Petirat Moshe – Letting Go

“The Death of Moses” by Alexandre Cabanel

So Moses the servant of the Lord died there, in the land of Moab, at the command of the Lord. He buried him in the valley of Moab, near Beit Peor; and no one knows his burial place to this day. (Deuteronomy 34:5-6)

Readers of the Torah often comment on the seeming unfairness of God’s decree that Moses must die before he can enter the Promised Land. But when we reach the final verses of the Torah, the tone feels anything but untimely or tragic. Rather, God’s treatment of Moses in his final moments hints at a spirit of love and tenderness.

Commentators have made much of the words “al pi adonai” – “at the command of the Lord,” which literally means “at the mouth of the Lord.” In the midrashic imagination, this verse is commonly read: “Moses died…at the kiss of God.” Some have pointed out the poignant symmetry of this image: just as God breathes life into the first human, God reclaims Moses’ soul with through a similar loving act.

The portrayal of God personally “burying” Moses is equally as powerful. The stark anthropomorphism of this verse is striking in the way it invites us to identify with this sacred act of kindness. The mitzvah of burying the dead, in fact, comes from this text. According to halacha, burial of the dead is one of our most sacred mitzvot in Jewish tradition, since it is performed with the knowledge that it cannot possibly be “repaid” by the recipient.

God’s care for Moses in the final days of his life is described in great detail in a famous midrash known as Petirat Moshe. At the end of this classic rabbinic text, God and the angels guide Moses, in a sense, through his final dying process. For his part, Moses seems to almost go through the various Kubler-Ross phases as he pleads with God for his life: i.e., anger, bargaining, denial, and finally, of course, acceptance. Among other things, this midrash powerfully portrays the gamut of Moses’ emotions from the sense of unfairness to his final moment of letting go

When I read this Torah portion a few weeks ago, I remembered that I actually wrote a contemporary rendering of Petirat Moshe in 1992, during my final year of rabbinical school. Here it is below – I’ll resist the intense urge to change and tweak the language of a young rabbinical student and offer it just as it appeared thirty years ago:

By the time Moshe and the Children of Israel reached the Jordan River, it had already been decreed that Moshe should die before he reached the Promised Land. Moshe had already known this, of course, but up until this point he had been a master of denial. Between the sealing of his decree and his arrival at the threshold, there had been too much to do; too much to think about. Anyway, how could such an awful prospect possibly be true?

When Moshe reached the river’s edge, however, God revealed the full extent of the decree. There, with the Land almost in sight, the pain was too much for him to bear. He had been a faithful servant of the Holy One for most of his adult life. He had led the Israelites out of slavery, kept them alive in the wilderness, taught them the way of Torah, judged their disputes. Now, with the Promised Land within reach, he was being cruelly denied. He was not ready to die! How could God deny him the glorious moment of entrance into the Land of Israel? Or even a glimpse?

Moshe finally cracked. He drew a small circle, stood inside it, and looked defiantly out into the expanse of the desert before him. “I will not move from this spot until You revoke my decree of death.” Then Moshe put on sackcloth and ashes and prayed fervently. His plea for his life was so powerful that it penetrated the highest heavens and the deepest foundations of the earth.

Moshe’s powerful prayer was so moving that it caused the angels in the celestial courts of justice to weep for him. But the Holy One said the no angel was to bring Moshe’s prayer before God, because his death decree had already been sealed. God called on the angel Akraziel, the celestial herald, and told him, “Go down immediately and lock every gate in heaven so that Moshe’s prayer cannot ascend.”

Moshe continued with his prayer. “Sovereign of the Universe, think of how much I had to suffer for the sake of the Children of Israel! Can it be that I must suffer with them, and not take part in their rejoicing?”

But God replied, “I am sorry. Your decree has been sealed. To everything there is a season, and a time for everything under heaven.”

Then Moshe began to negotiate. “Please. At least allow me to remain just one day in the Promised Land before I die.”

God held firm. “It cannot be. The decree has been sealed.”

