A Hero of Love

March 1, 2012
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Judith A. Kates

“….Enough for you! Do not speak more to Me of this matter.”
Deuteronomy 3:26 (translation by Robert Alter)

At the end of his life, Moses reveals for the first time to his people (to us) a personal experience of God that brought him great pain. When he pleaded to be allowed to “cross over” to “see the good land,” God responded with the above harsh, peremptory refusal.

The authors of the classic Midrash Tanchuma on Parshat Va’et’chanan (section 6), hear in the language of God’s refusal (al tosef dabber, do not speak more) a conversation of pleading and anguish. They hear both Moses’ plea for mitigation when God decreed against his entry into the land, and Moses’ anguished protest at God’s later declaration that the time of his death had arrived. “Die on the mountain where you are going up and be gathered to your kin.” (Deuteronomy 32:50) When Moses begs God to “stand up from the throne of strict judgment and sit on the throne of mercy for me so that I should not…be given over to the agony [inflicted by] the angel of death …” God offers him a choice: “Which of My sworn oaths do you want me to abrogate — that you should die or that I should not destroy Israel?” Of course, Moses, the quintessential prophetic protector of the people declares, “Let Moses and a thousand like him be destroyed, but not one from the people of Israel.” Then, he pleads for postponement of his end, that he might spend time as Joshua’s student. But once he endures the humiliation of failing to understand Joshua’s Torah teaching, the Torah of a new generation, he finally accepts what he has been told: “The time no longer belongs to you.” He turns to God in resignation, “I give myself over to You.” As God mourns the loss of the great intercessor, the one whose love of Israel could arouse the power of rachamim (mercy) within God despite the people’s failure and faithlessness, Moses asks for one final moment.

“Wait for me until I bless Israel, for they have never received comfort from me in this world because of my constant warnings and rebukes.” Moses begins by blessing each tribe individually and then includes them all in one blessing. “When they [the heavenly beings] come to tell him, ‘The time of your departure from the world has arrived,’ he says to the people of Israel, ‘I’ve given you a great deal of pain concerning the Torah and mitzvot [commandments]. Now forgive me.’ They [Israel] say to him, ‘Our teacher, our master, you are forgiven.’ Then the people of Israel stand before him and say, ‘We have angered you immensely and caused you great trouble. Forgive us.’ He says to them, ‘You are forgiven.’”

In the moment of his death, Moses places his hands over his heart and calls to Israel to witness the final end of his flesh and blood. “And they respond, ‘The hands that received the Torah from the all-powerful One must fall into the grave.’ At that moment, his spirit departs by means of a kiss. But neither Israel nor the angels occupy themselves with his burial — only the Holy Blessed One.”

This midrash shows us Moshe Rabbeinu facing death with the unmatched power of his devotion to his people and his unique intimacy with God. As the rabbis envision him here, he continues to teach even by his way of dying. He poignantly reveals a human fear of physical death and the anguish caused by loss of mental powers. He delivers himself to God to end that suffering, and in doing so teaches us to accept the ultimate limitation of even the greatest human capacities and achievements. With his last thoughts and energies, he turns to blessing, which we know from the end of the biblical book of Deuteronomy. But the midrash interprets that movement differently. It suggests that this is a moment when Moses transforms his relationship with the people he has led and loved. He wants to give them something they have never directly received from him — korat ru’ach, comfort, or satisfaction. We are left with the image of our teacher, Moses, as one whose most powerful motivation has been love. And love is what he receives in response, not only from the people, but from God. In his death, Moses remains a rabbinic hero, a hero of love.

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Dr. Judith A. Kates teaches Tanakh and its commentaries as a professor of Jewish women’s studies at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Mass. She has taught in many programs of adult learning in the Jewish community and co-edited (with Gail Twersky Reimer) Reading Ruth: Contemporary Women Reclaim a Sacred Story and Beginning Anew: A Woman's Companion to the High Holy Days.

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