The Faculty of Jewish Studies
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A Study of the Midrashic Sources on the Death of Moses
Dr. Rella Kushelevsky
Department of The Literature Of The Jewish People
Parashat Vezot Habrachah concludes the Torah with a description of the final moments in the life of Moses, standing at the threshold of the promised Land to which he has led the People of Israel after forty years in the wilderness. He is to be allowed only to see the Land from the top of Mt. Nevo, to view its furthest regions but not to cross over into the Land itself. From this point on Joshua will take his place. The Torah itself notes the severity of this decree, for "never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses"(34:10).
On the eve of his death the Torah once again recounts his career and his crucial role in the redemption of the people and the Exodus from Egypt (34: 11-12). That the people were aware of the extent of their loss at his death is reflected in the description of the sorrowful month-long period of mourning they observed.
Yet, in contrast to the detailed description of the Land, the portrait of Moses as prophet and liberator, the details of the change of leadership and its transfer to Joshua, the death and burial of Moses and the mourning of the people - there is silence on the topic of Moses' own reaction to the decree. His reaction to the stern "but you shall not cross there"(34:4) is surprisingly skipped. The detailed description of the Land which he saw from afar sharpens the contrast between his desire and the reality of his situation - the deep longing of Moses to enter the Land of Israel in contrast to the prohibition.
The gap in the narrative - Moses' reaction - can be filled by applying the rule "Eyn mukdam umeuchar batorah" ("The Torah is not necessarily written in chronological order"). We go back to Parashat Va'etchanan where we learn that the decree of Moses' death was followed by a difficult verbal exchange between Moses and G-d that ended in an ultimatum from which no further appeal was possible: "Enough, speak no more to Me of this matter" (Deuteronomy 3:26). Thus, the description of Moses' death was given to us from two different points of view: the inner feeling of Moses in Parashat Va'etchanan and the external view in Parashat Vezot Haberachah.
Beyond the general explanation which sees the change in voice to the third person in our Parasha as a result of the essence of the phenomenon of death, which cannot be describe from the subject's point of view, we offer the following: the Torah uses a twofold set of criteria to describe the death of Moses to indicate a phenomenon which lies outside the boundaries of human reference. The very fact of Moses' death the Torah states clearly: "Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab". The exact references to his place of burial - in the valley, near Beth-Pe'or - also define his death and burial as similar to those of every man.
However, the Torah hesitates to draw any clear conclusion about the death of Moses, describing it as having occurred "at the command of the Lord". By saying that he was buried by the hand of the Holy One blessed be He Himself, ("He buried him" [34:6] leaves the subject open) and that his place of burial is unknown (Deuteronomy 34:5-6) the Torah seems to contradict the previous description of Moses' death in human terms.
The Midrash enlarges on this contradiction by means of a very vivid description of Moses' death, not by the hand of the Angel of Death as with ordinary men but by the hand of the Holy One blessed be He Himself, by a kiss from His mouth. The place names in the Torah become reference points for a search for Moses who has suddenly disappeared and been hidden by the Holy One Blessed be He. For instance, in the Sifre on Parashat Nitzavim - Vayelech, section 305, (Finkelstein Edition, pp. 323-326 ) it says of the death of Moses:
At that hour the Holy One blessed be He said to the Angel of Death, "go and bring to Me the soul of Moses". He went and stood before him. Moses said to the Angel: "Where I sit you may not even stand, and you say to me - give me your soul?" He rebuked him and he went out ashamed. The Angel of Death went and brought his reply before the Almighty. God said to the Angel of Death, "Go and bring Me his soul". He went to him, looked for him and could not find him. He went to the sea and said: "Have you seen Moses?" The sea said, "Since the day when he brought Israel across me I have never seen him again!" He went to the mountains and the valleys and said to them, "Have you seen Moses?" They said to him, "Since the day Israel received the Torah on Mount Sinai we have not seen him". He went to the netherworld and said: "Moses - have you seen him?". It said to him: "I have heard his name, but I have never seen him". He went to the ministering angels and said to them: "Moses - have you seen him?". They said to him: "Go ask mankind". He went to the People of Israel and said to them: "Moses - have you seen him?". They said to him: "G-d understood his way, G-d has hidden him away until the life of the world to come, and no-one knows where, as it is written, "And He buried him in the valley". From the moment Moses died - Joshua began to cry, and lament and mourn bitterly, saying: "My father, my father, my master, my master; my father who raised me, my master who taught me Torah", and he mourned him for many days, until the Holy One blessed be He said to Joshua: "Joshua, how long will you continue to mourn, did Moses die for you alone, in fact he died only for Me, for since the day he died it has been a time of great mourning for Me, as it is said: "And on that day the Lord Almighty called for weeping and eulogizing". However he is promised that he will return in the world to come, for it says: "and the Lord said to Moses behold you will lie with your ancestors and[they will] arise"(31:16).