“Well, if I am not to enter the Land, would you at least allow me to gaze upon it before I die?”

But God replied, “The decree has been sealed.”

When Moshe realized that his prayers were not going to work, he decided to get others to pray on his behalf. He addressed the earth: “O earth, I implore you, plead my case before God. Maybe then the Holy One will take pity on me and allow me to enter the Land of Israel.”

The earth replied, however, “How could I possibly plead on your behalf? I am of dust, just as you. Our fate is the same: ‘Of dust you are, and of dust you will return.'”

Then Moshe asked the heavens, “If you please, implore the Holy One on my behalf.” But the heavens replied, “We’re too busy doing the same for ourselves. After all, it was written about us, ‘The heavens shall vanish like smoke.'”

Moshe asked the sun and moon, the stars and planets, the hills and mountains, the rivers: all the elements of nature, but they were too busy pleading their own case. None would help him out.

Finally, Moshe asked the Reed Sea, who responded sarcastically, “You mean to tell me that you, who were able to wave his staff and slice me into pieces is now asking for my help? Ha! That’s a good one!”

Moshe now grasped the full reality of his aloneness. He sat down in his circle, put his face in his hands, and began to weep.

The Holy One saw Moshe and asked him, “Moshe, why are you so sad? You have known about this decree for a long time.”

Moshe replied, “I am scared.”

The Holy One said, “There is nothing to be scared of, Moshe. I will command your nephew Eleazar to accompany you to your resting place on Mt. Nebo. You shall die atop this holy mountain, for death does not mean destruction, but elevation. You will see, Moshe. There is nothing to be afraid of.”

And at noon on the following day, Eleazar went with Moshe up Mt. Nebo. Eleazar was instructed to leave Moshe before they reached the top. Moshe climbed the rest of the the way alone. When he finally arrived at the mountaintop, he found a beautiful golden couch which had been arranged for him by the angels. Moshe lay down upon it as God had instructed.

As soon as he lay down, Moshe beheld a wondrous vision. He say the Temple in Jerusalem in all its luminous splendor, shining forth from its holy mount. Moshe cried out, “I thought you told me I wasn’t allowed to glimpse the Promised Land before I died.”

“Look carefully,” said God.

Then Moshe realized that what he was seeing was not the Temple in earthly Jerusalem, but rather the Holy Temple which sits in the Jerusalem of the Heavens, of which our earthly Temple is but a pale comparison. This was the Temple constructed by God’s hand. It was made of precious jewels, pearls and gold – and it housed the holy light of the Shechinah, which was to be preserved for Israel to all eternity, to the end of all generations.

As Moshe beheld this glorious vision, his resistance began to melt. Yet no sooner did begin to sigh, than the Angel of Death appeared.

Moshe froze up. Terror began to rise from the pit of his stomach. But as he looked on, he realized something odd. The figure wasn’t fearful at all, but bathed in light. Then, as the form turned to face him, he recognized the face of his Beloved.

It was only then that Moshe finally let go. He said to his soul as it left his body, “Return O my soul, to your tranquility, for Adonai has dealt bountifully with you.”

The Holy One thereupon reclaimed Moshe’s soul with a kiss, and Moshe, whose name means “drawn from the water” returned to that vast, limitless Ocean of All Being.

All streams flow into the sea, but the sea is never full. To the place from which the water flows, there it will flow back again. (Ecclesiastes 1:7)

A New Birkat Hamazon/Blessing After the Meal

Chaverai nevarech/Friends, let us offer blessings…

...for the food we have shared. We give thanks for the earth and its goodness, created to feed and sustain all that lives. As we rejoice in the ever-giving blessings of creation, let us commit to spreading your abundance to all who dwell upon the earth. May we forever work to create a world in which hunger is no more, as it is written, there shall be no needy among you. Baruch atah adonai, chazan et hakol – Blessed are you, who feeds us all. Amen.

