Imagine for a moment a conversation between G-d and a great world leader who was just informed that it was time to depart this world. Perhaps they would say that their nation can’t function as well 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. Our Parsha makes it clear why Moshe wants to live on:
“Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon.”
Moshe wants to see the beautiful land that has been promised to the Jewish People. One of the goals of the mission he reluctantly accepted forty plus years ago.
Moshe did not take the approach that he deserved some sort of pay back for his efforts on behalf of the Jewish people despite being a devoted messenger and servant of God. As the Midrash points out, Moshe chose the word “Vaetchanan” – “I beseeched” – which is from the root word “Chinam” – for nothing. Moshe realized that he is asking to get something for free. A favor. Because G-d doesn’t owe him anything.
The Midrash describes an emotional conversation between Moshe and the Jewish People before he dies.
But let’s first cover an amazing array of arguments that, according to Midrash Tanchuma, Moshe used to try to delay his death so he could cross into the Land of Israel.
Moshe’s first plea as presented by Midrash Tanchuma is certainly the hardest to fathom. Moshe recounts the fate of great people who seemingly suffered the same end as notoriously wicked people. With the final example being the Spies who died for maligning the Land of Israel. While Moshe, who praised the land, shares the same fate of the spies. He too will die and never enter the land.
Moshe seems to level a terrible accusation at G-d – born from the pain of Job: (9;22)
“If so, everything is the same for You. You destroy ‘the innocent and the wicked.”
Considering that a fundamental of Judaism is reward and punishment for our deeds in this world and the next, this argument is simply incomprehensible. Yet G-d’s reaction to this severe accusation was simply:
“…You shall not go across the Jordan (River).” – Deuteronomy 3:27
Moshes next argument was that he was not someone whose downfall came from haughtiness and arrogance as King Solomon noted in Ecclesiastes (9:11)
“I have further observed under the sun that the race is not won by the swift, nor the battle by the valiant; Nor sustenance by the wise, Nor wealth by the intelligent, Nor winning favor by the learned. For everyone has their downfall.”
(Interestingly, Midrash Tanchuma sites as an example of “Nor sustenance by the wise” the very author of this proverb, King Solomon. According to several Midrashic sources, King Solomon was temporarily deposed from the throne by a look-alike demon. G-d had to provide for the king’s sustenance as he wandered his kingdom trying to convince people that he was really the king).
According to Midrash Tanchuma, Moshe now takes a creative approach to beseech G-d. He constructs his case based on Biblical verses. Moshe notes that G-d affectionately referred to him as His slave (Exodus 21;5) which means, of course, that G-d is his Master.
“Not so with My servant Moses…”
The Torah clearly states that a slave can choose to remain with his master forever and not go free:
But if the slave 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 slave for life.” (Exodus 21;5-6)
Thus Moshe argues, I hereby declare that I love You (G-d), Your Torah and Your children so I don’t wish this leave this world.
Midrash Tanchuma picks up on Moshe’s slave analogy by quoting Job (3:19) concerning the finality of death:
“The small and the great are there, and the slave is free from his master.” 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.”
Seeking to end the discussion, G-d 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 attempts to solicit the intervention of Heaven and Earth, stars and planets, mountains and hills, the Great Sea, even an angel. All to no avail.
G-d helps Moshe embrace his death
In his final plea to G-d, Moshe asks if he could give up his leadership role and simply be one of Joshua’s students. G-d agrees. Since Moshe had already transferred his divine spirit to Joshua, he quickly realized that his primary role as a teacher was completed and he had little left to offer his people.
“So he (Joshua) sat and expounded in the presence of Moses.… Now Moses did not know what Joshua was expounding. Afterwards the Jews… said to Moses, “(Explain) the Torah we have just heard.” He said to them, “I do not know what to answer you.” So Moses our master was stumbling and falling. It was at that time that he said, “Master of the universe, up to now I requested life, but now here is my soul given over to You.”
The tables are turned
When Moshe finally accepts his imminent death, it’s G-d’s turn to mourn.
Then when he had resigned himself to death, the Holy One, blessed Be He, opened by saying (Psalms 94:16) “’Who will stand for Me2 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?”
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.
(Moshe was informed) ‘“the hour has arrived for your soul 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, “O Moses 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 for you 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) as stated (Deuteronomy 34:5), “Then Moses (the servant of the Lord])died there (in the Land of Moab at the command of the Lord (literally, by the mouth of the Lord)].” Now (the ones who) took care of his burial were neither Israel nor the angels but the Holy One, Blessed Be He, [Himself], as stated (in vs. 6), “Then He (the Holy One, Blessed Be He,) buried him (Moses) in the valley (in the Land of Moab).” And for what reason was he buried outside the land? So that those who die when outside the land might (gain the world to come) in his merit”
Perhaps this is story of every human being’s journey through life. Despite the ideals we hold dear, G-d guides us in the course of life to finally come to an understanding of what really matters. For a leader, that means the ability to let go.
But it seems to me there’s another message to this story. Midrash Tanchuma is presenting the final scene of an extraordinarily close relationship with G-d. Perhaps one that we could all aspire to. If our relationship with G-d is real we should be able to express our innermost hopes and dreams.
At the very end of Deuteronomy the Torah sums up the extraordinary nature of the relationship: (Deuteronomy 34:10)
Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses—whom the Lord interacted with, face to face.