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.”
- 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”?
- 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?