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This day I breathed first: time is come round. And where I did begin there shall I end. My life is run his compass.
– Shakespeare, “Julius Caesar”
This week’s Torah reading is the shortest in the Torah, consisting of a mere 30 verses. What it lacks in length, it makes up for in drama.
“Be strong and be courageous,” Moses exhorts the Israelites (Deut. 31:6). Moses is preparing to take his leave of his people. For forty years he has led them, taught them, interpreted God’s word for them, interceded with God on their behalf – defending them when they were at their very worst and defying God by offering himself up in their place. This is Moses’ overriding message. Be strong and courageous. Do not be awed by life’s challenges and do not fear, because the Lord your God who is going along with you will not forsake you and will not abandon you.
In the context of the book of Deuteronomy, this exhortation is perhaps more frightening than it is reassuring.
The notion of being the Chosen People is so often misunderstood, perhaps more by Jews than by the non-Jewish world. We are not chosen for special gifts and privileges; we are singled out to be held to a higher standard. The Torah tells us repeatedly that it is our obligation to be a light to the nations (see, e.g., Is. 49:6), a kingdom of priests and a holy people (Ex. 19:6). All the nations of the world will be blessed through our relationship with God (Gen. 12:3). This is a lot to carry, which may be why so many reject it.
In last week’s reading, Moses announces that “today” is the day of his birth: “I am one hundred and twenty years old today, I can no longer go out and come, and God has said to me, ‘You will not cross this Jordan’” (31:2).
Why is the date of Moses’ death important, and why does he die on his birthday?
It is a fundamental religious notion that God’s time is not human time. Time itself does not exist until God creates it. The created cosmos is the world of space, time, and motion, all of which require each other in order to exist. Planted at a focal point within the cosmos, we humans are the observers that make all these have meaning. In this way – and with this gift – God makes us partners in Creation. And when God’s plan for us is fulfilled, we leave this plane of the cosmos to continue our partnership on another plane.
The notion of God’s omnipotence does not clash with the idea of human freedom of choice. We often use the term “free will,” which is misleading. It is more accurate to say free choice, because most of the time we face binary either/or decisions. Our lives are bound by conditions, and our actions are determined by the set of choices we face each moment. And the choices we face in the moment are nothing more than the result of the choices we have made in the past.
God demands that we act now. Not that we be perfect – but we are not permitted to cease trying to attain perfection. We follow the string of choices in our lives, making a decision-tree pattern as each choice leads to further sets of choices. If we choose right, our choice-making can bring us to a result that corresponds to God’s plan for us. This must be viewed as a successful life.
What kind of life did Moses live? Let us recognize first that he was born to die. Moses was born in Egypt under Pharaoh’s decree that all newborn boys be strangled on the birthstool. When the midwives did not comply, Pharaoh decreed that newborn boys be thrown into the river. Thus, Moses was slated to die on the day he was born. Instead, he is hidden for three months, after which he is committed to the uncertain care of the Nile, where he is rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter.
Moses’ first act as a mature youth is to kill an Egyptian – for which Pharaoh orders Moses put to death (Ex. 2:11–15). Moses flees to Midian, where he settles and becomes a shepherd. All is peaceful until God calls to him at the burning bush where, oddly, Moses does not object that he can’t return to Egypt because there is a price on his head. It is not until after he has not only consented to go, but publicly announced his intention, that God tells Moses he is no longer in danger (Ex. 4:19).
Moses is fearless. Perhaps he possesses the fearlessness of one born with the knowledge that life is but an instant. That the day of our birth may as well be the day of our death; that so many souls never are brought into the world at all. And that so many perish so quickly.
Moses fearlessly defends the covenant between God and Israel in the face of God’s outbursts of rage. Stand aside, God says over and over, and I will destroy them. This comes to a head after the sin of the Golden Calf. At Exodus 32:32, in the face of God’s threatening to destroy the people yet again, Moses says, “If that’s what You plan to do, then please erase me from the book You have written!” And God relents. There are many ways of stating this principle: you have nothing to live for until you recognize what you are prepared to die for.
But Moses goes one giant step further, because he accepts the leadership position that is thrust on him, not because he wants it (he doesn’t) and not because, once having tasted power, he relishes it and can’t relinquish it. But because, having accepted it, this is now his responsibility, and Moses fully embraces the responsibility he has accepted.
Now, coming to the end of his own story, Moses is indeed vanishing from God’s Book.
Moses was given his name by Pharaoh’s daughter, who spoke ancient Egyptian, not Hebrew. The name by which our leader is known to us, the political leader who created this nation in earthly terms – as surely as God formed us spiritually – is not his actual name. His earthly, given name is hidden from us, lost forever.
Similarly, we read that Moses is buried in a place in the land of Moab, “and no one knows his grave to this day” (34:6). The request Moses makes of God is fulfilled: he has been erased from the Torah. Why? Perhaps to emphasize that it was not Moses; it was never about him. Rather, it was God who walked at our side all those years – and we never even acknowledged it. We were never aware.
Moses dies on his birthday. It is as though he has vanished, the film has been run backwards, from Moses’ last day, to the hour before his birth. As though he had never been born. It is difficult to imagine that Moses, of all people, did not lead a life that fulfilled God’s destiny for him. And so perhaps it was a blessing, and not a curse. Perhaps God rewound time for his sake. Instead of perishing, by human decree, on the very day he was born, Moses lives for 120 years, saves the Hebrew people from slavery, brings God’s Torah into the world, and forges a pack of miserable slaves into the nation of Israel. But the puny human power to issue a decree is not to be taken lightly. With a gap of 120 years, Moses was one of many newborn Hebrew boys slated for extermination on the day of his birth.
The account has finally come due.
Be strong and courageous, Moses exhorts the people. I shall die, he says, but do not be afraid. In reality, it is God who is walking with you, who has been walking with you all along. I am no more than the middleman.
Moses’ greatness emerges in his unflinching ability to put his entire life into the task assigned him. Not a task he chose, and certainly not one that he asked for. But once he saw the duty devolving on himself, he took it up and carried it through with all his might.
One final thought. There is Midrashic literature explaining the special significance of Moses dying on his birthday. Because the fixed limit of human existence is 120 years and Moses reached it, the time has come for him to die. But this is his actual birthday, which means he has lived for 120 years and one day. There is a special blessing set aside for those rare righteous ones who merit a unique measure of God’s grace. What we do in this life determines the extent and the quality of the reward we receive in the life to come, but none of us can know what that reward shall be. And thus we fear death. Moses’ lifespan, as dictated by the Torah, came to its end the day before, with the completion of his 120th year. His afterlife, his death, will ensue the following day. This extra day is the unique gift of God granting Moses one day when he can experience his reward of the world to come, while still inhabiting this world.
We must strive to fully embrace our responsibilities, the ones we have asked for, and also the ones we never wanted. We are measured by how we respond to getting what we want. Are we gracious winners? Do we recognize that blessings come to us, not because of our merit, but in order that we will strive to merit them? We are measured too by how we deal with burdens that come unbidden upon us, and which we are nonetheless powerless to dispose of. When the film of our life is run back to its beginning, what story will it have told?
Yours for a better world.