Vayeilech: The Inspiring Conclusion To The Torah (Part 1)
Moshe's Death: How Would You End the Torah?
This book about The Creator’s choice to teach us how we can come close to Him and achieve purpose in our lives, what will be its conclusion?
Welcome to Parshat Vayeilech.So, I have a confession to make. It's our 3rd round of parsha here at Aleph Beta, and year after year, when we put out our traditional multipart series on the end of the Torah, there's something we hope that you never notice: Rabbi Fohrman has already talked to you about what happens in Parshat Vayeilech. He's covered the song of Ha'azinu. But we've never spoken about the actual end of the Torah: Parshas V'Zos Habracha. And there's a reason for that: It's a really, really difficult parsha.
First of all, it is one of the least-studied parshiot. Because V'Zos Habracha is read on Simchas Torah, the final holiday in the marathon of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, people are a little fatigued and they aren't always in the critical parsha analysis mood. Second of all, normally, parsha is read on shabbos, giving people a full week to study beforehand. But V'Zot Habracha is read on a holiday - which means that it never gets a full week of preparation. And, to top it all off, on the same day that we read V'Zot Habracha, we also start reading Bereishit. And if someone has to choose between two different parshiot, who could resist the more exciting, and more familiar stories of the beginning of the Torah?
Well, no more of that! Join us, brave adventurer, into uncharted territory. We've been trying to trace the storyline of the Torah throughout the entire Parsha Experiment, and we're not going to quit at the last parsha. So let's take a look at the end of the Torah and see what pearls of wisdom await us. This week on the Parsha Experiment.
Hi, I'm Imu Shalev, and welcome to the Parsha Experiment.
The conclusion of a book is massively important. If the author did a good job, you usually get a poetic summary of what the book is about: its purpose, its main message. It sets the final emotional tone for how you will feel when you close its pages, hopeful, inspired, devastated, or joyful. I'll always remember the haunting end to George Orwell's Animal Farm: "The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which." The line is so perfect, it communicates a devastating end to a tragic story, while communicating its moral all at once.
So, how does the Torah end? This book about The Creator's choice to forge a relationship with humanity, to descend from the heavens and teach us how we can come close to Him and achieve purpose in our lives, what will be its conclusion?
וְלֹא-קָם נָבִיא עוֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, כְּמֹשֶׁה, אֲשֶׁר יְדָעוֹ יְהוָה, פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים - There was never again another prophet in Israel like Moses who knew God face to face, in all of the signs and wonders which God sent him to perform in Egypt to Pharaoh, and all of his servants, and to all of his land, nor in the mighty hand, and great wonder, אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה מֹשֶׁה, לְעֵינֵי כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, that Moses performed before the eyes of all of Israel." The End.
Really? That's it? I remember, as a kid, I had this teacher who taught how wonderful it is that the very last word in the Torah is "Yisrael" - it shows us how much God loves us, and how important the nation of Israel is. But forget about the last word, what about the last sentence? It's all about Moses! The word "Israel" is just an object in a sentence where Moses is the subject! Way to pull one over on us, Rabbi Name-Redacted-By-Editor!
Now, I mean no disrespect to Moses, I think it's great that he is getting his "walk into the sunset" moment in the Torah. But if we're right about the Parsha Experiment, and there is a larger story to these 5 books, then this conclusion should really reflect that larger story. The story of the Torah isn't really all about Moses, is it? He doesn't even show up until book 2. And yes, he is the prophet, and he is the leader, isn't his message far more important and far more timeless? Why not end the Torah with something like: "And these are the great commands that Moses taught us. Cling to them, for they are life, they will bring us closer to God." Why end with this final praise of Moses?
But maybe that's just the last sentence, what if we look at the whole rest of the chapter, maybe it will give us our inspiring conclusion. But no! Instead, this entire chapter is all about painful tale of Moshe's death. "And Moses went up from the plains of Moav up to Mount Nevo to the very top of the mountain...And God showed him all the land." It's very moving and poetic. God shows him the land of Naftali, Efraim, Menasheh, Yehudah as far as the hinder sea. The plain, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees as far as Tzo'ar. And then, God says: זֹאת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיַעֲקֹב לֵאמֹר, לְזַרְעֲךָ, אֶתְּנֶנָּה - This is the land that I swore to the Patriarchs, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob saying, I'll give this to your descendents. This tale that took 5 books to tell, the promise that took hundreds of years to fulfill, the land that generations have waited to see הֶרְאִיתִיךָ בְעֵינֶיךָ, I've showed it to you with your eyes, וְשָׁמָּה לֹא תַעֲבֹר - but you shall not cross over there. (Sad sound effect)
This is terrible! It's actually happening. There is no Presidential pardon granted to Moses. And the very next words are like a punch in the gut: וַיָּמָת שָׁם מֹשֶׁה - Moses dies there. The leader who has taken Israel so far, the prophet who is responsible for these 5 books, he'll be led to the edge, and cannot cross over. It's painful, and difficult to understand, but I think there's an even simpler question we can ask. Look at that last sentence again: "There has never again arisen a prophet such as Moses who knew God, face to face" - I mean, how can you have a prophet that great, by admission of this very chapter, and then not have him enter the land?! Who was greater? The prophet Elijah? Or Moses? Looks like it's Moses! How about Micah vs. Moses? Moses wins again! Elijah and Micah lived in the land of Israel, why couldn't Moses?
And if we're trying to look at the conclusion of the Torah, we aren't just quibbling about which message it chooses to emphasize, we're not even sure what the message is! The Torah ends with a statement about Moshe's character. On the one hand, he was punished and couldn't enter the land. On the other hand, he's the greatest prophet who ever lived. What's my takeaway?
