Sources of inspiration can sometimes be left unidentified, but in this instance I’d like to be explicit in giving credit where credit is due. On one level, some of the imagining that comes below occurred to me as I read Rabbi Shai Held’s discussion of Moses’ death found in Rabbi Held’s work, The Heart of Torah (vol. 2, pp. 285-89). But in more personal terms, what stimulated some of the thinking that led to these words was a memory of my recently deceased father, E. David Subar z”l, and the way he demonstrated to me the direct connection he felt with Torah ideas. In particular, my father truly enjoyed the holiday of Simchat Torah when, tradition has it, we read about the death of Moses.
Half a century and more ago, I was able to see up close how much my father appreciated the honor of helping to create moments of holy happiness as he led Simchat Torah Shacharit in our synagogue, using an array of playful tunes that he reserved only for that day, and as he, along with my mother and grandmother, put on a community-wide kiddush in our house after services. But as I read Rabbi Held’s words about Moses’ death, I recalled one particular Simchat Torah that showed me another side of my father’s relationship to the day. That year, as I stood next to him during the reading of the last verses of the Torah which recount the end of Moses’ life, I saw my father crying. And I could see that his tears weren’t just on account of the poignancy of a story from long ago and far away, but that he was also mourning in immediate terms the demise of a leader and teacher whom my father saw as the source of so much that was in his soul. Indulge me, please, as I imagine a scene that my father might have created in his own mind as he shed his tears.
And divine matter came to Moses, as if to say: I have decided to tantalize you.
And Moses responded in words, saying: Tantalize me? You’ve been tantalizing me ever since You plucked me out of the obscurity that I had chosen for myself. And for what? Just to be the sort of leader that I could never truly become.
And divine matter came to Moses, as if to say: Oh, you sell yourself too short. But tell me, how exactly have you found my selection of you to have led to any kind of tantalization already? I know, of course, but I want to hear it from your own mouth.
And Moses responded in words, saying: Well, that’s just it. It’s not about me. You keep reminding me of that Yourself. All I’ve heard about since we first met face to Face is my great-great-great-something-grandfather and a promised land that You identified for him and for a bunch of my relatives. At first, I didn’t have the heart to point out that I wasn’t particularly close to that side of the family and that I was very happy doing what I was doing, thank you very much. But as You and I have spent time chatting over the course of what’s seemed like an eternity, I’ve gotten more and more intrigued. And, yes, that has finally reached the point of being tantalizing.
And divine matter came to Moses, as if to say: Glad to hear it. But I’ve decided to up the ante.
And Moses responded in words, saying: Oy. Don’t tell me. I haven’t had enough leadership challenges? What do You have up Your Sleeve now?
And divine matter came to Moses, as if to say: You talk as if I’m planning to pull rabbits out of hats, but that’s not what’s going on here. Focus a little bit more on My technocratic side. I’ve decided to make a change in the leadership structure that you’re a part of.
And Moses responded in words, saying: Really? Thank You so, so much. I’ve been up to my neck in paperwork — or whatever we use to keep our files around here these days. Making a change is such a humane thing for You to do.
And divine matter came to Moses, as if to say: Thank you? Are you sure you want to be thanking me?
And Moses responded in words, saying: Yes, yes, I’ve been trying to identify just the right moment to talk to you about successorship planning. I can’t wait to slip into the background, to be around only enough to answer any questions that Josh might have.
And divine matter came to Moses, as if to say: Uh, that’s not exactly what I had in mind.
And Moses responded in words, saying: Come again?
And divine matter came to Moses, as if to say: No, Josh can handle things on his own. I don’t envision you being in a position to give him much advice.
And Moses responded in words, saying: I’m sorry? I mean, as I know You know, it’s common for humans who retire from the executive suite to be available to consult with their successors.
And divine matter came to Moses, as if to say: Generally, of course you’re right, at least if you’re talking about people who are lucky enough to get a chance to make such choices. But you know who you are. You’re a special sort of guy. I have other ideas in mind for you.
And Moses responded in words, saying: Thanks, but really? With respect, do You think I appreciate special treatment?
And divine matter came to Moses, as if to say: Haven’t we been here before? When I told you once upon another time that maybe I would elevate you to be my main guy, you thought you had to kindly remind me that the people you do such a nice job of leading, but who had done me wrong, deserved My continued support. All of our debates back then about mercy and justice and so on didn’t really get Me too far. You always seemed to have the upper hand. So let’s not argue about My humble opinion that your humility deserves to be recognized in some profound way. Instead, I’m going to let you in on My plans for you.
And Moses responded in words, saying: Okay, I guess. I suppose since You think I’m so special I shouldn’t be too concerned about hearing what You have to say. But I just have a funny feeling that I’m not going to be very happy.
And divine matter came to Moses, as if to say: Well, here’s the thing. I’m not quite sure yet whether you’ll like this or not. Actually, I’m not even quite sure how My plan is going to play out. See, I know you need to be segregated in some fashion from these folks you and I have taken to calling a People (whatever that means). Let’s talk about how that might work.
