Every year, in synagogues across the world, Jews come together on Simchat Torah to celebrate the completion of yet another cycle of communal Torah study. After spending the morning singing, dancing, and exchanging l’chaims, we gather around the bimah and culminate the festivities by reading publicly the final verses of the “Five Books of Moshe:”
And Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, [to the] top of the summit facing Jericho. And the Lord showed him all the Land: The Gilead until Dan, and all [the land of] Naftali, and the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, and all the land of Judah, until the western sea, and the south, and the plain, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, until Zoar. And the Lord said to him, “This is the Land I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your offspring.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” And Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there, in the land of Moab, by the mouth of the Lord. And He buried him in the valley, in the land of Moab, opposite Beth Pe’or. And no person knows the place of his burial, unto this day. Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died. His eye had not dimmed, nor had he lost his [natural] freshness. And the sons of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab for thirty days, and the days of weeping over the mourning for Moses came to an end. And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands upon him. And the children of Israel obeyed him, and they did as the Lord had commanded Moses. And there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, as manifested by all the signs and wonders, which the Lord had sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and all his servants, and to all his land, and all the strong hand, and all the great awe, which Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel (Deut. 34:1-12).
This scene, recounting the death of Moshe, undoubtedly ranks among the Torah’s most moving and most memorable. Its poignancy is fittingly augmented by the drama of the day with which it is associated and the stirring melody in which it is traditionally chanted. Yet if it is largely the literary (and the liturgical) context of this scene that renders it uniquely meaningful for us, then perhaps we ought to take a moment to consider that context a little more carefully.
You see, we’re so used to concluding the Torah with the Parshah of Vezot Habrachah—the Parshah in which Moshe blesses Bnei Yisrael, ascends Mount Nevo, and then dies—that we often forget that this wasn’t where Hashem had originally intended for it to end. In fact, if we go back to the beginning of the Torah, and read through it carefully, we discover no less than four Parshahs prior to this one in which Moshe, per Hashem’s explicit instructions, was “scheduled” to die—but didn’t.
The first scene occurs in Parshat Pinchas, back in the book of Bamidbar. After resolving a legal dispute initiated by the daughters of Tzelofchad (Num. 27:1-11), Moshe is informed by Hashem that the time has come for him to die, and is ordered to climb Mount Avarim and behold the land of Israel before doing so. But Moshe protests that he cannot die before appointing a leader (interestingly, this protest is introduced by the Torah with phrase “וידבר משה אל ה’ לאמר”—“and Moses spoke to Hashem, saying…,” a unique reversal of the phrase which we usually find throughout the Torah, “and Hashem spoke to Moses saying…,” underscoring the starkly inverted dynamic at play here). Hashem concedes to Moshe’s concerns, and instructs him to transfer authority to Yehoshua, which he does (ibid. 12-23). Yet when Moshe’s finished doing so, he doesn’t then climb the mountain, as planned; instead, the next chapter moves to an entirely new topic, that of holiday sacrifices.
So then we come to our second scene, in Parshat Mattot, also from the book of Bamidbar. There, Hashem commands Moshe to organize a war against the Midianites, adding that “afterwards, you shall be gathered unto your people” (Num. 31:2). Moshe complies but, when the soldiers return from battle, he does not make preparations to die; instead, he and Elazar the Kohen criticize the troops for improperly seizing the spoils of Midian and, at Hashem’s direction, the two men institute a series of measures to govern the proper usage of those spoils moving forward (ibid. 14-54). Moshe continues dealing with the administration of these spoils in the next chapter (Num. 32), and with an assortment of related issues concerning the borders of the land of Israel. All the while, he does not ascend the mountain—and, with the launch of what would become his thirty-day valedictory sermon, at the beginning of the book of Devarim (Deut. 1:1ff), it becomes clear that he will not be doing so any time soon.
Yet before we can move into the book of Devarim, per se, we must consider a third scene: one which is recalled by Moshe at the beginning of Parshat Vaetchanan, in the book of Devarim, but which (as we discussed earlier this year) actually occurred parallel to Parshat Balak, in the book of Bamidbar. At that time—chronologically, it took place before the episodes of Pinchas and Mattot which we just looked at—Moshe passionately petitioned Hashem not to die on the eastern bank of the Jordan, as Hashem had decreed he would, and instead to join the rest of Bnei Yisrael as they marched into the land of Israel. Hashem, though, didn’t budge, even forbidding Moshe from lobbying Him any further, and charged him to ascend the mountain then and there, where he would gaze at the land before dying (Deut. 3:23-29). But as we know, that’s not what Moshe did—not when the charge was first delivered, and not even in the book of Devarim, after repeating it publicly to Bnei Yisrael.
Instead, Moshe continued preaching to Bnei Yisrael for another entire month. His speech finished in Parshat Vayelech and he spent the next Parshah, Haazinu, teaching Bnei Yisrael the lyrics to a song Hashem had written to warn them of the punishment awaiting them should they practice idolatry upon entry into the land of Israel. Immediately after Moshe finished singing this song, Hashem turned to him and—for a fourth time—summoned him up the mountain, to see the land of Israel and then to die (Deut. 32:48-52). But Moshe doesn’t die then, either—perhaps because he doesn’t want his last interaction with his people to be mired in the mood of curses. In fact, he spends the next chapter, and then some, showering personalized blessings upon the various tribes of Israel and upon the nation as a collective (Deut. 33:1-29). Only afterwards does Moshe—finally—ascend Mount Nevo in preparation to die. And, incredibly, there is actually no dictate from Hashem in Parshat Vezot Habrachah which precedes this decision of his: “And Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo” (Deut. 34:1)—not at Hashem’s behest, but of his own initiative; not when Hashem determined that his time had come, but when he himself sensed that he was ready.
Putting it all together, then, what is truly remarkable about Parshat Vezot Habracha is not that it is the Parshah in which Moshe dies, but rather, that it even exists as a Parshah, in the first place. It should not have, and indeed, would not have, had Moshe merely heeded any one of the divine calls for him to die issued in the Parshahs of Pinchas, or Mattot, or Vaetchanan, or Haazinu. To realize just how many times Moshe resisted these calls, and how many times Hashem allowed him to do so, is to stumble upon one of the Torah’s best-kept secrets, and certainly one of its most theologically-upending. And that is, that as humans—frail and flawed and mortal and all—our elemental wills to live, to lead, and to leave behind a world better than the one we entered into are forces powerful well beyond what we tend to appreciate: powerful beyond all of the minor setbacks and inconveniences life throws our way; powerful beyond most major challenges, as well; powerful, even, beyond many of the profoundly painful ordeals we endure; and, in some circumstances, powerful even beyond what would by all counts appear to be a directly opposed decree from on high. These wills blazed boldly in Moshe and it was from them which he drew the strength to push formidably, again, again, and again, past he what he knew to be possible, because he knew that the impossible was what was required—that though Hashem kept insisting that his time had come, he was simply not going to stop or slow down for a single moment, until he had given his people all that he felt they needed from him.
If that is how “the greatest of prophets,” the man who saw Hashem “face to face” (Deut. 34:10), trudged forward even when Hashem Himself had—to borrow an idiom of our sages—“placed a sword against his neck (cf. Berachot 10)”—then surely we, who do not read the signs and signals life sends our way with such a high degree of clarity, ought as often as we can to err on the side of resilience, perseverance, and relentless optimism. May we merit to follow the model of Moshe in this respect, our eternal teacher year after year, upon his death no less than in his lifetime.
Shabbat shalom and Chag Sameach!