...for the lands upon which we dwell. May the inhabitants of every land live in safety and security. Let us all strive to be caretakers of the land, that it may yield its abundance to future generations, as it is written, the land will give forth its fruits and you will eat to fullness and dwell in security upon it. We acknowledge that too many of us enjoy the bounty of lands that have been colonized and stolen from their original inhabitants. May we work to bring the day when all who have been exiled and dispossessed know restoration and reparation. Baruch atah adonai, al ha’aretz ve’al hamazon – Blessed are you, for the land and its sustenance. Amen.

…for the vision of a world complete. May this dream become reality soon in our own day, that every land may be a Zion, every city a Jerusalem, every home a sanctuary offering welcome to all. May your world be rebuilt upon a foundation of compassion, equity and justice, as it is written, compassion and truth will meet; justice and peace will kiss. Baruch atah adonai, boneh ha’olam b’tzedek v’rachamim – Blessed are you, who rebuilds the world in justice and compassion. Amen.

…for your abundant goodness. Teach how to walk in your ways: the ways of kindness and decency, graciousness and understanding, now and always. Just as you nourish us unconditionally, so may we learn how to take care of one another with openness and love. For it is written, you open your hand and nourish the desire of all life. Baruch atah adonai, ha’tov ve’hameitiv – Blessed are you, who is good and who bestows goodness upon us all. Amen.

Commentary:

In composing this new Birkat Hamazon/Blessing After the Meal, I maintained the essential structure of the traditional prayer, which consists of four basic spiritual themes or categories. As with the other new liturgies that I’ve written, I seek here to compose Jewish prayers that express a Diasporist ethic; that is to say, liturgy that views the entire world as our “homeland” and resists the influence of modern political Zionism, which has become so thoroughly enmeshed in contemporary Jewish liturgy.

I’ll unpack each section here in turn. For purposes of comparison, a Hebrew/English version of the Birkat Hamazon can be found here.

.Friends, let us offer blessings… This is a simple, shortened version of the zimun – an invitation to prayer – when 10 or more people have just shared a meal.

...for the food: The first blessing offers gratitude to God for providing the food that sustains all creation. In this section, I chose to make explicit the fact that although the earth contains enough abundance to feed all of humanity, we nonetheless live in a world of rampant hunger. Thus, the moral imperative: “Let us …work to create a world in which hunger is no more.” For this reason, I chose to substitute the traditional Biblical verse, Deuteronomy 8:10 (“When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which God has given you”), with Deuteronomy 15:4: (“There shall be no needy among you.”)

...for the lands: The second blessing traditionally gives thanks for Eretz Yisrael – the land of Israel. In keeping with a centering of the Jewish diaspora over one particular piece of land, I chose to render this wording “for the lands” rather than “for the land (al ha’aretz.) In other words, we give thanks for the many lands upon which the Jewish people have made – and continue to make – their homes.

Although the traditional version was written well before the era of Zionism, many contemporary versions of the Birkat Hamazon use this section to offer thanksgiving for the establishment of the state of Israel. (The Reconstructionist version of this prayer for instance, includes the words, “for the culture, faith and hope of our people alive once more in Eretz Yisrael.”) Some versions also include a prayer for Yom Ha’atzmaut – Israeli Independence Day as well.

The traditional version of this section also invokes the Exodus from Egypt (“you redeemed us from the House of Bondage.”) Here, I chose to universalize this message and render it as a prayerful land acknowledgment. This recognizes the undeniable fact that many who say this prayer for the land will be invoking it on land that was literally colonized and stolen from others. Finally, to recognize the threat of global climate change to the lands upon which we live, I’ve also highlighted the importance of safeguarding God’s abundance for future generations. For a Biblical verse, I chose Leviticus 25:19, which references living upon the land “in security.”

…for the vision of a world complete: The traditional version of the section thanks God for the city of Jerusalem, expressing the messianic yearning for God to re-establish the city and to rebuild the Temple. In composing this section, I transvalued the messianic ideal into a vision of the world “as it should be” – embodied by an era of universal ” compassion, equity and justice.” As the Hebrew word for Jerusalem, Yerushalayim – contains the root Sh”LM, which means “wholeness,” I chose the image of a “world complete.”

