Early in the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses is informed that he will die without realizing his life-long dream of entering the Promised Land. In Parshat Ve’etchanan, we find rather curt dialogue between Moses and G-d: “Please let me cross the Jordan River”, says Moses, “Let me see the wonderful Promised Land, the beautiful hills, and the mountains of Lebanon across the Jordan” (Deut. 3:25).
This is not an unreasonable request from a man who dedicated his life herding an unruly mass of 600,000 souls from the dregs of Egyptian slavery toward a land flowing with milk and honey. But his aspirations to cross the River Jordan were not to be fulfilled, because: “God was angry at me, and he would not listen. God angrily told me, ‘That is enough! Do not speak to Me any more about My decision’” (Deut. 3:26). ‘This is non-negotiable’ says G-d, shutting out possibility of Moses’ protest or rebuttal.
Displaying mercy, G-d does permit Moses a temporary glimpse of the Land – “You can climb to top of Mount Pisgah, and look west, north, south, and east. Take a good look” – but nothing more: “because you will not cross the Jordan River.” Joshua not Moses will bring the people into the Land. (Deut. 3:27-28).
Reading further in Deuteronomy, Moses shares this news with the entire Israelite nation, saying simply: “I must die on this side of the Jordan River, but you will be the ones to cross over and occupy the Promised Land” (Deut. 4:22). Here we are left with the sense that Moses accepts his fate with total equanimity. It appears to be the end of the matter; there is no further discussion on the topic. Even in Parshat H’aazinu, as Moses reviews his life, he says nothing further about his immanent death. However, in the closing verses of Deuteronomy 32, G-d once more reminds Moses of his fate:
Climb Mount Avarim, to Mount Nebo, in the land of Moab, facing Jericho; and see the land of Canaan, I am giving the Israelites as an inheritance; You will die on the mountain that you are climbing, and be gathered to your people… you shall see the land from afar; but you shall not go there to the land… (Deut. 32: 49-50; 52)
Again there are no protestations from Moses; he has effectively been silenced much earlier. As the story of Moses ben Amram winds down to its final conclusion, with the factual nostalgia of a newspaper obituary we are told:
So Moses, Adonai’s servant, at His command died there in the land of Moab. God buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, near Beth-Peor. No one even to this day, knows the place where he was buried. Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died, but his eyes were sharp and he was still strong and healthy (Deut. 34:5-7).
While the Torah does report on the grief of the Israelite people – “For thirty days the Israelites mourned Moses on the plains of Moab” – nowhere in the of Deuteronomy do we get a sense of Moses’ reaction to his untimely death, east of the Jordan. Uncharacteristically, he comes across as an obedient servant, surrendering to G-d’s decree with barely a word of complaint. This is not the Moses who argued with G-d throughout his leadership career. The way in which he accepts his death suggests that perhaps something is missing here.
In turning to Midrashic tradition we discover a radically different point of view regarding Moses’ death than that documented in Torah. In Midrash Rabbah (XI,10); Midrash Tanhuma (Vaethanan 6); Sifre on Deuteronomy (Piska 305); and Midrash Petirat Moshe we find extensive documentation of Moses’ argumentative disputations with G-d. Moses did not “go gentle into that good night”; instead he choose to “rage, rage against the dying of the light”, in the words of the poet Dylan Thomas. Moses did not want to die! Throughout Midrash we see his passionate self-advocacy for a stay of execution so that he could enter the Promised Land, as he believed he was rightfully entitled.
Material presented below from Deuteronony Rabbah and Tanhuma illuminates Moses’ process of psychological transformation in response to the immanence of his death. What we shall see is that Moses goes through, what amounts to, the five stages of dying – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – articulated by the Swiss psychiatrist, Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Each stage has its own characteristic emotional reactions, leading towards a slow and yet inevitable acceptance of death.
