How God gently guides Moshe to reconcile with death
Imagine for a moment a conversation between God and a great world leader who was just informed that it was time for him to depart this world. Perhaps the leader would plead that their nation can’t function without them. They are loved by the masses who will be distraught and directionless without them. Or, they have so much more to accomplish and no one else can fill their shoes.
Moshe said none of this. In fact he pleaded with God to appoint a new leader.
However, Moshe did very much want to enter the land of Israel – or at least be buried there. After all, it was the goal of his travels and travails for the last 40 years. To that end, Moshe tried many different arguments. Perhaps his most creative approach was to use the laws of slavery in an attempt to secure his freedom
According to Midrash Tanchuma, Moshe notes that God affectionately referred to him as His servant which means, of course, that God is his Master.
לֹא־כֵ֖ן עַבְדִּ֣י מֹשֶׁ֑ה “Not so with My servant Moshe…” (Exodus 21;5)
The Torah clearly states that a servant can choose to remain with his master forever and not go free:
וְאִם־אָמֹ֤ר יֹאמַר֙ הָעֶ֔בֶד אָהַ֙בְתִּי֙ אֶת־אֲדֹנִ֔י אֶת־אִשְׁתִּ֖י וְאֶת־בָּנָ֑י לֹ֥א אֵצֵ֖א חָפְשִֽׁי׃וְהִגִּישׁ֤וֹ אֲדֹנָיו֙ אֶל־הָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים וְהִגִּישׁוֹ֙ אֶל־הַדֶּ֔לֶת א֖וֹ אֶל־הַמְּזוּזָ֑ה וְרָצַ֨ע אֲדֹנָ֤יו אֶת־אָזְנוֹ֙ בַּמַּרְצֵ֔עַ וַעֲבָד֖וֹ לְעֹלָֽם׃
“But if the servant declares, “I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free. His master shall take him before the Judge. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall then remain his servant for life.” (Exodus 21:5-6)
Thus Moshe declares his love for God, His Torah, and His children, so he does not wish to leave this world.
To counter Moshe’s claim, Midrash Tanchuma picks up on Moshe’s slave analogy in the context of the finality of death:
שֶׁאֲפִלּוּ לְקָחוֹ רַבּוֹ בְּאֶלֶף אַלְפֵי דִּינְרֵי זָהָב, כֵּיוָן שֶׁיַּגִּיעַ קִצּוֹ לָמוּת, אֵינוֹ יָכֹל לוֹמַר עַבְדִּי אַתָּה, אֶלָּא נַעֲשֶׂה חָפְשִׁי מֵאֲדוֹנָיו.
“Even if his master bought him (his slave) for thousands and thousands of gold coins, once (the slave’s) time to die has come, he (the Master) cannot say, “He is my slave,” but rather he becomes free from his master.” (Iyov 3:19) (Midrash Tanchuma Vaetchanan 6:1)
Seeking to end the discussion, God reminds Moshe that once Adam sinned he brought death (mortality) to all of Mankind, including Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. When Moshe’s appeals were unsuccessful he attempted to solicit the intervention of Heaven and Earth, stars and planets, mountains and hills, the Great Sea, even an angel. All to no avail.
The emotional conclusion to a love story
In his final plea to God, Moshe asks if he could give up his leadership role and simply be one of Yehoshua’s students. God agrees. Since Moshe had already transferred his divine spirit, the Midrash shares a dramatic sequence in which Moshe attends a lecture by Yehoshua:
וְלֹא הָיָה יוֹדֵעַ מֹשֶׁה מֶה הָיָה יְהוֹשֻׁעַ דּוֹרֵשׁ. אַחַר שֶׁעָמְדוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל מִיְּשִׁיבָה, אָמְרוּ לְמֹשֶׁה, פָּרֵשׁ לָנוּ אֶת הַתּוֹרָה. אָמַר לָהֶם: אֵינִי יוֹדֵעַ מָה אָשִׁיב לָכֶם.… בְּאוֹתָהּ שָׁעָה אָמַר מֹשֶׁה, רִבּוֹן הָעוֹלָמִים, עַד עַכְשָׁו בִּקַּשְׁתִּי חַיִּים, וְעַכְשָׁו הֲרֵי נַפְשִׁי נְתוּנָה לְךָ.
“… Moshe did not know what Yehoshua was expounding. Afterwards the Jews… said to Moshe,‘(Explain) the Torah we have just heard.’ He said to them, ‘I do not know what to answer you.’ … It was at that time that Moshe said, ‘Master of the universe, up to now I requested life, but now here is my soul given over to You.”’ (Ibid)
God got Moshe to realize on his own that once his primary role as a teacher was completed, he had little left to offer his people.
The tables are turned
When Moshe finally accepts his imminent death, it’s God’s turn to mourn.
פָּתַח הַקָּבָּ”ה וְאָמַר, מִי יָקוּם לִי עִם מְרֵעִים (תהלים צד, טז). מִי יַעֲמֹד לְיִשְׂרָאֵל בִּשְׁעַת כַּעֲסִי, וּמִי יַעֲמֹד בְּמִלְחַמְתָּן שֶׁל בָּנַי, מִי יְבַקֵּשׁ רַחֲמִים עֲלֵיהֶם בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁחוֹטְאִין לְפָנַי.
