Thursday, October 06, 2005

Parashat Veyelech - Hazak Ve-'Ematz


Hazak ve-‘ematz, Moshe exhorts us. “Be strong and be brave.”

Last week, at Parashat Nitzavim, we saw that Rashi says the word Ha-Yom, “today,” comes to teach that this is the last day of Moshe’s life. In this week’s Parasha – and the two are commonly read together as a double Sedra – Moshe announces that this is the day of his birth. Chapter 31, verse 2, Moshe says, “I am one hundred an twenty years old today; I can no longer go out and come; and G-d has said to me ‘You will not cross this Jordan.’”

Why does Moshe die on his birthday? Why is the date of Moshe’s death important?

In the ‘Arvit service, the evening prayer, we say meshane ‘itim u-mehalif et ha-zemanim – “who changes hours and arranges the seasons”. And it is fundamental to all religious concepts that G-d’s Time is not human time. Indeed, Time itself does not exist until G-d creates it. The famous astronomer Steven Hawkings points out that, before the Big Bang, there was no Before. A thousand years before Steven Hawkings, the Rambam made the same observation. Notably, the Rambam did not claim that it was a Chidush – a startling new concept.

The Created cosmos is the world of Space, Time, and Motion, all of which require each other in order to exist. Planted at a focal point within the Cosmos, Humans are the observers that make all these have meaning. In this way – and with this gift – G-d makes us partners in Creation. And when G-d’s plan for us is fulfilled, we leave this plane of the cosmos and continue our partnership in another plane.

The notion of G-d’s omnipotence does not need to clash with the idea of human freedom of choice. First of all, the concept of Free Will may be slightly misleading. It may be more useful to use the phrase Free Choice, because most of what we face is a simple Either / Or decision. Our lives are bound by Conditions and, while we might prefer to be lying on the beach on the Island of Maui, few of us have that as an option. Rather, our actions are determined by the set of choices each moment, each situation presents us with. We follow the string of choices in our lives, making a sort of decision-tree pattern, for each choice necessarily leads to further sets of options. In some cases our process of choice-making comes to an end result that corresponds to G-d’s plan for us. This must be viewed as a successful life.

Moshe was born to die. He was born at a time when all newborn boys were to be thrown to the river. Originally, he was to have been strangled on the birthing-stool. This was Pharaoh’s instruction to Shifra and Puah, the midwives. When that did not work, the next order was to cast all males into the river. Thus, in a sense, Moshe should have died on the day he was born. Instead, he is cast into the river and rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter.

Then Moshe kills the Mizri. We know that he should have died for this act, because the Torah tells us at Bereshit 2:15 that Pharaoh heard about the incident, and tried to have Moshe put to death. But Moshe flees to Midian. Significantly, when G-d calls to Moshe at the bush, Moshe does not object that he, of all people, can not return to Egypt because there is a price on his head. Indeed, it is not until after he has not only consented to go, but publicly announced his intention to leave Midian and return to Mizraim that, at Bereshit 4:19, G-d tells Moshe that he is no longer in danger.

Moshe is fearless. Perhaps with the fearlessness of one born with the knowledge that all life is over in an instant. That that day of our birth may as well be the day of our death – that so many souls never are brought into the world at all. And that so many perish so quickly.

Moshe also fearlessly defends the Covenant between G-d and Israel. Defends it primarily in the face of G-d’s many outbursts of rage. Stand aside, G-d says over and over, and I will destroy them. Finally, after the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe appears fed up with G-d’s tantrums and rants. At Shemot 32:32, in the aftermath of the sin of the Calf, Moshe famously says: “Please, erase me from the book you have written!”


What is the name of the leader of Israel? We know him as Moshe, from Bereshit 2:10. “She called his name Moshe and she said, ‘Because I drew him out [meshitihu] of the water.’” The speaker here is Pharaoh’s daughter, who spoke ancient Egyptian, not Hebrew. The name by which our leader is known to us, the political leader who created this nation in earthly terms, as surely as G-d formed us spiritually, is not his actual name. His true name, rather, is hidden from us, lost forever.

Similarly, we shall read at the end of Sefer Devarim, 34:6, that he was buried in a place in the Land of Moab, “… and no one knows his grave to this day.” The request Moshe makes of G-d has been fulfilled: he has been erased from the Torah.

Why does Moshe die on his birthday? It is as though he has vanished, the film has been run backwards. As though he had never been born. It is difficult to imagine that Moshe, of all people, did not lead a life that fulfilled G-d’s destiny for him. And so perhaps it was a blessing, and not a curse. Perhaps G-d was meshaneh ‘itim for Moshe – changed times around for him. Instead of perishing on the very day he was born, Moshe lived for 120 years, saved the Hebrew people from slavery, brought us the Torah and made a pack of miserable slaves into the Nation of Israel. Why does Moshe die on his birthday? Because – with a gap of 120 years – he was one of many thousands of Hebrew newborns slated for extermination.

Now, though, the stakes are different. Moshe has lived a long life and has the feelings and memories and insights that come along with that. Maybe, now that Klal Israel is about to enter the Land, Moshe feels he is entitled to a comfortable retirement. Let Yehoshua lead, I’ll go hang out at Sdeh Boker and drink tea with na’na’. Alas, in G-d’s world, the work is never finished.

The Midrashim on the death of Moshe contains some of the most poignant and poetic images in all world literature.

