whole land set before him, from the vantage point of Mt. Nebo.  Moses sees the entire land bequeathed to the Israelites, although he himself will never enter it.

Verses 5-7: So Moses, the servant of the Lord died there, in the land of Moab, at the command of the Lord.  He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, near Beit-peor; and no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated.

Wow!  Moses dies with all of his vigor at the age of 120, his eyes “undimmed!” Pretty remarkable!  And who is it exactly that buries Moses?  The text hints that it is none other than the Holy One, the Rock, Moses’s closest and most intimate ally—God.

This last poignant scene has inspired many poets, painters, and other artists to create their own vision of what happened in those sacred moments of transition.  It is Moses’s transition from life to death, but it is also the transition of the Children of Israel to a new period in their development, with Joshua at the helm.

Here’s how Zora Neale Hurston, the African American folklorist and author, describes the scene in her 1939 novel, Moses Man of the Mountain:

But Moses did not sleep on the mountain.  He sat on the mountain top for a while gazing at the dim shapes of things over Jordan in the night…He took his rod in his right hand and lifted it and Nebo trembled.  The moon in its reddest mood became to him a standing place for his feet and the sky ran down so close to gaze on Moses that the seven great suns of the Universe went wheeling around his head. He stood in the bosom of thunder and the zig-zag of lightning above him joined the muttering thunder…The voice of the thunder leaped from peak to plain and Moses stood in the midst of it and said “Farewell.”  Then he turned with a firm tread and descended the other side of the mountain and headed back over the years.

The German (Christian) poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, in the early years of the 20th century writes “The Death of Moses”:

None of them were willing, just the dark
defeated angel; choosing a weapon, he cruelly approached
the commanded one. But even he
went clanging backward, upward,
and screamed into the heavens: I can’t!

For through the thicket of his brow, Moses
had patiently noticed him and gone on writing:
words of blessing and the infinite Name. And his eyes
were clear right to the bottom of his powers.

So the Lord, dragging half of the heaven behind him,
came hurling down in person and made up a bed from the mountain;
laid the old man out. From its orderly dwelling
he summoned the soul; and spoke of much they had shared
in the course of an immeasurable friendship.

But finally the soul was satisfied. Admitted
enough had been done, it was finished. Then the old
God slowly lowered down over the old
man his ancient face.  Drew him out with a  kiss.

and into his own older age. And with the hands of creation
he closed the mountain again. So it would be like one,
one created all over again among mountains of earth,
hidden to us.

Translated from German by Franz Wright; from Modern Poems on the Bible by David Curzon.

And finally, a favorite, by 20th century Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai:

Moses saw the face of God just once and then
forgot.  He didn’t want to see the desert
not even the Promised Land, only the face of God.
In the fury of his longing he struck the rock,
climbed Mount Sinai and came down again, broke
the Tablets of the Law, made a golden calf, searched through
fire and smoke, but he could remember only
the strong hand of God and His outstretched arm,
not His face. Moses was like a man who tries to recall
the face of someone he loved, but tries in vain.
He composed a police sketch of God’s face
and the face of the burning bush and the face of Pharaoh’s daughter
leaning over him, a baby in the ark of bulrushes.
He sent that picture to all the tribes of Israel,
up and down the desert, but no one had seen,
no one knew. Only at the end of his life,
on Mount Nebo, did Moses see and die, kissing
the face of God.

Translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld from Open Closed Open, “The Bible and You, the Bible and You and Other Midrashim.”

TO CONSIDER:

  1. What do all three modern renditions of the scene of Moses’s death have in common? How are they different?  Why did both poets imagine that Moses died with a “kiss from God”?
  2. How does the description of Moses’s death make you feel?  Is there still regret, or does Moses know it is his time to die?  Do you ever imagine your own ideal death?

The Rock wants you to listen

We are at the penultimate chapters of the entire Five Books of Moses; in fact, the entire book of Deuteronomy has been one very long speech that Moses gives before he dies. In Ha’azinu (Deuteronomy chapter 32—50 verses), we get his poetic conclusion.

Ha’azinu literally means “give ear” and is addressed to the heavens and the earth. Moses wants the very heavens and earth to witness what the old prophet has to say as he winds down his life and his speech. This poem is his departing words to the people of Israel about God’s relationship with them, about God’s decisions to punish Israel, and about the ultimate deliverance of Israel from her foes (chapter 32 v 45-47). This poem isn’t an especially heart-warming one with beautiful, gentle metaphors. There is a lot of sturm und drang — warnings of the disastrous things that will happen if the “treacherous breed of children” disobeys the laws, as they are prone to do and have already done in the past.

God is referred to as The Rock in this poem, a powerful metaphor, one that avoids the anthropomorphic images stuck in some of our heads. The poem dichotomizes The Rock with the Children of Israel: The Rock is perfect, faithful, true and upright, whereas the Israelites are perverse, dull and witless, etc. Much of the poem sounds like an angry old man berating his ungrateful and wayward children for the terrible behaviors they have engaged in. After 43 verses of this dramatic exhortation, the chapter ends with a few lines of prose:

And when Moses finished reciting all these words to all Israel, he said to them: Take to heart all the words with which I have warned you this day. Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching (Torah). For this is not a trifling thing for you: it is your very life; through it you shall long endure on the land that you are to possess upon crossing the Jordan.

In the last few verses of Chapter 32 we read the difficult conversation between God and Moses, as the old prophet is instructed on how and where he is to die, and that although he can take a look at the Promised Land, he will never enter it because he “broke faith…with God…by failing to uphold God’s sanctity among the Israelites.” Ha’azinu is a chapter of Bible filled with painful endings.

To consider:

  1. What metaphors for God work for you? The Rock is one presented here, but there are many other ways to think about God and the Divine.
  2. How do you imagine your “exit” from the world? What would you like to tell your real or imagined children or grandchildren in your last speech?

Writing Our Legacy

Outside, even here in northern California, we feel the seasons changing — time to shut the windows at night. It’s the new month of Tishray, the month loaded with Jewish holidays. It’s officially fall, which signals the very end of the yearly cycle of weekly Torah portions. This week’s portion is VaYelech which means “And He Went” (Deuteronomy 31) — the “he” referred to is Moses. This little chapter and the 3 following it comprise the epilogue to the 5 Books of Moses (the Torah). We hear God’s voice telling Moses that it is time for him to die (Moses himself admits aloud that at the age of 120, he no longer has the strength to lead the nation in battle).

In VaYelech, we read Moses’s preamble to his final poem, or “song”, as it sometimes called; he is tidying up loose ends. And what does he say? He repeats one phrase several times:

Be Strong and Courageous…don’t be afraid of what is before you, the Lord, your God, will not forsake you; He will be with you.

Along with this message we read of the appointing of Joshua, to take over as leader.

But how will Moses enable the people to remember to “be strong and courageous”? Good question! He and God have figured out that they must write down all of the history and laws so that this “teaching” or “Torah” will exist forever and will be recited in front of the entire people — men, women, children and strangers in the community. God and Moses both know that there will be backsliding, that things will go downhill, but, the fact that “the Good Book” exists in writing means that the “Teaching” will be around as a guidebook, “in the mouths” of the people, remembered and followed for generations.

For your consideration:

  1. When someone tells you, “put that in writing” what does it mean? What is it about the act of “writing” down words on paper (or parchment) that makes it different from only hearing those same words spoken?
  2. What is the written legacy you would want to leave behind before you die? What do you want your family and closest friends to know about life?