“The Holy One, Blessed Be He, opened by saying ’Who will stand for Me against evildoers? Who will stand for Israel in the time of My wrath? Who will stand in the battle of My children? And who will stand and seek mercy for them, when they sin before Me?”’ (Psalms 94:16) (Ibid)
The final moments
Midrash Tanchuma provides the final conversation between Moshe and the Jewish People. Perhaps it’s so moving because it sounds like the parting words every parent hopes to have the courage to say to their children before they leave this world. And the compassionate response every parent would want to receive in return:
אָמַר לָהֶם לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, הַרְבֵּה צִעַרְתִּי אֶתְכֶם עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הַמִּצְוֹת, וְעַכְשָׁו מַחֲלוּ לִי. אָמְרוּ לֵיהּ, רַבֵּנוּ אֲדוֹנֵנוּ מָחוּל הוּא לָךְ. אַף יִשְׂרָאֵל עָמְדוּ עָלָיו וְאָמְרוּ לוֹ: מֹשֶׁה רַבֵּנוּ, הַרְבֵּה הִכְעַסְנוּךָ וְהִרְבֵּינוּ עָלֶיךָ טֹרַח, מְחֹל לָנוּ. אָמַר לָהֶם: מָחוּל לָכֶם. בָּאוּ וְאָמְרוּ לוֹ: הִגִּיעַ רֶגַע שֶׁאַתָּה נִפְטָר מִן הָעוֹלָם. אָמַר, בָּרוּךְ שְׁמוֹ חַי וְקַיָּם לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד. אָמַר לְיִשְׂרָאֵל בְּבַקָּשָׁה מִכֶּם כְּשֶׁתִּכָּנְסוּ לָאָרֶץ זִכְרוּ אוֹתִי וְאֶת עַצְמוֹתַי, וְתֹאמְרוּ אוֹי לְבֶן עַמְרָם שֶׁרָץ לְפָנֵינוּ כְּסוּס וְנָפְלוּ עַצְמוֹתָיו בַּמִּדְבָּר. בָּאוּ וְאָמְרוּ לוֹ: הִגִּיעַ חֲצִי רֶגַע. נָטַל שְׁתֵּי יָדָיו וְהִנִּיחָן עַל לִבּוֹ, וְאָמַר לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, רְאוּ אַחֲרִיתוֹ שֶׁל בָּשָׂר וָדָם עָנוּ וְאָמְרוּ יָדַיִם שֶׁקִּבְּלוּ אֶת הַתּוֹרָה מִפִּי הַגְּבוּרָה, יִפְּלוּ בַּקֶּבֶר. בְּאוֹתוֹ רֶגַע, יָצָאת נִשְׁמָתוֹ בִּנְשִׁיקָה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וַיָּמָת שָׁם מֹשֶׁה וְגוֹ'(דברים לד, ה). וְלֹא נִתְעַסְּקוּ בִּקְבוּרָתוֹ לֹא יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלֹא הַמַּלְאָכִים, אֶלָּא הַקָּבָּ”ה,
“(Moshe was informed) the hour has arrived to depart from the world.” He said to the nation of Israel, ‘I have caused you much grief over the Torah and over the commandments, but now
forgive me.’ They said to him, ‘Our lord master, you are forgiven.’ Israel also arose before him and said to him, ‘Oh Moshe our master, we have angered you a lot and increased the burden upon you. Forgive us.’ He said to them, ‘You are forgiven.’ (Moshe was informed) the moment has arrived to depart from the world. He said, ‘Blessed be the name of the One who lives and abides forever.’ He said to Israel, ‘If you please, when you enter the land, remember me and my bones, and you shall say, ‘Woe to the son of Amram, who ran before us like a horse but whose bones have fallen in the wilderness.’ (Moshe was informed) the half moment has arrived. He took his two arms and placed them on his heart. Then he said to Israel, ‘See the final end of flesh and blood.’ They answered and said, ‘The hands which received the Torah from the mouth of the Almighty shall fall to the grave.’ At that moment his soul departed with a kiss (from the Holy One, Blessed Be He) …Now (the ones who) took care of his burial were neither Israel nor the angels but God [Himself]…’” (Ibid)
Can our final chapter be anything like this
Perhaps this is a story of what every human should be praying for. That God guides us in the course of life to finally come to an understanding of what really matters. What our mission was, what we achieved and how to reconcile with death.
Moshe realized that his essential role was that of “Moshe Rabeinu” the teacher of the Jewish People who faithfully transmitted God’s message to the Jewish People and the world.
It seems to me there’s another message to this story as well. Midrash Tanchuma is presenting the final scene of the extraordinarily close relationship between a man and God. It’s true that Moshe had the highest degree of prophecy that will ever be achieved. However, can we at least strive for a relationship with God in which our prayers are as deep, emotional, and real. Can we feel close enough to God that our prayers express our innermost hopes and dreams. And yes, our downfalls and defeats.