At this time of year, when our own lives are in the balance, why do we read the record of Moses’ last days?
The reading begins, “Vayelech Moshe” (and Moses went). Can it be that our own efforts at teshuvah (repentance) compare with the final journey of our great teacher?
On first view, Moses’ situation could not have been more different from ours. Whereas Moses’ fate is sealed, with death impending, we still have recourse. Our prayers on these days tell us that teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah (repentance, prayer and charity) can mitigate the severity of God’s judgement. While it is not clear that Moses did something wrong, we know that we did.
An ideal communion existed between God and Moses, one predicated on mutual concern for a recalcitrant Israel. On the verse, “God spoke to Moses face-to-face as a man talks to his friend,” a Midrash has God asking, “Didn’t I make a deal with you? When you were angry with them, I would soothe you, and when I was angry, you would soothe me.” After Israel sinned at the Golden Calf and God threatened to blot them out, Moses put his own life on the line to save them.
Yet, something was not right. As the one who came closest to God, Moses seemed ideal to teach Torah. However, in his nearness to God, he risked distancing himself from flesh-and-blood human beings. Though Moses may not have done anything wrong, by simply being what he was, an almost transcendent soul, he created an imbalance in relation to the Jewish people. As his own words attest: “God was angry with me for your sake.”
His leadership role was taken away.
The Midrash compares the back-and-forth between God and Moses to the ebb and flow of the sea: If a stream is blocked in one direction, does it not find another way? Can that not be regarded as a form of teshuvah? Was God gently prodding His favorite to turn his last focus on his one unresolved issue: his relationship with Israel? Blocked in his open dialogue with the Holy One, Moses’ only recourse was to go to the people.
The Torah consoles us that Israel’s great leader suffered none of the effects of aging: “His eye was not dimmed nor his natural force abated.” But Moses himself bore witness to a more poignant suffering. Rashi explains, his leadership role was taken away and given to his successor.
The Zohar tells us that, 40 days before one’s death, the soul begins its departure.
The Berditchever Rebbe concurs that Moses’ prophetic preeminence was taken away, a fraction of which was given to Joshua. The Talmud (Sotah 13b) explains that “the wellsprings of Torah wisdom were stopped up in him.” For the giver of the Torah, this must have been agony.
On the day of his death, says the Netziv, Moses no longer had the strength to sound the shofar and assemble the people. Whereas he could once stay in one place and have his voice carry to all Israel, he now had to go from camp to camp, person to person, to relay his message. Sforno says that the word “vayelech” indicates that, in so doing, he was totally self-motivated. At the moment when he was stripped of his intellectual and prophetic powers, he showed his true moral worth. Selflessly, he took his leave and reassured each one that there was no need to feel abandoned. God Himself would lead the people into the land. Moses also wanted to make them feel how much each of them meant to him and how much he respected them.
One may surely read “vayelech” as an expression of teshuvah on Moses’ part, in its largest sense. It’s related word, the Hebrew verb “lalechet,” connotes action in progress, such as walking, going, growing, being on the move, alive and subject to biological change. Only when God tells Moses that his time is up is he impelled to act.
Repentance, with its negative burden of sin, is a mistranslation of teshuvah, which simply indicates movement. Rav Kook regarded teshuvah as the inner dynamic of the Jewish people in their desire to come closer to God. By this larger definition of teshuvah, an individual has recourse to what is modeled for us in these final narratives of our great teacher’s life.
Through teshuvah we become truly human, says Reb Nachman of Breslov. Reaching out to the Jewish people is part of Moses’ similar redemptive gesture toward his own humanity. At that moment, says Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Moses entered into the heart’s core of every Jew of every generation to come.
Freema Gottlieb is a writer and lecturer. Her book, “Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light,” has been released on Amazon Kindle.