And Moses responded in words, saying: Wait, what? Maybe years ago I wasn’t wild about spending too much time with all these people. But I’ve gotten to like them being around, coming by to ask me questions, even yelling at me sometimes. Even if my place on the org chart is going to change, just what do you mean by me being “segregated” from them?
And divine matter came to Moses, as if to say: First of all, you shouldn’t be too surprised to learn that I don’t appreciate it when the likes of you (even with all your specialness) can’t find yourself able to follow some pretty straightforward instructions for doing your job. Part of your job is being a good leader and if you can’t lead the way I tell you to, why should I let your followers follow at too close a distance? You do remember how you messed up on that score, yes? But perhaps more importantly, you’re right if you’re suggesting that I find it a challenge to figure out just how to structure your future.
And Moses responded in words, saying: So You know You want to see a change in my life, but are looking for input on what exactly that should look like. Given that You seem to be thinking that the change involves me living in some way apart from my buddies and colleagues but that maybe You haven’t worked out all the details, I suppose the good news is that You’ll need to think on this for a while so I can just go on about my business.
And divine matter came to Moses, as if to say: Hold on. Not so fast, buddy. Remember what I said about tantalizing you? I do know that you’re going to say bye-bye to your friends and family as they get ready to march off to the place that you’ve thought for a while you might get to someday. And I also know that as you get ready to take your leave, you’re going to look at them longingly and wistfully. But I would like your thoughts about what that’s actually going to involve. How do you want this drama to end?
And Moses responded in words, saying: If You want me to help You out, I think You’ll need to help me out a little bit. Can you give me a context for your question? A context that explains why it might come to be that all my efforts over the past several decades aren’t going to be wrapped up the way I’ve always hoped they would?
And divine matter came to Moses, as if to say: Sure. Let’s try it this way. I know it freaks you out — you, with your time-bound consciousness — when I start talking about things that haven’t happened yet, but consider this. A bunch of years down the road, there’ll be a fellow who will occupy a position that in some ways parallels yours: Jewish leader, feels a closeness to Me, profound thinker, experiences the angst of moral challenge (but his challenges totally put yours to shame). Some creative and beautiful poetry is going to be ascribed to him, and I’d like your help in interpreting one of his lines.
And Moses responded in words, saying: Right. So now the role of literary critic is being added to my job responsibilities even though I’ve hardly ever had a chance to study works by authors limited by ordinary human existence. And at the same time, no less, you’re taking the wind completely out of the sails of my life. Not sure what this can have to do with my future, but what are the words?
And divine matter came to Moses, as if to say: I’ll ignore the sarcasm. There’s a line in one of the poems (if you must know, it’s going to be referred to once it’s written as Psalms 116:15) that goes like this. “Dear in divine eyes is the death of the righteous.” I’m trying to figure out whether the dearness that’s invoked in the verse means that the poet thinks that I view the death of the righteous as being precious or as being costly. And it seems I’m not alone in my conundrum. Some of the folks who will interpret this line are going to suggest that the death of the righteous is difficult for Me, and others will think that I view it as being valuable in some way.
And Moses responded in words, saying: Hmm. I’m not really liking the turn this conversation is taking. I don’t really think of myself as such a righteous fellow but I know You tend to think highly of me, so I gather this has something to with my death. And that’s even though — feel this bicep — I’m pretty vigorous for someone who’s been around for way more than a century. But I guess if You ask a question, I kind of have to answer.
And divine matter came to Moses, as if to say: Yup.
And Moses responded in words, saying: So the question, I take it, goes something like this. Do You want to be perceived as Someone with an urge to pluck the righteous from this world, maybe to bring them closer to You? Or is the divide between the heavens and the earth so great that taking the righteous from this world will result in a fundamental loss to the world that You created?
And divine matter came to Moses, as if to say: Yup.
And Moses responded in words, saying: And let me guess how that might apply to me. You want to know whether my separation from my people should involve my looking at them marching off to the promised land and settling in on this hill for the long haul, watching them along with You, as it were, as they get ready to fight their battles and live their lives, or whether I’ll find myself taken from this world in a flash.
And divine matter came to Moses, as if to say: You do catch on quickly.
And Moses responded in words, saying: I perceive a bit of a tension there. I can’t tell You that I’m certain how to resolve it, but I will say this. However You decide to treat me, please, please remember that I’m human. I ask You — no, I beseech You from the bottom of my heart to please act towards me as You would act towards any other human.
And the first leader of the Jewish people was treated in death as he was in life: as a human being who because of his moral instincts; because of his curiosity; because of his complicated relationships with his various family members; because of his dedication to his people; because he allowed those people a degree of free reign and, as if to demonstrate his ultimate humanity, was able to control their misdirection only to a limited degree; and because of his own small degree of human frailty, he was a creature of the trail he blazed for himself, a human of no fixed address: “Nobody has known where he lies in death even until today.” Deutoronomy 34:6.