“You shall die on the mountain that you are about to ascend” (Deuteronomy 32:50), God tells Moses at the end of this week’s Torah portion — news Moses does not take sitting down. And who could blame him for seeking to thwart this heavenly decree? According to Midrashic tradition, Moses offered 515 prayers that God might change God’s mind (Devarim Rabbah, 11:10). He enumerated his many virtues and acts on behalf of the Israelites despite his transgressions in hopes that God would relent (Midrash Tanchuma Va’etchanan, 6). He even rebuked and then hid from the angel of death when the time came (Sifrei Devarim 305). Moses sought to defy God in his final act, according to rabbinic tradition, despite being the greatest prophet who ever lived (Deuteronomy 34:10).
Or maybe because of it.
“It is not the death of sinners You seek,” the prophet Ezekiel tells us, “but that they turn from their wicked ways and live” (33:11). This aspect of God’s mercy Moses knew well, for he had to appeal to it time and again on behalf of the Israelite people. “Pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for Your own,” Moses pleads after the creation of the Golden Calf and the destruction of the first set of Tablets; “God (you are) endlessly patient, loving and true … forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin” (Exodus 34:6-9). He used these same words to appeal to God on behalf of the people following the Sin of the Spies (Numbers 14), and he tried a similar tact after Korach’s rebellion (Numbers 16). The Israelites sin, Moses intercedes and God relents, our text teaches us. Given his track record of success, it’s less surprising that he would try again when confronted with his own mortality.
During this sacred season of the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe, we read one of the most challenging texts in all of Jewish tradition: “On Rosh Hashanah it
is written, on the Fast of Yom Kippur it is sealed — how many will pass from this world and how many will be born, who will live and who will die, who will reach the ripeness of age and who will be taken before their time.” In a world where we know far too many are taken before their time, in natural disasters and in acts of violence caused by malicious human will rather than God’s, how can we possibly understand these ancient words?
Some argue that we can’t, that we are not meant to, that ultimately our fate is in God’s hands. If you find that theology is comforting, I encourage you to embrace it and read no further, because I would propose a different meaning entirely. Remember, Moses didn’t accept his heavenly decree. As he had done for the Israelites, the rabbis imagine Moses pleading, interceding, and acting on his own behalf when confronted with the possibility of his mortality. He didn’t take it sitting down, and I believe this troubling text should be read metaphorically to remind us that neither should we.
We simply don’t know how many years we will have on Earth. Some will have an astonishing longevity of years as they transcend risky life choices; for others, we will cry voluminous tears as we are reminded that bad things happen to good people far too often. We don’t know who will live and who will die. Though we don’t know when our time on Earth will end, being confronted with the fact that it will reminds us to make the most of each moment — just as Moses our teacher did. PJC
Rabbi Aaron Meyer is the senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel of South Hills. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.