A Good Death
Is this right, Moshe? Is this just?
You’ve devoted your life, your spirit, your all to help God fulfil the promise He made to Abraham. You didn’t choose this as your life’s work. In fact, when God appeared to you, you demurred, declared yourself unfit. But God would not be denied. You yielded to His will and sacrificed your autonomy in service to God, His people, your people, us. For Him, you stoked the wrath of a malevolent Pharaoh, led a perilous escape from Egypt, received the laws that would define our nation, quelled a succession of rebellions, appeased the cantankerous, learned to delegate powers whilst maintaining authority, built a majestic tabernacle in the wilderness, lost two nephews to the God you serve, mourned a sister, then a brother, challenged God’s petulance, appealed to his vanity, tolerated the stubborn, the ungrateful, the mutinous, all for His sake.
And now Moshe, here we are, nearly there and you say you’re not coming? You say God, this God you have served so faithfully, whose word determined everything you’ve done since he first appeared to you, forbids it? For all you’ve done for Him, for all the praise you’ve lavished on Him, He is seeing you off, not with gratitude, but with a cold admonition and bitter recriminations: “Go up to Mt Nebo,” He said, “and see the land that I am about to give to the Israelites. And die on the mountain…because you betrayed me through the waters of Meribath-Kadesh in the Wilderness of Zin, because you did not sanctify me in the midst of the Israelites. From the far side you will see the land but you will not come there, to the land that I give to the Israelites.”
Throughout our journey, you pleaded our case to this vengeful, petulant deity. How many times did you call out God for unjust threats he made against us? So now, when your life is at stake, and while your eyes are still clear and your spirit still strong, why won’t you insist on the prize that God is about to give not to you, our leader, but to those who followed you.
Perhaps because Moses, prophet and teacher to the end, is intent on teaching us how to die well. Not only that, but how the very fact of our mortality calls each of us to make the most of being alive.
To the first: What does Moses teach us about dying well? Refusing to challenge God’s judgment, Moses acknowledges and accepts mortality, marking a defining distinction between himself and God. Were Moses to insist God prolong his life he would be perceived once again trying to borrow in on God’s divinity, the very sin that led him to that lonely hike up Mt. Nebo instead of into the promised land straight on.
Until the pandemic forced a public reckoning with death worldwide, death was so little discussed beyond those who’d been recently affected by it that it seemed a recurrent surprise rather than something each of us should expect to confront within our families, among our friends, and eventually ourselves. Popular culture prefers to deny it and science continues intent to defy it. Dying openly and with grace, Moses does neither—he shows us what it is, and he tells us what dying implies for the living. We deny death partly because we’d rather believe we can determine what happens in our lives, than accept as Moses does, that it’s not for us to choose the hour, the day or the circumstances that will claim us; that the horizon, always in view is beyond reach, that our journey must and will end, likely with ambitions and objectives unfulfilled.
So how are we to reconcile the Moses who openly, candidly prepares to die, with the Moses who bid us to “choose life”? Moses reconciles this for us in supremely eloquent song. It is telling that Moses’s dying words, the most sublime rhetoric in all of Tanakh—conveys advice for the living. And what it tells us is this:
Living—fully living– is not merely being alive. Life is embodied in Torah. With his dying words, Moses contrasts the richness, the beauty, the comfort of life for those who embrace Torah with the torments in store for those who do not.
He does something more. Moses leaves a legacy—in his teaching and in the land of Israel itself– that will live on after him and give his legions of mourners a sense that he is still present. Those of us who have lost someone we loved can, like those who mourned the death of Moses, can walk this earth, not bereft of those we miss, but with their spirit, their teachings, their animating passions. Just as Moses’ mourners honoured him by forging fresh alliances in league with Joshua, we can find new friends and draw closer to others who share our bereavement. We can honour each loss by “choosing life”, living with greater intent, loving with the kind of compassion that comes with the fresh reminder that life is temporal and merits our all.
In the end, Moses does not indulge in self-pity, lamentations or regret. He gives one final bid for a lasting, consequential legacy. “Take to your heart all that I have warned you this day. Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe all the terms of this teaching. For this is not nothing for you, but it is your life.”
Diana Shaw Clark LBC rabbinic student
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.