THE JEWISH LIFE CYCLE
By Steve Israel
C: Educational Activities
29. The Moses Example
(An hour to an hour and a half)
The aim of this activity is to examine the prevalent attitude in Judaism regarding the importance of life in a culture that accepts death.
The first question is:
Who, in Judaism, is seen as providing a model - and what are they considered an example of? Write up names of some famous figures and ask for the ideas from the group. For example:
Abraham might be seen as an example of a man of faith,
Ruth as a convert,
Joseph as a model of forgiveness,
David as a king and a warrior, t
he Maccabees as models of determination and preparedness to stand up for their faith,
Rabbi Akiva as a scholar.
After all of these, bring in the figure of Moses.
Of what is Moses a model? See what the group suggests.
Expand on the group’s ideas:
Moses in many ways was seen as the ultimate model in Judaism. His rise to leadership, his leadership itself, and many aspects of his life are seen as models for Jewish existence. Introduce to the group the idea that his death, too, is seen in many ways as a model.
Read together the account of the death of Moses from the last chapter of Devarim:
Then Moses climbed Mt. Nebo… across from Jericho. There the Lord showed him the whole land…
Then the Lord said to him, “This is the Land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants’. I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you will not cross over into it.”
And Moses, the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said. He buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day nobody knows where his grave is. Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died, but his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone. The Israelites grieved for Moses in the plains of Moab for thirty days, until the time of weeping and mourning was over.
Ask what this says about the manner of Moses’ death (not very much!) Explain to the group that clearly this was not a satisfactory conclusion for later generations and that, around fifteen hundred years after Moses’ purported death, a new version of the death account began to circulate in the Jewish world. It is this (Midrashic) version that became the model!
Before handing out the Midrashic text below, have the group sit in pairs and to write their own model version of Moses’death on the mountain: What would they put into it to give his life, in their opinion, a more satisfactory conclusion?
(They should take as givens both G-d’s command to Moses that he cannot go into the Promised Land and the fact that he actually dies on the mountain.)
After about ten minutes, bring the group together and have them read a number of their ideas. Copy relevant elements of the death onto posterboard.
Discuss with the participants why they have felt it important to add those elements to the story.
Are there any dominant ideas for changes from the group as a whole?
Now read together the Midrashic version:
When Moses realized that the decree [of death] had been sealed against him, he drew a small circle around himself, stood in it, and said, “Master of the Universe, I will not move from here until you void that decree.” At the same time, he put on sack cloth – indeed wrapped himself in it – strewed ashes upon himself, and persisted in prayer and supplications before the Holy One, until Heaven and Earth – indeed all things made during the six days of Creation – were shaken…
What did the Holy One do then? He had it proclaimed at every gate of every firmament that Moses’ prayer be not accepted nor brought up to His presence, because the decree concerning him had been sealed. Still, as the sound of Moses’ prayer to Him above grew even stronger, the Holy One summoned the ministering angels and commanded them, "Go down in haste and bolt all the gates of every firmament", for Moses’ prayer was like sword, ripping and tearing, and nothing could stop it…
In that instant Moses said to the Holy One, “Master of the Universe, you know how much trouble I suffered on behalf of Israel, until they came to believe in Your name. How much pain I suffered until I got them to accept Your Torah and Mitzvot… Yet now You tell me not to go over the River Jordan… Is this the reward for forty years of service that I gave until Israel became a holy people loyal to their faith?” The Holy One replied, “Nevertheless, such is the decree that has gone forth from My Presence.”
Then Moses said, “Master of the Universe, if I am not to enter the Land of Israel alive, let me enter dead as the bones of Moses are about to enter.” [Once again, the answer was a definite no.]…
Then Moses said, “Master of the Universe, if You will not let me enter the Land of Israel, allow me to remain alive like the beasts of the field, who eat grass, drink water and thus enjoy the world – let me be like one of these.” At that, G-d replied, “Enough! Speak no more to Me of this matter.”…
When Moses saw that his prayer was not heeded, he went to implore Heaven and Earth, saying, “Ask for mercy on my behalf”…
Then he went to implore the stars and the planets and said, “Ask for mercy on my behalf”…
Then he went to implore the mountains and the hills and said, “Ask for mercy on my behalf”…
Then he went to implore the sea and said, “Ask for mercy on my behalf”…
Then he went to implore the Great Angel and asked, “Ask for mercy on my behalf so that I do not die.” The angel replied, “Moses my master, what good is this effort? Because I have heard above that your prayer in this matter will not be heard”.
Moses put his hands on his head and lamented and wept as he said, “To whom am I to go now to ask for mercy on my behalf?” In that instant, the Holy One was filled with anger at Moses so that Moses had to remind G-d that He had described Himself as G-d who is merciful and compassionate whereupon the holy spirit was calmed…
Moses said to G-d, “Master of the Universe… shall the face that confronted the Divine Presence, the hands that received the Torah from Your hands – shall these now lick the dust?”
The Holy One replied, “Such was My thought from the beginning… Each generation is to have its own interpreters of Torah, each generation is to have its own leaders. Until now it has been your portion to serve Me. From now on it is the portion of your disciple Joshua"…
But a Divine voice came forth and said, “The time has come for you to depart from the world”. Moses pleaded with the Holy One “I beg You , do not hand me over to the Angel of Death”. Again a Divine voice came forth and said, “Fear not, I myself will attend you and your burial”…
Moses lifted both his arms, placed them over his heart, and called out to Israel, “Behold the end of flesh and blood”. Moses rose and washed his hands and feet and thus became as pure as an angel. Then from the highest Heaven of Heavens the Holy One came down to take the soul of Moses and with Him the three angels, Michael Gabriel and Zagzagel. Michael stood at one side and Gabriel at the other. Then the Holy One said to Moses, “Moses close your eyes,” and Moses closed his eyes. “Put your arms over your chest”, and he put his arms over his chest. “Bring your legs together”, and he brought his legs together. Then the Holy One summoned Moses’ soul saying, “My daughter, I had fixed the time that you would stay in the body of Moses as a hundred and twenty years. Now your time has come to depart. Delay not.”…
The Holy One exclaimed, “Depart, and I will take you to the highest Heaven of Heavens, and will set you under the throne of glory, next to the cherubim and serafim”. In that instant, the Holy one kissed Moses and took his soul with that kiss.
Devarim Raba 7:10, 11:10 etc.
In their pairs, participants should take this account and make a list of all the new elements.
In addition, they should summarise the major changes in a sentence or two.
Back in the whole group, these changes should be listed next to the ideas that they themselves suggested earlier.
How many of the changes that they suggested were also made by the Rabbis who wrote this version of the death of Moses?
Discuss with the group the major changes they see and why they think the Rabbis would have made them.
Ask the group members which version they prefer and why.
Return to the original idea that Moses’ death serves as a model:
If it is indeed a model, what does it suggest about the way that Jews should approach death?
Why are Jews told to relate to death in this way?
What does it say about the Jewish attitude to life?
Explore with the group the ideas of struggle and ultimate acceptance of G-d’s will.
Does this model appeal to them or not?
Finally, read together the poem by the poetess Rachel, who fought for many years against her eventual death from tuberculosis, a disease she contracted in her mid-twenties .
He breathes his last, my rebellion is dying,
That fiery, proud and gay one.
Surrender, a pale widow,
Approaches my house in silence.
She prises my clenched teeth open,
She loosens my fists closed tightly,
She fetches ashes in handfuls
To cover the last of my embers.
And with head bowed down and silent
Creeps into a distant corner.
I know too well she will never
Leave my house again.
Rachel Bluwstein, “Surrender”