I had the great pleasure a few weeks ago of moderating an event at Hebrew College at which two psychotherapists and two rabbis reflected on their work with dying patients. Among the many profound insights that came out of this evening, I was particularly struck by something reported by Rabbi Joel Baron of Hebrew Senior Life, who noted how often he worked with patients who felt deeply ready to die. Most of his patients told him in some form that they had lived a good life, that whatever illness had led them to hospice was now taking the quality of their life away, and that they were ready to go.
I took great heart in this sentiment, with the wish that I too might at the end of my days (should I be blessed to see them coming) feel that I had done enough, lived enough, been enough for this world to be at peace with moving forward.
Our Torah portion this week, Ha’azinu, has a moment in which Moses is given the knowledge that the end of his days are coming. He is told to go up to Mt. Nebo, where he will die like his brother Aaron. He will look out over the Promised Land, but he will not be allowed to go into the land because of his striking the rock at the waters of Meribah.
The Torah is silent on Moses’ immediate reaction to this knowledge. Is he, like Rabbi Baron’s patients, acquiescent to his death, comfortable having lived enough to be at peace moving forward?
For the ancient rabbis, the answer is a resounding no. A slim medieval midrashic volume called “Petirat Moshe” (the death of Moses) is dedicated to precisely this moment. It gives voice to Moses’ knowledge that he will die. And far from being accepting, the rabbis depict Moses as desperate.
“Let me live!” he begs God. He tries to bargain with God by all sorts of means. Moses tells God he would not need to be Moses. He could just be a regular Jew. He pleads to be reincarnated as a deer—anything so long as he could simply live. Roughly a thousand years before Elizabeth Kubler-Ross articulated the various stages and states of coming to terms with death, the rabbis understood that bargaining was a common human stance when we are confronted with mortality.
Bargaining gives way to anger in the midrash, as Moses refuses to die quietly. In a rather stunning sequence, both for its theological and psychological meaning, God sends the Angel of Death to take Moses’s life, Moses repels him and is poised to kill the Angel of Death, until God intervenes and tells Moses not to do this because “people need him.” This extraordinary midrash reminds us that death is not only a necessary part of existence, but also for many people a welcome one—and Moses’ desperate fight to avoid it is not only useless, it does not allow him to find the peace that comes with accepting his finitude.
The midrash continues with God telling Moses that the end will come for him as it will come for all people, but that God will take Moses “by the mouth of God,” or as is most often translated, he will die “by the kiss of God” – an intimate closure to his life.
This midrash envisions Moses as desperate to live, in part because he feels his life’s project is unfulfilled. He will die looking out at the land he may not enter. An overarching theological reading of the midrash might be that, despite the seeming cruelty of death, God is ultimately compassionate towards us and seeks to lessen the harshness of mortality. But the spiritual lesson that emerges from this medieval text for how we live in the world, before our death, is one of acceptance.
Moses wanted to fight with every last fiber to stay alive, but when death is inevitable (as on some level, it always is), there comes a point when one needs to accept the end—and there can be peace in this acceptance. We may not live to see things fulfilled in all the ways that we wish, but there is still grace and intimacy to be found on this side of the Promised Land.
Rabbi Dan Judson teaches history, oversees the professional development program, and serves as the placement director for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University. If you are interested learning more about the Rabbinical School or School of Jewish Music at Hebrew College, join us for Ta Sh’ma (Come & Hear), our Open House & Day of Learning on November 14, 2016.