At 31:9, the text says, “And Moshe wrote this Torah and gave it to the Kohanim…” The Midrash expands this and says that Moshe actually wrote thirteen separate Sifrei Torah, one for each tribe, and one to go into the Aron Ha-‘Edut – the Ark of Testimony. At the heart of Moshe’s action, the Midrash finds a ruse: if he can keep writing these Sifrei Torah, the sun will set, and the ordained day of his death will pass. Once his ordained day passes, he will never die. And so, the Midrash concludes, G-d makes the sun stand still, stretching the day out endlessly until Moshe completes the task of writing the thirteenth Torah scroll. In fact, the Midrash also states that Moshe died on Shabbat. Is it not forbidden to write on Shabbat? But there is also a separate Mitzvah of violating Shabbat in order to save a life. Whose life was Moshe trying to save? Why, his own! Which should not detract from the importance of the Mitzvah.

Underlying all these Midrashim is Moshe’s desperate wish to remain alive. He goes so far as to ask for – or even assume he is entitled to – immortality. Rather than thinking of Moshe as falling prey to cowardice at the last moment – and which of us will face our own hour without a tremor? – let us recall the bravery, the utter disregard of his own life with which Moshe proceeds with his task. Is it too much to ask of our Leader that, in his final moments, he not also reveal himself as merely human?

Hazak ve-‘ematz, Moshe exhorts: “Be strong and courageous.” Underlying Moshe’s desperate wish to remain alive, there is also the very real concern that Bnei Israel will be lost without their leader. “Be strong” he repeats. At 31:6 he says, “Because G-d, your G-d, he is the one who is going with you. G-d will not let go and will not abandon you.” The emphasis is very strong in the original text: the cantillation on the Hebrew pronoun makes it a shout. “He is walking with you.” The verb structure of the verse underscores the meaning as well: “G-d is walking with you” – present continuous tense in the first clause. “G-d will not let you go and will not abandon you” – future tense in the final clause.

Moshe’s meaning is unmistakable: I am dying. Do not be afraid. In reality, it is G-d who is walking with you. Who has been walking with you all along. I am no more than the middleman.

From a literary perspective, the Midrash is touching something very different, but which also bears mention: the desire to keep on reading. The wish that one’s favorite book would never end. With the death of Moshe, the Torah is truly over. The history of ‘Am Israel will continue – or in a sense, it will begin with Sefer Yehoshua – but the story we have been so immersed in is over, and nothing can recreate the exhilaration of discovering a magnificent creation for the first time. As much as Moshe wants to keep on living, we too want him around. We want to follow his next adventure, and his next. Unlike every literary hero, from Tarzan to Harry Potter, the Torah does not have a sequel.

But Moshe will have a final aria in Parashat Ha’azinu.

Before that, let us share some images from the Midrash.

Of Moshe arguing with G-d, telling G-d that his – Moshe’s – merits are greater than any person’s have ever been. G-d replies: Did I tell you to kill the Mizri? And Moshe falls silent.

Of Moshe sitting at the summit of Mt. Sinai taking dictation from G-d. Remember that Moshe carried the first set of Luchot down from the mountain facing away from him, so that Bnei Israel would see them, and that he shattered them before he had a chance to read any of it. Thus, when he ascends and begins to write the second set himself, the words are new to him. As they come to the passage describing his own death, Moshe pauses. “Write!” G-d commands. And Moshe writes, tears streaming from his eyes.

Finally, there is the transfer of authority from Moshe to Yehoshua. Unprepared as he may be, the younger man must take on the leadership of Klal Israel. It is time. And Our Moment is, by definition, a moment for which we are never prepared. Think of all the things that happen in life for which we can not prepare. Think of being born, of falling in love. Think of giving birth, of the death of someone close to us. Think, finally, of your own death. The Zohar says that a person might live a thousand years, yet, on the last day of their life they would say “Oh, just one more day!”

And so Yehoshua stands before Klal Israel and prepares to assume the mantle of leadership. And in order for his leadership to take root, Yehoshua must perform the actions that Moshe performed for the People. Moshe lays his hands upon Yehoshua to begin the transfer of Wisdom, the true foundation of leadership. Then he steps to the side, and Yehoshua turns to the gathered nation and begins to teach. For the Jewish nation requires of its leaders, not that they be strategists or politicians, not fundraisers or inspiring public speakers. Klal Israel requires of our leaders that they be teachers, first and foremost. That they teach us in words, and show us in the actions of their lives, how to strive for perfection, to make this world a better place. To do Tikkun. Teachers in the mold of Moshe Rabbeinu (“Moshe our Teacher”) whose overriding human quality is his humility, and whose devotion to Torah and his caring for the People are total.

And so Yehoshua begins to teach. He is not teaching anything new – after Moshe there is nothing new to teach, but there are infinite ways and approaches to understanding the Torah that Moshe handed over to us. Yehoshua speaks clearly and simply, and all the while the transfer of Wisdom continues from Moshe to his protégé. And Yehoshua’s voice grows stronger, his presence more powerful, until he appears in the eyes of the People as a true leader, and they take from him inspiration and hope and Strength and Courage. And as Yehoshua’s words grow in wisdom, the wisdom drains away from his mentor until Moshe, standing at Yehoshua’s side, can no longer understand a word.

Moshe Rabbeinu, we shall take your words to heart and strive to be strong and courageous. Farewell, beloved Teacher.

Hadran Alach, Moshe Rabbeinu. We shall return to you.

Yours for a better world.


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