“King of the Mountain” VeZot HaBracha 5778

Moshe is about to die. The Torah tells us [Devarim 32:48-49]: “Hashem spoke to Moshe on that very day: ‘Go up this [mountain]… and die on the mountain upon which you are climbing’”. Rashi offers an uncharacteristically wordy explanation: “In three places Scripture employs the phrase ‘on that very day’ [meaning ‘at mid-day’]: First, regarding Noach, Scripture states [Bereishit 7:13], ‘On that very day Noach entered [the ark]’, meaning in the glare of full daylight. Noach’s contemporaries said: ‘If we notice him about to enter the ark, we will not let him proceed! We will break open the ark!’ So Hashem said: ‘I will have Noach enter at midday and let anyone who has the power to prevent it come and prevent it!’ Second, regarding Egypt, Scripture states [Shemot 12:51] ‘On that very day, Hashem brought the Children of Israel out of the Land of Egypt’. The Egyptians said: ‘If we notice them about to leave, we will stop them! We will kill them!’ So Hashem said: ‘I will bring them out in the middle of the day and let anyone who has power to prevent it come and prevent it!’ Likewise here, regarding Moshe’s death, Scripture states, ‘on that very day.’ The Children of Israel said, ‘If we notice Moshe about to die, we will not let him! The man who brought us out of Egypt, split for us the Red Sea, brought us the manna and flocks of quails, brought us the well, and gave us the Torah – we will not let him go!’ So Hashem said: ‘I will bring Moshe to his final resting place in the middle of the day!’”

The Lubavitcher Rebbe asks an obvious question: Noach’s contemporaries and the Egyptians were making real threats and they had the wherewithal to implement their threats. They could have tried using overwhelming force to keep Noach out of the ark and to keep the Jews in Egypt. But how could Am Yisrael have forcefully prevented Moshe’s death? The Rebbe answers that Moshe was commanded to die specifically at the top of Mount Nevo. By preventing Moshe from climbing the mountain they could have prevented his death.

This begs a question: Moshe was commanded no less than four times to climb the mountain before he died: In Parashat Pinchas Hashem tells him [Bemidbar 27:12-13] “Go up to this [mountain] and look at the land that I have given to the Children of Israel. When you have seen it, [you] will be gathered to your people.” After Moshe unsuccessfully prays to rescind the decree that he die in the desert, Hashem orders him [Devarim 3:27]: “Go to the top of the mountain and lift up your eyes westward, northward, southward and eastward and see with your eyes, for you shall not cross this Jordan.” On the last day of Moshe’s life, Hashem commands him [Devarim 32:49-50] “Go up this [mountain]… and die on the mountain upon which you are climbing”. Finally, when Moshe dies we are told [Devarim 34:1-5] “Moshe went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nevo, [to the] top of the summit facing Jericho. Hashem showed him all the Land… Then Moshe, the servant of Hashem, died there”. Why was it so integral to Moshe’s death that it occur at the top of a mountain?

Prima facie, it seems perfectly logical for Moshe to want to climb the mountain, a spot that gives him a perfect vantage point from which to see the Land of Israel, a land that he craves but a land that he will never enter. Seeing the land offers Moshe a modicum of consolation – if he can’t enter the land at least he can see its vistas. But seeing the land also reinforces his punishment: he will never live his dream. He can see it but he can’t touch it. It is tempting to picture Moshe standing on the mountain top looking wistfully beyond the Jordan River, perhaps with a tear running down his eye. Camera fade to black… But while this is the stuff of which movies are made, it flies in the face of everything we know about Moshe. The Torah tells us that Moshe died with all of his faculties and all of his strength [Devarim 34:7]: “His eye had not dimmed nor had he lost his [natural] freshness.” The same Moshe Rabbeinu who grew up as a prince in the house of the Pharaoh, who brought Am Yisrael out of Egypt, split for them the Red Sea, brought them the manna and flocks of quails, brought them the well, and gave them the Torah, would not have ended his life riding off into the sunset. His death would have been infused with grandeur. Moshe would not have ended his life like a slowly dying ember giving up one last puff of smoke before going cold. He would have left this world in a supernova.

We can gain some traction with a comment made by the Abarbanel, who mentions that Moshe would climb Mount Nevo every single day. This assertion makes good sense: The nation is camped next to the mountain. Moshe wouldn’t want to wait until the last day of his life to see the Land of Israel for the first and last time. He’d try to spend as much time as he could looking at it. This can help us understand why nobody stopped Moshe from dying by blocking his way up the mountain[1] – apparently the edict to die upon the mountain was known only to Moshe. One day he would take his morning climb up the mountain and not return. The problem with Moshe’s daily climb is that each time he climbed the mountain, he would come face to face with his own defeat. Rav J.B. Soloveichik, writing in Noraos HaRav [16:1], teaches that Moshe’s defeat was existential: “His greatest vision, his most treasured lifelong dream, the primary role which had initially been assigned to him, was denied at the end.” One cannot help but to be stricken with pathos. A sensitive ear can almost hear Moshe repeating the words of Macbeth “Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.” Why, then, would Hashem so badly want Moshe to die at the top of the mountain, that He commands Moshe to climb it four separate times?

The answer goes back to the way that Moshe was going to die. Hashem looked on as Moshe went up the mountain each and every day. Hashem knew that Moshe was too important to die before he was dead and that he had to be as big in death as he was in life. Moshe’s death had to be a statement. And so Hashem forces Moshe up the mountain again and again to see the Land of Israel with his own eyes, not just to stare at it, but, in the words of the Seforno[2], in order to bless it. Moshe had to see the Land of Israel not thorugh his own eyes but, rather, through a national perspective. He had to recognize the intrinsic holiness and value of the land. He had to see himself as a vehicle for taking Am Yisrael to its homeland. Whether or not he entered the land was inconsequential. Before he would be allowed to die, he had to be able to detach himself from the equation by magnanimously blessing the land.

Summoning superhuman spiritual strength, Moshe does indeed bless the land. In the next-to-last verse in his farewell address to Am Yisrael he tells them [Devarim 33:28] “Israel dwelled safely and alone as Yaakov [blessed them], in a land of grain and wine; its heavens will drip dew”. Alone – without me – but in a land blessed with golden fields of wheat, vines laden with grapes, and flowing streams. Moshe concludes with his last mortal words [Devarim 33:29]: “Fortunate are you, O Israel! Who is like you, O people whose salvation is through Hashem, the Shield Who helps you, your majestic Sword! Your enemies will dwindle away before you, and you will tread upon their high places”. To paraphrase Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch: you will climb the mountain of the mortal aspirations of all those who thought that these aspirations could be realized without the help of Hashem. Moshe conquered the mountain, he conquered himself, and by doing so, he completed his last mission on earth.

After blessing the Land of Israel, Moshe, as he must, receives a supernova prophecy [Devarim 34:1-3]: “Hashem showed him all the Land: The Gilead until Dan…” Not only did Hashem miraculously compress the entire land so that Moshe could simultaneously see all of it, but our Sages teach that Hashem also compressed time so that Moshe could see the history of Am Yisrael in the Land of Israel from the day of his death until the last day of recorded time. Moshe accomplished a feat no mortal man could ever do: he witnessed the completion of his earthly mission. And so with unbridled satisfaction he laid down and he died.


Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5778

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Tzvi ben Freida.

[1] The Rebbe offers an alternate answer that is not relevant to this shiur.

[2] Devarim [34:6]

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.