It is very likely that these words you are about to consume have been largely influenced by my current choice of reading material. My Grandfather’s Blessings by Rachel Naomi Remen M.D. is a work full of spirit and hope. Dr. Remen spends much of the book talking about how much she has learned not only from life as a physician who treats many terminally ill patients, but also how much she has learned from death. Dr. Remen writes of how many of us avoid death as subject matter altogether, or how we often rely upon a myriad of coping mechanisms in order to try and skirt around the sometimes-taboo topic. Our own Torah ends with the death of the greatest prophet of all–Moses. In Deuteronomy, or “Devarim” in Hebrew, we read of the end of a wondrous life. As Dr. Remen often saw death as a learning experience, and sometimes even a blessing, we can examine the last bit of Torah in order to uncover so many beautiful lessons from the life and death of the one and only Moses.
Talmudic Rabbi Tarfon famously wrote, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either” (Pirke Avot 2:21). In Deuteronomy it is written, “And Moses went up from the plain of Moab unto mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, that is over Jericho. And the Lord showed him all the land…” (Deut. 34:1). We continue in 34:4 with, “And the Lord said unto him: ‘This is the land which I swore unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, saying: I will give it unto thy seed; I have caused thee to see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not go over thither’.” The Lord leads Moses up to the top of a mountain only to examine with his own two eyes the promised land in all of its glory. Now, Moses is already aware that he will not enter the promised land, but has kept the journey afloat with all of its trials and tribulations for many years nonetheless. In Numbers 20:12, G-d let both Moses and Aaron know that they would not be permitted to enter the promised land. Due to a sin that seems to be of unknown origin, G-d says, “…you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” Moses knew he would never cross the Jordan to step foot on the soil of the promised land, but he did not desist from the work. Moses, the great prophet that he was, knew that this divine task was not about ego or hubris–this journey was not about him at all, but he was a part, albeit a very vital one, of something much greater and holier than himself.
How many opportunities to serve do we pass up in our own lives because we are convinced that we may never see the fruits of our labor? Do we stop feeding the hungry because we may never see the end of hunger? Do we cease from caring for our planet because we may perhaps be gone before climate change becomes truly devastating? The work never ends, and we can only hope to live our lives as an actionable example to those who will pick up right where we left off. Have we prepared our own Joshua for the work that lies ahead? It is written, “And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom; for Moses had laid his hands upon him” (Deut. 34:9). Moses had been preparing Joshua to continue the work that must not desist. Joshua would lead the people of Israel across the Jordan and into the promised land. “No sooner did the sun of Moses set, than the sun of Joshua rose” (Talmud via Hertz p. 916). for those who know “the showbiz,” here is a little analogy: Moses had originated the role in the show, his contract was up, but the run was not over. Joshua stepped in immediately, and, as they say, “the show must go on.” And go on it did. How appropriate is it that we read of Moses’ death on Simchat Torah, which celebrates the end of the Torah cycle of readings, and the beginning of the next? We do not stop reading the Torah, as it never truly “ends.” We go back to “In the beginning,” and pick up without missing a beat.
Moses and his death also teach us that he was extraordinarily ordinary. Moses was not to enter into Canaan because he, like all other human beings, had lived a life of imperfection. Yes, Moses remained beautifully loyal to G-d throughout his life, but he often questioned, doubted, and even cried out. Moses needed help, whether it be via his Midianite father-in-law or the aid of seventy elders. If we look back on Moses’ earlier life, we recall that Moses actually might have had a speech impediment. “Oh Lord, I am not a man of words…for I am slow of speech, and slow of tongue” (Exodus 4:10). Rashi seemed to believe that Moses actually had a severe impediment, such as a lisp or a stutter. There is a Midrashic tale wherein it is said that an angel had saved baby Moses from the wrath of Pharaoh by putting a hot coal in his mouth, creating impeded speech. Whatever the exact nature of Moses’ speaking ability might have been, he was clearly not presented as a gifted orator. This topic is made even more interesting due to the fact that the last sefer of the Pentateuch is “Devarim,” which translates in English to “words.” Moses has relayed G-d’s words to the people, and they have endured for generations, and will for many to come. We are also unsure of the burial site of Moses. It is widely believed that any indication of Moses’ burial place could cause pilgrims to visit and make a deity of him. Moses was a human, not a deity, and Jewish thought is very careful in this way.
“And there hath not risen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” (Deut. 34:10). Face-to-face or “panim el panim.” It is important to recognize the importance of these “devarim,” or words. Moses was an ordinary man who took on extraordinary tasks, and he is largely considered the greatest prophet to have ever lived. Still, just to drive the point home, he was human. How often do we hold ourselves to standards that are nearly or completely impossible to fulfill? Even more importantly, how often do we forget that we are human? By that, I mean:
What do we as human beings truly require?
In Dr. Remen’s book, she spends much time relaying to the reader anecdotes about people who have regrets about the manner in which they have lived their lives. People who felt close to death often told Dr. Remen that they had spent all of their time working, traveling for business, or climbing some sort of corporate ladder. At the end of their lives, or when faced directly with their own mortality, these people almost always wished that they had spent more time on the work of the heart and soul; cultivating relationships with family, serving others instead of currency, and the like. When reading of Moses’ death before ever entering the promised land, the immediate reaction for many people is to feel sad. Looking more deeply into this moment, we see a man who has lived a life of complete purpose. This is a man who has lived a life in service of G-d and his people. Moses still had this purpose until his last breath of life– “His eye was not dim” (Deut. 34:7). If you look into someone’s eyes, you can often see the “life,” or lack thereof. Moses, through all of the hardships he had been at the forefront of, still had the light of life in his eyes. In Genesis 12:1, G-d says to Abram, “Go forth (Lech L’cha!) from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” The Lord literally shows Moses the promised land previously sworn unto Abraham a moment before his death. Moses was able to see the fruits of his labor, and this alone seemed to be a true blessing from G-d. What initially seems a melancholy moment of a goal not realized, when viewed through the lens of a blessing, turns into a touching story of realization and reflection on a life well-lived.
I speak a lot about legacy, and what we pass down to the future. Moses’ death, which causes us to reflect on his life, can teach us many things about our own legacies. Just as Dr. Remen’s patients wished to live more blessed and meaningful lives, so probably do all of us. Moses’ death teaches us that we can be human, and still be great. We can be human, and have an intimate relationship with G-d. We can stumble over our words, and continue to speak. We can be unsure and scared, but still lead. We can see our blessings, but we must look.
“Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad–Hear O Israel! The Lord is God, the Lord is One.”
There is one God who already exists. We have been trusted to repair and better the world, and we will not always do so perfectly. If we continue the work with devotion to righteousness, we will truly live a blessed life–a life that will permeate generations as a spark of light. What is beautiful is that we do not have to journey alone. Let us continue the work, and not desist. We will find in the living of our lives with attention to holiness a bounty of blessings.
Chazak, Chazak, V’nitkazeich–Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another.