So maybe the scholars will come and tell us - (In an exaggerated scholar voice) Ah yes, excellent! Astute observation! Divine justice is very nuanced and complex. Moses was punished indeed, but the text did not want you to, Heaven forbid, think that Moses was a sinner! No, that's why it tells us that he was the greatest prophet who ever lived! You must understand the duality, the complexity, the beauty of it all!
Well, I'm sorry to report, that maybe I'm not smart enough to understand divine calculations and duality and all that, but if the Torah wanted to give us all of this duality, why not just like, have this chapter be the second-to-last chapter in the Torah. Moses dies, and then let's get another chapter, a conclusion that inspires us and summarizes the book, or maybe a little epilogue about Joshua on how it all turns out after Moses is gone. But we get none of that.
Or do we? Let's take another look: So Moses dies, and then he gets buried, and strangely, the verse tells us וְלֹא-יָדַע אִישׁ אֶת-קְבֻרָתוֹ, עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה - nobody knows, even today, where Moses is buried. Not sure why we need to know that, but it keeps going, and it tells us that the people mourn him for 30 days. Then, we hear that "Joshua, son of Nun was full of רוּחַ חָכְמָה, a spirit of wisdom" "And Israel truly listened to him, and they did as the Lord had commanded Moses" - Wonderful! Turns out we do get sort of an epilogue, our happy ending! It all turned out okay! But then, the very next verse is: וְלֹא-קָם נָבִיא עוֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, כְּמֹשֶׁה - We hear about how there never again was a prophet like Moses.
Let me ask you, isn't this verse out of place? Moses dies. The people mourn. And then we can use this last verse as the eulogy. "Moses was the greatest prophet ever, there was never again anyone like him" - And then we should hear verse 9 "And Joshua, full of a spirit of wisdom, led the people, and the people kept his commands and followed in his ways." Why are these verses out of order? It's like the Torah went especially out of its way to end with this statement about Moses. Why?
I think we have a lot of good questions on this strange end of the Torah, but we're fresh out of clues that might give us an answer. But I think, if we pull back the zoom lens a little bit, and take a second look, not just at this last chapter, but at the last few chapters, we may begin to get some clues. In a book, you know where the epilogue begins, because at the top of the page, it says "epilogue" in big block letters. Now, the Torah obviously doesn't do that. So what if the ending of the Torah doesn't start where we think it does? What if the concluding section of Torah begins just a little bit earlier than this last chapter? Let me show you what I mean: In the final chapter, we get the description of Moshe's death. But strangely, it is not the first time we hear that description: God had already told Moses that he should go up the mountain to see the land, and that he was going to die, 2 chapters ago, at the end of Parshat Ha'azinu. Here's what happens:
Moses finishes teaching Israel the song of Ha'azinu. He finishes his epic series of speeches that are the book of Deuteronomy, and as his parting line, he says, at the end of chapter 32: שִׂימוּ לְבַבְכֶם, לְכָל-הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מֵעִיד בָּכֶם הַיּוֹם - Put your heart into all of these words that I am testifying to you today, אֲשֶׁר תְּצַוֻּם, אֶת-בְּנֵיכֶם, לִשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת, אֶת-כָּל-דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת - that you might charge your children to keep, to do, all the words of this Torah. כִּי לֹא-דָבָר רֵק הוּא, מִכֶּם - it is not an empty or small thing for you - כִּי-הוּא, חַיֵּיכֶם - for it is your life - וּבַדָּבָר הַזֶּה, תַּאֲרִיכוּ יָמִים עַל-הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן שָׁמָּה, לְרִשְׁתָּהּ - and it is by keeping them, that you will lengthen your days upon the land, that you will soon cross over the Jordan to inherit.
Stop right there! That was beautiful. What a lovely end to the Torah! "Israel! Let these words penetrate your hearts! They are your life, in the land that you are about to inherit!" Instead, the chapter continues with God's command to Moses to go up the mountain, look around, and prepare for his death. Moses hears this command, and before he fulfills it in the final chapter, he delivers special blessings to the people, V'zos Habracha, in the second to last chapter, and only then does he go up the mountain to die.
Why am I telling you all of this? Because what we're basically seeing here is that the last 3 chapters are really all one story. The story of Moshe's death. So if we want to understand why the Torah ends the way it does, we're going to have to look closely at the beginning of the conclusion, and not just the end.
So how does the conclusion of the Torah begin? In Chapter 32, right after Moses tells the people to keep the Torah, that it is their life, וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה לֵאמֹר - God spoke to Moses on that self-same day, saying. Go up the mountain...Now, did you notice anything strange about that verse? Did anything seem unnecessary? (pause)
Did it really need to say בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה? - that selfsame day? What if it merely said, וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵאמֹר, עֲלֵה אֶל-הַר הָעֲבָרִים - God said to Moses, go up the mountain. Would you have asked: NOW WAIT A MINUTE?!!? WHEN WAS IT that God spoke to Moses?! Was it on that day? What about that selfsame day? Was it ביּוֹם הַזֶּה or בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה?
This phrase, בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה is very particular. It's used very rarely throughout the 5 books of Moses. In fact, it appears in only 3 other stories in the entire chumash. I think this phrase is a clue in our quest to understand the significance of the conclusion of the Torah. If we explore the other mentions of this phrase: בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה "on that selfsame day" we might begin to see a larger pattern, a signal that just might teach us how to read our strange conclusion.
Join us next week as we follow this clue to this mysterious end of the Torah. We may just discover why the Torah ends the way it does, and, perhaps even more importantly, what the conclusion of Torah teaches us about the significance of the Torah as a whole. As we close this book for the final time, what does its author, God, want us to know?
Next time, on The Parsha Experiment.