From the Ve’zot Haberachach, the final portion in the Torah:
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 of Moab, near Beit Peor; and no one knows his burial place to this day. (Deuteronomy 34:5-6)
Readers of the Torah often comment on the seeming unfairness of God’s decree that Moses must die before he can enter the Promised Land. But when we reach the final verses of the Torah, the tone feels anything but untimely or tragic. Rather, God’s treatment of Moses in his final moments hints at a spirit of love and tenderness.
Commentators have made much of the words “al pi adonai” – “at the command of the Lord,” which literally means “at the mouth of the Lord.” In the midrashic imagination, this verse is commonly read: “Moses died…at the kiss of God.” Some have pointed out the poignant symmetry of this image: just as God breathes life into the first human, God reclaims Moses’ soul with through a similar loving act.
The portrayal of God personally “burying” Moses is equally as powerful. The stark anthropomorphism of this verse is striking in the way it invites us to identify with this sacred act of kindness. The mitzvah of burying the dead, in fact, comes from this text. According to halacha, burial of the dead is one of our most sacred mitzvot in Jewish tradition, since it is performed with the knowledge that it cannot possibly be “repaid” by the recipient.
God’s care for Moses in the final days of his life is described in great detail in a famous midrash known as Petirat Moshe. At the end of this classic rabbinic text, God and the angels guide Moses, in a sense, through his final dying process. For his part, Moses seems to almost go through the various Kubler-Ross phases as he pleads with God for his life: i.e., anger, bargaining, denial, and finally, of course, acceptance. Among other things, this midrash powerfully portrays the gamut of Moses’ emotions from the sense of unfairness to his final moment of letting go.
I thought of this midrash recently for the first time in years as I was reading this portion, remembering that I actually wrote a contemporary rendering of Petirat Moshe during my final year of rabbinical school. I’m thinking it might be appropriate to share an excerpt from it in the spirit of Simchat Torah – as our latest Torah reading cycle now comes to a close. I’ll resist the intense urge to change and tweak the language of a young rabbinical student and offer it just as it appeared fifteen years ago. To read, just click below…
The Holy One said, “There is nothing to scared of, Moshe. I will command your nephew Eleazar to accompany you to your resting place on Mt. Nebo. You shall die atop this holy mountain, for death does not mean destruction, but elevation. You will see, Moshe. There is nothing to be afraid of.”
And at noon on the following day, Eleazar went with Moshe up Mt. Nebo. Eleazar was instructed to leave Moshe before they reached the top. Moshe climbed the rest of the way alone. When he finally arrived at the mountaintop, he found a beautiful golden couch which had been arranged for him by the angels. Moshe lay down upon it as God had instructed.
As soon as he lay down, Moshe beheld a wondrous vision. He saw the Temple in Jerusalem in all its luminous splendor, shining forth from its holy mount. Moshe cried out, “I thought you told me I wasn’t allowed to glimpse the Promised Land before I died.”
“Look carefully” said God.
Then Moshe realized that what he was seeing was not the Temple in earthly Jerusalem, but rather the Holy Temple which sits in the Jerusalem of the Heavens, of which our earthly Temple is but a pale comparison. This was the Temple constructed by God’s hand. It was made of precious jewels, pearls and gold – and it housed the holy light of the Shechinah, which was to be preserved for Israel to all eternity, to the end of all generations.
As Moshe beheld this glorious vision, his resistance began to melt. Yet no sooner did he begin to sigh, than the Angel of Death appeared.
Moshe froze up. Terror began to rise from the pit of his stomach. But as he looked on, he realized something odd. The figure wasn’t dark at all, but bathed in light. Then, as the form turned to face him, he recognized the face of his Beloved.
It was only then that Moshe finally let go. He said to his soul as it left his body, “Return, O my soul, to your tranquility, for Adonai has dealt bountifully with you.”
The Holy One thereupon reclaimed Moshe’s soul with a kiss, and Moshe, whose name means “drawn from the water” returned to that vast, limitless Ocean of All Being.
All streams flow into the sea, but the sea is never full. To the place from which the water flows, there it will flow back again. (Ecclesiastes 1:7)