The ambivalence in the description of Moses' death is obvious in the two-fold terminology used in the Midrash. On the one hand there is a clear declaration, following the verses of the Torah, that Moses died. This is joined to the description of the mourning of Joshua as an expression of the implications of the death of Moses and the sense of loss which he felt. On the other hand, the basic situation is one of a sudden disappearance which is ironically reflected in the failure of the Angel of Death to carry out his assigned task in taking the soul of Moses. In fact, the Angel of Death is finally informed that Moses had been hidden away.
Moreover, the fact that Moses was hidden away is proven in the Midrash precisely from the very verse which speaks of the burial of Moses. The argument presented by the Midrash is, "G-d has hidden him away until the life of the world to come [...] as it is said 'and He buried him in the valley'". This exegesis refers to taking the subject of the word "Vayikbor" (= and He buried) as G-d and explains that burial by the Holy One blessed be He means, in fact, to be hidden or concealed.
The preference of the Midrash to learn all this from the word "Vayikbor," which clearly denotes the phenomenon of death, rather than from the expression "and no one knows his burial place" (34:6) which at least hints at a negation of Moses' burial - this preference reflects a situation which is not given to a logical description. For what is death if it is not at the hands of the Angel of Death? What kind of burial is not by human hands but by the hands of the Lord and his ministering angels? Alternatively, what is this "concealment" that needs to be described in terms of burial and death? The lack of clarity is an expression of the metaphysical aspect of the death of Moses, in contrast to the finiteness of humanity, of which death is the ultimate expression. The death of Moses is perceived in our sources as an oxymoron, one entity reflecting conflicting opposite phenomena in: death and concealment at one and the same time.
The Midrash relates to more than the death of Moses. Through the prism of a physical/metaphysical oxymoron it sheds light on the entire image of Moses in the course of his life. His humanity is illustrated by the fact that only a man could inform the Angel of Death as to his whereabouts. However, as much as the characterization of Moses as human depends on definitions made by others, it derives even more from Moses' own reaction to the Angel of Death who came to demand his soul. The sharp reprimand to the Angel of Death and his being shamefully driven off expresses Moses' superiority: Man prevails over the angels. But at the same time it reveals Moses' fear of death and his very human need to hold fast to life.
In contrast, the dimension of power in Moses' image is alluded to not only in the hints at the splitting of the sea and the giving of the Torah in the words spoken, as it were, by the mountains, the sea and the netherworld to the Angel of Death. It is expressed more than anything else by the relation of the Midrashic text to chapter 28 of Job. This chapter describes the search for the supreme wisdom, the Torah, which has yet to be revealed and still remains in the keeping of the Holy One blessed be He. The Midrash used the search situation as a prototype when it came to describe the search for Moses by the Angel of Death. Thus Moses is compared to the supreme wisdom which is the Torah.
This impression is strengthened when we examine the language of Job 28:21-24: "Whence then does wisdom come and where is the place of understanding? Now it has disappeared from before the eyes of all living things and it is hidden from the birds of the sky. Death and destruction have said, We have heard a rumor of it in our ears. G-d understands its way and He knows its place".