I also chose to idealize Jerusalem to represent the mythic “city of peace” in which which we all yearn to live. In this regard, I was particularly inspired by the classic rabbinic notion of “Yerushalayim Shel Mala” or “Jerusalem of the Heavens.” (I personally find this much more powerful than a quasi-idolatrous attachment to an earthly piece of land which, tragically, has rarely known a moment of peace.) For the Biblical verse, I chose Psalm 85:10, which evokes a vision of this universal future with incredible poetic beauty.

for your abundant goodness: This final section was added to the Birkat Hamazon in the aftermath of the disastrous Bar Kochba revolt in the second century CE, reflecting a sense of healing and optimism – and faith in God’s goodness – even in the wake of a cataclysmic collective tragedy. In my rendering, I chose to highlight not only God’s goodness, but the moral imperative to mirror that goodness in our own relationships with one another. For the Biblical verse, I retained the traditional line from Psalm 145:16: “You open your hand…”

I ended this section – and the Birkat Hamazon as a whole – with the traditional blessing, “Baruch atah adonai, ha’tov ve’hameitiv” (“Blessed are you who is good and who bestows good upon us all”). This blessing is traditionally recited at times “which bring pleasure to an entire community” – an eminently appropriate way to end a blessing following a communal meal.

El Male Rachamim for Gaza

I recited this memorial prayer yesterday at a vigil sponsored by Students for Justice in Palestine – Chicago. The gathering was organized “to grieve with us the lives lost in this most recent Israeli onslaught upon Gaza, and to honor the countless Palestinians who have fallen victim to the ongoing Nakba since 1948.” It is based on the traditional Jewish prayer “El Male Rachamim” (“God Filled with Compassion”). .

El male rachamim shochen bam’romim
ha’metzei menucha nechonah
tachat kanfei ha’shechinah.

Oh, God filled with compassion,
whose loving presence ever surrounds us
bring perfect rest to those
who have been killed without pity in Gaza,
in refugee camps, in apartments,
in homes that provided no sanctuary,
as they worked, as they slept,
as they sat down to share meals together,
as they fled from the overpowering might
of rockets and bombs from above.

Receive their souls with the fulness of your mercy.
bind them to the souls of their ancestors
whose lives were unjustly taken
during the dispossession of the Nakba –
an injustice that continues 
even as we call out to you now.

Source of all mercy, protect these precious souls 
with the shelter they were denied in their lifetimes.
Gather them under the softness of your wings,
show them love, bring them home.

Remind us that no one is forgotten in your sight, 
that all are welcome at your side,
that each and every one of their lives 
is a story of sacred worth and meaning
that can never be lost.

As we rededicate ourselves to their lives.
Turn our grief and anger into resolve.
Filll us with strength and will and purpose –
inspire us to stand as one in solidarity,
that together we may end this injustice
once and for all.

Ba’al ha’rachamim tastireihem
b’seter kanfecha le’olamim.

Source of all compassion,
extend your shelter across the land
that the refugees may return home soon in our day –
that all who live between the river and the sea
may enjoy the blessings of equity, 
of justice and of peace. 

V’nomar
and let us say, 
Amen.

