“So Moshe the servant of the Lord died there, in the land of Moav, at the command of the Lord,” (Devarim 34:5).
I have to admit, this year as I read through the final words of the Torah, I got a little choked up. We’ve followed Moshe’s entire life from birth to death, and for his journey to end in Moav, and not in the Land of Israel, feels quite tragic.
But more than that, Am Yisrael has lost their heroic leader, their redeemer, their prophet, their king. Though Yehoshua is a worthy successor, there is no replacement for Moshe. And as Joni Mitchell sang, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone;” with Moshe’s passing, the nation fully realizes the extent of their loss, and they wept for Moshe for 30 days.
What was the nation lamenting as Moshe walked off stage?
“Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moshe—whom the Lord knew face to face, for the various signs and omens that the Lord sent him to display in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his courtiers and his whole country, and for all the great might and awesome power that Moshe displayed before all Israel,” (Devarim 34, 10-12).
They cried for their spiritual guide, who had a direct line to the Divine. They reminisced about the incredible miracles that Moshe initiated in Egypt, from the 10 Plagues to the Splitting of the Sea. And what was his great might and awesome power? That he guided them through a totally uninhabitable desert and brought down the 10 Commandments from Mt. Sinai.
Though the text doesn’t mention it explicitly, apparently there are more tears being shed in our parsha. In the passage that describes Moshe’s death, the midrash asks a fascinating question: could Moshe write the words, “ Moshe died”?
The midrash raises two possibilities: Maybe Yehoshua wrote this passage along with the last eight verses in the Torah. It raises a second possibility: Moshe wrote them prior to his death. But these words were so painful to write, Moshe cried as he wrote them. I’d like to focus on the second answer of the midrash.
On a simple level, the midrash makes a lot of sense. Wouldn’t you cry if you had to write about your imminent death?
But let’s think a little deeper about this. Why was Moshe crying? Was he feeling a sense of loss or disappointment? Was he filled with sadness because he never entered the Land of Israel? Did he regret his outburst of anger which cost him the opportunity to enter the promised land?
Perhaps. But people cry for many reasons, and sadness is only one of them.
Clinical Psychologist Dr. Ad Vingerhoets in a Ted Talk titled “Why do only Humans Weep,” said, “So, adults not only cry in negative situations, such as losses, failures and helplessness, but also in opposite, positive situations, e.g., the intensification of relationships, all kinds of prosocial behaviors, and exceptional performances.”
Perhaps the tears of Moshe moments before his passing were not tears of despair, but rather tears of contentment and joy. Moshe looked at the nation standing poised to inherit the promised land; he, more than anyone, knows where they came from, and what it took to get them here. As he took one last look at them, he was filled with relief; his task was completed successfully. The failures along the way only make this historic moment all the sweeter, and Moshe can now step gracefully off stage.
These two explanations assume that Moshe’s final gaze is pointed at the nation. And though Moshe’s love and dedication for Am Yisrael is undeniable, perhaps his very last moment on Earth was not focused on the Nation, but rather on God.
In Psalm 126, the psalm that is recited before Birkat HaMazon on Shabbat and holidays, the last verse reads:
“Though he walks along with tears, carrying the seed-bag/ he shall come back with songs of joy, carrying his sheaves,” (Psalms 126:7).
The simple reading of the verse describes how the farmer is brought to tears by the anxiety over his seeds; what will happen to them when he plants them in the ground? Will they be lost? But when these seeds bring forth crops, he is then filled with joy.
The Baal Shem Tov has another reading of this verse which relates to our question about Moshe’s tears. He says that if a person feels far from God, i.e., that he is walking away from God, and this fills the person with sadness and tears, then he will be carrying the seed bag, i.e., his sadness will motivate him to work on himself so he can feel close to God. This attitude will bring forth fruit.
But if a person is content and sees himself as close to Hashem, he will become complacent; then in the end he will fall spiritually, and he will only be carrying barren sheaths of wheat with no seeds.
According to this reading, Moshe’s tears are representative of loss. These tears are not focused on the past, but rather on the future. Moshe is walking away from God, whom he knows as well as any person ever could. As he walks toward his end, Moshe cries tears of pain that he will never again speak to his beloved God face to face. The intimacy and connection they shared in this world will be no longer.
And so as he walks away from God, he cries. But as the Baal Shem Tov teaches, these tears will sprout fruit for Moshe in ways we cannot know, and for the nation he guided for 40 years. Even today we are still harvesting the seeds that Moshe planted; the Torah, Torat Moshe, is an eitz chaim, a tree of life, one that flourishes throughout the generations.
Moshe is always and forever our greatest teacher. Even in his last moment, as Moshe turns away one last time, and his face filled with tears, he teaches us that we must always strive to grow closer to God, no matter who we are. The opportunity to do so is the sweetness of life that will produce fruit not only for our own efforts, but for those who will come after us.