When first told he shall not enter the Promised Land, Moses sidesteps the import of the decree, denying its inevitability. According to Deuteronony Rabbah, after the heavenly High Court finally decreed his death sentence, Moses ignored it, assuming it did not really apply to him. He reasoned that since G-d had forgiven Israel in response to previous requests, G-d would do the same on his behalf:
Israel have many times committed great sins, and whenever I prayed for them, God immediately answered my prayer, as it is said, Let Me alone, that I may destroy them (Deut. 9:14); yet what is written there? And the Lord repented of the evil (Ex. 32:14)… Seeing then that I have not sinned from my youth, does it not stand to reason that when I pray on my own behalf God should answer my prayer? (Deut. R. XI, 10)
Seeing that the decree against him had been sealed, Moses’ denial of his death continued, assuming his actions could vanish death’s inevitability:
…he took a resolve to fast, and drew a small circle and stood therein, and exclaimed: ‘ I will not move from here until You annul that decree.’ What else did Moses do then? He donned sackcloth and wrapped himself with sackcloth and rolled himself in the dust and stood in prayer and supplications before God, until the heavens and the order of nature were shaken. (Deut. R. XI, 10)
In Midrash Tanhuma the headstrong, cantankerous Moses emerges. He is argumentative with G-d, belligerent, even somewhat sarcastic. In the tone of his dialog we see Moses’ anger about his immanent death:
For naught have my feet stepped on the clouds. For naught have I run before you like a horse, as now I will become as a worm… God said to him: I have already decreed death on the first human. Said Moses: Then let the first human die, for you commanded him one small mitzvah and he transgressed it, but don’t let me die!… God said to him: But Abraham who sanctified in my name in the world died. Said he: Abraham begat Ishmael, whose descendents provoke you… God said to him: Isaac who spread his neck on the altar died. Said Moses to God. Isaac who begat Esau who destroyed the Temple and burnt your sanctuary. God said: Look at Jacob who begat twelve tribes of whom none were unfit. Said he to God: Jacob did not go up to heaven; neither did he step on the clouds, nor was he like the ministering angels. You did not speak to him face to face and he didn’t receive the Torah from you. (Tanhuma, V’Ethchanan; translation Allan Kensy)
All Moses’ emotionality not withstanding, G-d held steadfast in his decree. G-d bolted the gates of heaven to ensure Moses’ prayers not be accepted, and that he not be granted continued life, nor enter the Holy Land.
Seeing that neither denial nor anger were effective, Moses became more desperate, and began bargaining with G-d. “Master of the Universe” said Moses, “if You will not bring me into Eretz Israel, leave me in this world so that I may live and not die.” (Deut. R. XI, 10). G-d’s refusal was swift. Again Moses pleaded: “Master of the Universe, if You will not bring me into Eretz Israel, let me become like the beasts of the field that eat grass and drink water and live and enjoy the world; likewise let my soul be as one of them” (Ibid). G-d was unrelenting, but so was Moses: “Master of the Universe, if not, let me become in this world like the bird that flies about in every direction, and gathers its food daily, and returns to its nest towards evening; let my soul likewise become like one of them.” (Ibid).
All the machinations of Moses’ bargaining were ineffective, and did not change his fate. G-d was unmoved, and again silenced Moses. In various ways, Moses continued his pleading, asking heaven, earth, sun, moon, stars, planets, mountains, hills, and ocean none of whom could intervene on Moses’ behalf. Eventually Moses asked Sar Panim (Minister of the Interior), who spoke with dispassionate veracity: “Moses my Master, why all this trouble? I have already heard from behind the curtain that your prayer will not listed to in this matter?” (Tanhuma, V’Ethchanan).