A Letter to Gaza

I want you to know.
I want you to know I’m thinking of you.
I want you to know I think of you almost every day.
I want you to know I think of you even when the bombs aren’t falling.
I want you to know I remember.
I want you to know I remember the moment I tasted red tahini for the first time.
I remember Ali running out to a different restaurant so we could taste knafeh ghazawiya
I remember Firas’ baby daughter saying hello to each of us by name. 
I remember talking to the fishermen while they mended their nets.
I remember the exhilarating moment when we set out to sea,
the vicarious feeling of liberation even as we had to stay outside the firing zone.
I remember Erez, that dystopic funhouse maze
and your smiling faces greeting us on the other side. 
I remember the concrete benches lining the seaside,
painted with the names of cities and villages that are not forgotten.
I remember the restaurant outside Beach Camp, the perfect fish, the deep orange sunset.
I remember seeing Ashkelon’s smoke stacks off in the distance,
thinking to myself I am exactly where I need to be.
I remember walking back after dinner, the evening blackout, the hum of the generators.
I remember that final breakfast at the beach,
when I looked at the spot where the Bakr boys were shot down
and I thought of them playing football in Gaza shel mala – 
that is, the Gaza on high –
where there is nothing to fear from above
and how I will not rest until
heaven is brought back down to earth. 

A Lamentation for Gaza


Palestinian mourners carry the body of 11-year-old Hussain Hamad, killed by an Israeli military airstrike, during his funeral in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip, Tuesday, May 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Gaza weeps alone.
Bombs falling without end
her cheeks wet with tears.
A widow abandoned
imprisoned on all sides
with none willing to save her.

We who once knew oppression
have become the oppressors.
Those who have been pursued
are now the pursuers.
We have uprooted families
from their homes, we have
driven them deep into
this desolate place,
this narrow strip of exile.

All along the roads there is mourning.
The teeming marketplaces
have been bombed into emptiness.
The only sounds we hear
are cries of pain
sirens blaring
drones buzzing
bitterness echoing
into the black vacuum
of homes destroyed
and dreams denied.

We have become Gaza’s master
leveling neighborhoods
with the mere touch of a button
for her transgression of resistance.
Her children are born into captivity
they know us only as occupiers
enemies to be feared
and hated.

We have lost all
that once was precious to us.
This fatal attachment to our own might
has become our downfall.
This idolatrous veneration of the land
has sent us wandering into
a wilderness of our own making.

We have robbed Gaza of
her deepest dignity
plunged her into sorrow and darkness.
Her people crowd into refugee camps
held captive by fences and buffer zones
gunboats, mortar rounds
and Apache missles.

We sing of Jerusalem,
to “a free people in their own land”
but our song has become a mockery.
How can we sing a song of freedom
imprisoned inside behind walls we have built
with our own fear and dread?

Here we sit clinging to our illusions
of comfort and security
while we unleash hell on earth
on the other side of the border.
We sit on hillsides and cheer
as our explosions light up the sky
while far below, whole neighborhoods
are reduced to rubble.

For these things I weep:
for the toxic fear we have unleashed
from the dark place of our hearts
for the endless grief
we are inflicting
on the people of Gaza.

Yotzer Or: Such Exquisite Radiance

As every living thing
bends toward the light,
we turn to you,
sending forth our praise
as you open the gates of heaven,
renewing your work of creation
with faithfulness and love.

Nothing is untouched by your presence:
from the luminaries on high
to the sand beneath our feet –
no boundary can contain your radiance,
no border can hold back your light;
it shines upon us all, 
every ray an angel singing out 
from the heavens:
the whole earth is filled
with your glory!

So let a new light shine upon us –
may it illuminate every corner of creation,
that every land may be a Zion, 
that all may be worthy to bask 
in the warmth of its glow.

Blessed are you, forever recreating our world
with such exquisite radiance.

Ahavah Rabbah: A Wild and Boundless Love

You love us with a wild and boundless love
and care for us with unending, unconditional compassion.
You show us your ways so tenderly, guiding us
just as you guided countless generations before us.
Teach us with a passion that will resonate
deep in our hearts, inspire us to see
and hear and learn and teach and
act with love now and always.

Open our hearts as one to your light
and keep us far from confusion and shame.
May it lead us toward your justice,
toward liberation for all who dwell on earth;
that all who are exiled and dispossessed
may safely find their way home
that all may rejoice in you
and celebrate your holy name as one. 

Blessed are you, who loves us all
with a fierce love that knows no bounds.