The duality of the character of Moses appears in the Torah. His mortal aspect is highlighted by his refusal to accept the burden of his mission at the scene of the burning bush, in his infirmities of speech and in his impatience with the "rebellious" People of Israel. In contrast, the aspect of the immortal in Moses' image can be seen in the descriptions of his forty days and forty nights in Heaven prior to the giving of the Torah, his face to face encounter with the Lord, and his characterization as a prophet the likes of whom never was before nor will ever again appear in Israel.
Several other explanations by our sages shed light on the description of the Death of Moses in the Torah as a phenomenon which exceeds the boundaries of logic. In Tractate Sotah 13b a Tannaitic discussion deals with the contradiction between two verses which testify as to the site of Moses' death and burial. One verse places the death of Moses on Mount Nevo within the territory of the tribe of Reuven (Deuteronomy 34:1) while another, according to the Rabbinic exegesis, reports his grave as being in the territory of the tribe of Gad (Exodus 33:21).
Just as the Sifre described the wondrous phenomenon of Moses' death as something other than death since it was not at the hands of the Angel of Death, so this Baraita (Tannaitic source) in the Babylonian Talmud does not try to settle the contradiction by doing away with it. On the contrary, the Baraita distinguishes between the site where Moses died and the site of his grave and describes how Moses was carried on the wings of the Divine Presence (Shechina) for a distance of forty miles from one site to another. The concrete picture in this exegesis expresses a situation which combines the conflicting levels of the physical and the metaphysical, the burial of Moses even while he was being carried off on the wings of the Divine Presence.
Interestingly, a different Midrashic source resolves the conflict in another manner. Midrash Lekach Tov, attributed to Rabbi Tuviah ben Eliezer (Jerusalem, 1970, p.771), commenting on the words "And He buried him in the valley," asks the natural question: "Who buried him in the valley?" The Midrash answers that Moses buried himself. Thus the contradiction between the verses describing Moses' death and his burial is resolved. Moses indeed died while in the territory of Reuven but buried himself in the territory of Gad. How can a man die in one place and later bury himself elsewhere? This Midrash, similar to the Baraita in Sotah, also gives expression to the limited ability of human language and understanding to grasp the essence of the descriptions of the Death of Moses.
In several sources the grave of Moses is described as being alternatively revealed and hidden, in the manner of a mirage. The Babylonian Talmud, continuing the Midrash cited above regarding the places of Moses' death and burial, relates the tale of the failure of a Roman delegation to locate the grave: "When they stood above it, it seemed to be below; when they stood below it, it seemed to be above. They divided themselves into two groups, to those who stood above it - it seemed below, to those who stood below it - it seemed above" (Sotah 14a). This Midrash is another attempt to deal with the ambivalent description in the Torah as a key to understanding the unique image of Moses.
Another expression of the difficulty of defining Moses' death and burial is to be found in the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) Chapter 5, Mishnah 6, which counts the grave of Moses among those things which were created on the eve of the first Shabbat at twilight (beyn hashmashot). This time frame describes a kind of illusive situation of "neither here nor there". Creation had been completed but the Shabbat which mandated a cessation of work had not yet arrived. In this undefinable time frame miracles were created of the kind which are a part of the Creation process and simultaneously outside it. Pirkei Avot gives an additional dimension to the illusive nature of the grave of Moses: not only does in disappear in space, it 'disappears' in time as well.
A rather startling description of Moses as a man from the waist down and an angel from the waist up appears in Devarim Rabbah (11:4) as a comment on the title "A Prayer of Moses, the man of G-d" (Psalms 90:1). Here again Moses is depicted in his double aspect: physical and metaphysical at one and the same time.
Beyond the attempt of the Midrash to deal with the oxymoron of the image of Moses, there is a further implication to these texts--they describe the oxymoron of death itself. The soul is concealed and preserved, the body decomposes. The description of the image of Moses stretches out to touch the threshold of immortality but there, still within the boundaries of humanity, it remains. This border marks the extremities and conflicts in man's existence, especially that inevitable passage from life to death.
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