We are all human, even Moshe

It is no secret that Moshe is the most revered figure in the Jewish tradition. Rambam (Maimonides) codified this well-worn truth in his Thirteen Principles of Faith: “…he is the father of all the prophets before him and that those who came after him were all beneath him on rank. He was chosen by God from all of the human kind. He comprehended more of God than any man in the past or future ever comprehended or will comprehend…” (The Seventh Principle of Faith, Commentary to the Mishnah, Perek Hakhelek)

The Torah seems to be emphatical in maintaining Moshe’s human status. This idea is critical to its monotheistic message. Still, considering Moshe’s heroic status, it is not hard to see why some readers of the last few lines of the Torah might want to see in them ambiguity regarding whether Moshe actually died: “And Moshe, the Lord’s servant died there in the land of Moab by the word of the Lord (al pi HaShem). And he was buried in the glen in the land of Moab… and no man has known his burial place to this day… His eyes had not grown bleary and his sap had not fled…” (Deuteronomy 34:5-7)

On the one hand, the Torah clearly states that Moshe died, but what is meant by the words “al pi HaShem”, literally, “by the mouth of God”. Similarly, why is it that no one knows his place of burial? Why was it necessary for the Torah to tell us that “his (Moshe’s) eyes had not grown bleary and his sap had not fled” and also, if the Torah is truly Torat Moshe – the Torah of Moshe, who wrote the lines concerning Moshe’s death? Complicating the story even further is the fact that there were other biblical characters, namely, Enosh (Enoch) and Eliyahu (Elijah) seemed from the biblical telling to have avoided death. So why not Moshe?

These factors seemed to have fueled a debate among the sages, captured in this midrash from the period of the Mishnah:

So, Moshe . . . died there (34:5): Is it possible that Moshe died and yet himself wrote: ‘So Moses died there?’ Rather, Moses wrote everything until this point, and from here on Joshua wrote the rest. Rabbi Meir objected: “Scripture says, ‘And Moses wrote this Torah’ (31:9); is it possible that Moses would have given the Torah while it lacked even a single letter? Rather, this shows that Moses wrote what the Holy One, blessed be He told him to write…’ Rabbi Eliezer says: “A heavenly voice went forth from within the camp for twelve miles in every direction proclaiming, ‘Moses is dead,’ Others say: ‘Moses never died, and he stands and serves on high, as is shown in this verse and in the verse, And, he was there with the Lord (Exod. 34:2) (Sifre Devarim 357:5, Finkelstein ed. pp. 427-8)

Moshe is the paradigm of what the famed sociologist of religion, Max Weber, called the “charismatic leader”, since he founded the religious nation and prophetically brought the nation to align with God’s message. (See M. Weber, The Sociology of Religion, ch. 4) This raised Moshe to a unique status which had the potential for his followers to elevate him to a status which would have been religiously problematic since people yearn for tangible salvific leadership and Moshe clearly fit that role. It is therefore unsurprising why people might assume that Moshe, like a deity, would not die, searching out clues in the text of the Torah which might allude to that. It is also quite understandable why the Torah emphasized both Moshe’s humanity and his mortality, ensuring that it was very clear that human beings do not and cannot become divine.

This message should not be lost on moderns who sometimes have a penchant for latching on to religious leaders and political leaders as if they have an elevated status. The Torah’s response is clear! If Moshe could not achieve such a status, clearly, no one else even comes close to being worthy.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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