Prayer for Homeless Persons Memorial Day

It was my honor today to write and deliver this prayer at a Memorial Service/Action sponsored by the recently (re)created Chicago Union for the Homeless. The Winter Solstice (today) has been designated Homeless Person’s Memorial Day to remember those who have died homeless in the past year.

Following the service at Chicago’s Thompson Center, protesters carried a symbolic casket in a silent march in honor of the deceased. At City Hall, representatives from the Homeless Union presented a petition demanding immediate housing and adequate mental and physical health care for all homeless persons in the Chicago and Cook County.

This new liturgy is based on the traditional Jewish memorial prayer, El Male Rachamim:.

El male rachamim shochen bam’romim
ha’metzei menucha nechonah
tachat kanfei ha’shechinah.

God filled with compassion,
whose loving presence ever surrounds us
bring perfect rest to all who have died unhoused
those who have died on the streets, in tent cities
public parks and under viaducts.

Protect these precious souls 
with the shelter they were denied in their lifetimes
gather them under the softness of your wings
show them love, bring them home.

Remind us that no one 
is forgotten in your sight
that all are welcome at your table
that each and every one of their lives 
is a story of sacred worth and meaning
that can never be lost.

May the memories of their lives 
shine forth like the brilliance
of the skies above
as we rededicate ourselves
to their memories now.

Turn our grief and anger into resolve 
fill us with strength and will and purpose
that we may once and for all 
end this endless night.

Never let us forget
our sacred responsibility 
to ensure that all are housed
and clothed and fed;
let us never stop fighting
for the basic essential dignity
of every living, breathing soul. 

Ba’al ha’rachamim tastireihem
b’seter kanfecha le’olamim.

Source of all compassion,
inspire us to extend your shelter
across this land and throughout the world
that all may know the blessings
of safety and security now and forever.

V’nomar, and let us say,
Amen.

For Hanukkah: Al Hanisim/For the Miracles

Strikers struggle with National Guardsmen at the Loray Mill Strike, Gastonia, NC, 1929

Celebrating the joy at the heart of every triumph,
and the fortitude that follows every defeat,
we offer our praise:

for those who danced in the streets,
for those who didn’t live to see the victory
but never gave in;

for those who toppled the tyrants,
for those who resisted the oppressor
knowing full well the cost;

for those who rededicated the Temple,
for those who learned how to live
in the wake of its destruction;

for those who made it home,
for those sustained
by the sweet dream of return;

for those who kindle the lights,
for those who meet your gaze  
in the deep darkness;

for all these miracles and more,
we dedicate our lives  
to those who fought before us;

sustaining us even when all strength is gone,
urging us on and on until
liberation is finally won.

A Prayer for Striking Nursing Home Workers

I offered this prayer on Thanksgiving at the picket line for striking nursing home workers who work for Infinity Health Care Management. Over seven hundred frontline, majority black and brown workers from the Greater Chicago area called for a strike on November 23 after months of bargaining in which management repeatedly ignored their calls for pandemic pay, proper PPE, adequate staffing and living wages.

Click here to learn how you can lend your support to these courageous workers, whose struggle is literally a struggle for their very lives.

May the One who blessed our ancestors,
bless all those who put themselves at risk to care
for the elderly, ill and infirm.

Bless the health care workers,
the nurses and orderlies,
bless those who navigate the unfolding dangers
of the world each day
to tend to those they have sworn to help.

Bless them as they go to their work,
bless them in their coming home.
Ease their fear. Sustain them.
Source of all breath, healer of all beings:
protect them and restore their hope.
Strengthen them, that they may bring strength;
keep them in health, that they may bring healing.

And bless them in their struggle, 
in their just demand for fair wages,
as they are forced to work without pandemic pay 
in the midst of a pandemic,
even as they put their lives on the line every day
to take care of our most vulnerable family members.

Strengthen their resolve, and strengthen ours 
as we stand with them in their fight for just wages, 
which is a fight for their very lives.
Help them know again a time 
when they can breathe without fear. 

May this plague pass from among us, 
speedily and in our days. 

And let us say,
Amen.