In this retort, the reality of his death came home to Moses with powerful impact: “Moses put his hands on his head, and cried, who will pray for me?” (Ibid) The stage of depression has set in. Moses is finally beginning to see the inevitable, and it hurts, there are genuine tears of grief for the first time. His personal identity is beginning to dissolve, Moses is longer the invincible leader who talked with Pharoah, and split the sea, climbed mountains and inspired an unruly nation for forty years. Vulnerable and defenseless, Moses confesses to G-d: “I am afraid of the angel of death” (Ibid). Moses is not yet ready to surrender to his own demise. As one close to death, he is needing comfort from the those around him. With his brother and sister already dead, Moses the man of the mountain yearns for tender comfort from the G-d who has been his life-long ally and nemesis. He begs: “do not hand me over into the hand of the Angel of Death” (Deut. R. XI, 10). In response to his fear, Bat Kol, a divine emissary comforts Moses: “Fear not, I myself will attend to you and your burial” (Ibid).
In the interplay of parallel, but variant texts in Tanhuma and Deut. Rabbah, we see Moses’ life wind down and moves towards an acceptance of his death, and a peaceful resolution with G-d and with the Israelite nation. Tanhuma describes how Moses sees Joshua taking over his place as teacher of the Israelite nation, and this he is finally able surrender to G-d: “Master of the Universe, until now I have asked for life, now my life is given to you. (Tanhuma, v’Etchanan).
An odd shift now transpires, as Moses finally begins to accept the reality of his death. What we see in the Midrash is that G-d too begins to grieve, lamenting the loss of his long-time champion and defender. “Once Moses accepted his death, God opened and said: ‘Who will take my part against evil men?’ (Psalms 94:16). Who will stand up for Israel in the time of my anger, who will fight the battles of my children, who will seek mercy for them when they sin before me?” (Ibid).
In Tanhuma, Moses completes his relationship with the Israelite people, He gives his final blessings, as we see recorded in Chapter 33 of Deuteronomy – “This is the blessing, with which Moses the man of God blessed the people of Israel before his death” (Deut. 33:1); and asks for forgiveness for the pain he caused the people in bringing them the Torah and the mitzvoth. Israel asks Moses for forgiveness for the pain they have caused their revered leader. All is forgiven, and Moses is prepared to die.
The moment of death arrives, and after all the Sturm und Drang G-d and Moses are longer in an adversarial relationship with one another. The final moments are full of blessing, and Moses experiences the most peaceful death possible, the kiss of G-d:
At that hour, Moses arose and sanctified himself like the Seraphim, and God came down from the highest heavens to take away the soul of Moses, and with Him were three ministering angels, Michael, Gabriel, and Zagzagel. Michael laid out his bier, Gabriel spread out a fine linen cloth at his bolster, Zagzagel one at his feet; Michael stood at one side and Gabriel at the other side. God said: “Moses, fold your eyelids over your eyes,” and he did so. He then said: “Place your hands upon your breast,” and he did so. He then said: “Put your feet next to one another,” and he did so. Forthwith the Holy One, blessed be He, summoned the soul from the midst of the body, saying to her: “My daughter, I have fixed the period of thy stay in the body of Moses at a hundred and twenty years; now thy end has come, depart, delay not… Thereupon God kissed Moses and took away his soul with a kiss of the mouth… (Deut. R, XI, 10).
And finally, as the Torah text reminds us:
There never was another prophet in Israel like Moses, whom Adonai knew face to face. No one else could have performed all the wonders and miracles that Adonai allowed Moses to perform before Pharaoh, in the land of Egypt, or any of the powerful miracles and awesome deeds that Moses performed before the eyes of all the Israelites (Deut. 34:10-11).
Through Midrash we discover a fuller depiction of Moses’ death than that delineated in Torah. In the range of emotions experienced by Moses, we see the essential nature of the human encounter with death, stark and unadorned, but full of potential for healing and redemption.
J.D. Eisenstein, ed., “Petirat Moshe” in Otzar Midrashim Vol. II, (New York: Grossmans, 1956), pp. 361-372.
Allan Kensky, “On Death and Dying and the Last Days of Moses”, Reconstructionist, (Spring 1992), 25-27.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying (New York: Macmillan, 1970).