The Torah ends with the death of Moses, man of God, at the word of God. Moses is buried by God, and then eulogized by the author of Deuteronomy as the greatest prophet ever to have lived, for Moses alone accomplished what was held to be impossible, and knew God “face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10).
We might think that Moses, more than anyone else, would face death with fearless calm. But that’s not how the Rabbis interpreted it. In one of the most remarkable of their midrash side-bar stories to the narratives of the Bible, they invented a touching dialogue between Moses and God at the time of Moses’ death (Deuteronomy Rabbah #11). Moses doesn’t want to die, and he quotes every biblical verse he can to make his case. But God has an answer for each one:
Moses: Dear Lord! After all my efforts on behalf of Your people, You can tell me that my time is drawing near? ‘I shall not die but live, and proclaim the works of the Lord!’ (Psalm 118:17)
God: Moses, you cannot prevail, for ‘This is the destiny of all men.’ (Eccl.12:13)
After many inventive bargaining ploys, all of which fail, Moses reconciles himself to death—but not quite. He does not want to give up his soul to the angel Sammael, the appointed reaper. For the only time ever, Sammael accepts defeat. God intervenes. For this moment, the Rabbis invent a dialogue, providing the questions to which the answers constitute the
Then the Holy One summoned the soul from the body. The soul pleaded that it be allowed to remain in the body of Moses.
When Moses realized that his soul was refusing to leave him, he asked his soul, ‘Do you fear the angel of death? The soul replied, ‘No.’
Moses: ‘Will you weep when others weep at my death?
Soul: ‘The Lord has delivered my eyes from tears.’ (Psalm 116:8)
Moses: ‘Will you perchance go to hell when I am dead?’
Soul: ‘I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.’ (Psalm 116:9)
Moses: Then, ‘return unto your rest, my soul, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.’ (Psalm 116:7)
Now composed and ready, Moses receives the gentlest death imaginable. Reading Deuteronomy 34:5, “Moses died at the mouth [i.e. the word] of the Lord” hyper-literally, the Rabbis invented the concept of “death by the Divine kiss”: “Thereupon, God kissed Moses; God took away his soul with a kiss on the mouth.”
What are the Rabbis teaching us, by means of this remarkable midrash? Moses is the original Elizabeth Kuebler-Ross. He goes through the stages of dying, resisting, bargaining, and finally accepting. Even then, it is not smooth, and he has to talk his soul into acceptance.
Judaism teaches us two great lessons about the fact that we don’t live forever.
The first is that, this is the world that God has created, and while we might resist mightily, the world, including our bodies, will continue to obey God’s laws.
The practical point to be learned from that lesson is found in Psalm 90:12, the “Prayer of Moses, Man of God” (the only Psalm so attributed—maybe this was part of the creative process by which the Rabbis composed the midrash about the death of Moses?)
To count our days rightly, instruct
That we may get a heart of wisdom.
Make each day count. Know that your days will not be part of an infinite series. They are therefore all the more precious. Live them in that knowledge.
The second lesson is that we can be reconciled to our mortality in a world where God is the ultimate Ground of Being. We pray the “yizkor” prayer to God, to remember the souls of our beloved dead. This prayer addresses the dread of the “second death”, the moment when the last person on earth who remembers us has died. The message of the yizkor prayer is that it—the second death-- is not truly the end of the meaning of our lives. God remembers. Or, in different words: Life is not a zero sum game. We live, and one way or another, we make a difference. Our life-work sets up the course of future human events, at least in the circles we have touched. So live as if the future depends on it… because it does!
Do you really want to live forever? This coming Monday night, on Simchat Torah, we will conclude the reading of the Torah and immediately begin again with the story of Genesis. Soon we will read about the Garden of Eden. In that story, we learn that the fiery, revolving sword bars forever the gate to the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Life. But in the life of Torah, God has given us another Tree of Life:
Her [Torah’s] ways are ways of pleasantness
And all her paths are peace.
A tree of life is she to those who grasp her
And those who hold her are deemed happy. (Proverbs 3:17-18)
Rabbi Michael Panitz