As Sefer Devrarim winds down, so does Moshe’s life: “And the Lord said Moshe, ‘Look, your time to die has drawn near…” (Deuteronomy 31:14) The end of life is a time for introspection and retrospection and, in the Jewish tradition, the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) is renowned for just this task, as we can see in this verse: “I returned to see under the sun that not to the swift is the race and not the mighty, the battle, nor to the wise, bread, nor to the discerning, wealth, nor to those who know, favor, for a time of mishap will befall them all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:11) This rather bleak outlook likely refers to death and its intension is not to assert that life is without victories but rather that all human triumphs are ephemeral and consequently illusory. (Robert Alter in a note translation on this verse)
In the following midrash the above verse is used as an interface following verse to take a journey through Moshe’s life:
What is meant by ‘swift in the race’? Said Rabbi Tanhuma: This reference is talking about Moshe, how just yesterday he ascending to the heavens like an eagle but now he has to plead to cross the Jordan River and in not allowed…; ‘Nor the mighty in battle‘ – just yesterday angels shook in fear before him (Moshe) but not ‘for I (Moshe) fear dread and anger’ (Deuteronomy 9:19) [Dread and anger are understood here to be the names of angels.]; ‘Nor to the wise, bread’ – Just yesterday ‘One wise man prevailed over a city of warriors and brought down its mighty stronghold’ (Proverbs 21:22), but now, Moshe’s authority was taken from him and given over to Yehoshua ben Nun; ‘Nor to the discerning, wealth’– Moshe spoke with the authority of a rich man [even to God]…, but now, ‘ I (Moshe) pleaded with God’ (Deuteronomy 3:23)…; ‘Nor to those who know, favor’ – Just yesterday, Moshe know how to appease his Creator…, but now, when he pleaded for seven days (the last days of his life), in the end, the Holy One Blessed be He said to him, ‘Look, your time to die has drawn near.’ (Adapted from Tanhuma Vayelekh 2)
Inevitably, we all need to deal with our mortality and for no one was this more of a test than for Moshe. One day, he was the most significant person in the world and the very next day, he was forced to face that even his importance was ephemeral. Yes, even Moshe lived on “borrowed time”. This message might seem to be reason for despair, but there is another way to look at it. Since this midrash tells us that even Moshe could not escape the ways of the world, its message is that each of us, even Moshe, need to appreciate the significance of each moment of life and to live life to the fullest – to make it count – to make our mark – to leave an impression.
These days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a time to weigh our options and to make sure that the mark we leave on the world, whether it be with those with whom we come into immediate contact or, on a larger scale, counts, and that this impression will be a favorable in the eyes of others and in the eyes of God.