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)