A Last Glimpse of Moses
Deb Housen-Couriel is Director of the Wexner Israel Fellowship Program and herself an alumna of the program. She can be reached at email@example.com
“Never again has there arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Almighty had known face to face, none like him for all the signs and the wonders which the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharoah and to all his servants and to all his land, and for all the mighty power and all the great and terrible deeds which Moses wrought in the sight of all Israel.”
These are the concluding words of Parashat V’Zot HaBracha (“This Is the Blessing”) and, in fact, of the entire Torah.
The parasha is an unusual one in both form and substance. Ending with the death of Moses and his burial in Moab, it prods us to ask hard questions about the lifelong leadership of Moses; and, in my mind, about what remains of the thoughts, faith and actions of this revolutionary Jewish patriarch at the end of his days on earth. This parasha pushes us to think about Moses’ and our own spiritual legacy, about mortality and heartbreaking failure, and about ways of teaching and relating to those who replace us in our lifelong endeavors.
First, the issue of form. The parasha is literally the end of the story – the last of the parashot and the concluding section of the Torah. Yet it is not read on Shabbat like the other parashot, but rather on the day upon which Shmini Atzeret / Simchat Torah falls, at the conclusion of Sukkot. It is the wrap-up of the life story of one of the Jewish people’s great teachers and guiding lights, one of our heroes. But for me it is strangely sad, poignant, and utterly lacking in personal triumph for its main character. Another attribute that marks the parasha is its textual organization, which clearly divides into two parts: the first consists of “the blessing with which Moses the man of G-d (ish elohim) blessed the children of Israel before his death;” and the second relates the final, paradoxical and difficult moments of Moses on earth.
Moses’ legacy of blessing
The particular blessings given to each tribe, with the exception of the unblessed tribe of Shimon, connect with some core, unique element characterizing the tribe receiving the blessing. Some commentators have linked the blessings to role of the tribe in the future military campaign to conquer Eretz Yisrael; or to the tribe’s capacity to undertake a certain type of leadership; or to the quality of the part of Israel that it is destined to inherit. The omission of Shimon has also been connected to the impending conquest, in which it did not play a key role at the initial stages of Joshua’s campaign.
Whatever the substance of the particular tribal blessings may be, they are striking to me as a wise and insightful final act of a leader who has spent a lifetime trying to understand, motivate, correct and reprimand a newly-forged people. He has organized this people into tribes: and he knows the tribes so intimately that he can tell them things about themselves that they may not yet know, as when he identifies Zvulun as a tribe that will benefit from “the hidden treasures of the sand;” or he may be inspiring them to have the courage for difficult battles, as when he describes Dan as “a lion’s cub that leaps forth…” With the exception of Shimon, Moses leaves each core group in Israelite society with an identity, a defined strength, and a mission. And, who knows, perhaps Shimon gleans its own message from having been excluded from this exhortation.
The unmarked tomb
The second part of the parasha relates to Moses’ final moments of life, which take place in isolation from all but G-d, far from the tribes whom he has left down in the valley of Moab. He already knows by now (G-d has told him) that he will not enter the land of Israel, but will only see it from afar. He also knows (G-d has also told him this) that am yisrael will without doubt break the covenant that was made at Sinai, despite his best efforts to teach, to lead by example, and to inspire. He even knows that he has been replaced by another as leader of Am Israel, although there is no objective reason for his replacement (the Torah tells us that, at age 120, Moses’ “eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated”). Yet G-d Himself has elbowed Moses out of the way so that Joshua may take the lead. Most wrenching is the panorama of Eretz Yisrael that G-d shows Moses, telling him “but you shall not go over there.” The fulfillment of one of his most important lifelong aspirations is, in the final moments, beyond his power. The Torah does not tell us what Moses’ response to these realities was; it leaves us to ponder his reaction to what others of us in his position might very reasonably and very humanly have understood as a failure of leadership and of the work of a life.
Yet what the Torah does provide us with, at its conclusion, is a kind of epitaph for Moses’ non-existent headstone on his unmarked grave. The final words of the Torah grant to Moses—despite his not having achieved what we of the 21st century might call his life goals—a place of unique meaning, stature and value to his people, which for me resonates down through the generations: “Never again has there arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses.”