The Death of Moses
Written by student
The Rabbis dispute whether Moses wrote the last eight Torah verses. What is the issue?
The last eight verses took place after Moses died. Either Moses wrote them through prophecy, or Joshua wrote them. Rabbi Simone says that Moses wrote them. But how may we understand the theory that Moses didn’t write these verses? What theory demands this view? Additionally, what is the necessity to record his death in the Torah? The Torah is a book, which teaches truths about God. How does Moses’ death conform to such truths?
Although the Torah contains accounts of events, these accounts do not serve as mere, historical records, but they contain profound teachings, as is the case with all Torah accounts. Maimonides cites the rabbinic ridicule of King Menasseh:
“There is a saying of our Sages (B.T. Sanh. 99b) that ‘the wicked king Menasseh frequently held disgraceful meetings for the sole purpose of criticizing such passages of the Law. He held meetings and made blasphemous observations on Scripture, saying, ‘Had Moses nothing else to write than, ‘And the sister of Lotan was Timna.’ (Gen. xxxvi. 22)?”
“Every narrative in the Law serves a certain purpose in connection with religious teaching. It either helps to establish a principle of faith, or to regulate our actions, and to prevent wrong and injustice among men; and I will show this in each case.” (Guide for the Perplexed, Book III, Chap. L)
Maimonides establishes the principle that the Torah – every verse – must contain religious teachings. How is this true with regards to the account of Moses’ death?
Deuteronomy, 34:6-7 reads as follows:
“And Moses died there, the servant of God, in the land of Moab by the word of God. And they buried him in Gai, in the land of Moab, facing Beth Peor, and man does not know his gravesite to this day.”
What is so essential about where Moses was buried, that it was facing Beth Peor? We learn that Peor was the primary, idolatrous god. What is the connection between Moses and Peor? Additionally, what demands that mankind not know Moses’ gravesite? And if we are not to know his gravesite, why does the Torah offer so much detail?
There are a few more statements, which are relevant to this analysis. Talmud Sotah 13b says, “Moses didn’t die.” What does this mean? We know he died, as the Torah records his gravesite.
It is stated, “the Torah commences with God’s kindness, and concludes with God’s Kindness. It commences with God’s kindness as we read, “and He clothed them (Adam and Eve) with animal skins.” And it concludes with God’s kindness, as we read, “And He buried him (Moses) in Gai.” What is this principle, and how is burying Moses in Gai and act of kindness? We also learn that Moses’ gravesite was prepared during the Six Days of Creation. This must be due to some essential aspect of his gravesite, but what?
There is one more Midrashic (allegorical) statement, which deserves out attention. After Moses died, wicked people sought out his burial site. When they were at the summit of the mountain, they saw his gravesite at the base. When they were at the base below, they saw it at the summit. They decided to break up into two groups: those at the base saw his site at the summit, and those at the summit, saw Moses’ gravesite at the base. Then, they realized that what they both saw was a projection. Why were these grave seekers referred to as “wicked”? Let is begin by examining Moses’ unique character.
Moses’ Unparalleled Distinction
The Torah says, “And Moses died there, the servant of God…” True knowledge of God converts one into a “servant” of God. Additionally, the ineffable name of God used here indicates that Moses obtained the truest knowledge of God. God’s name “Elohim” is not used, as this word refers to how God bestows His providence on mankind. Therefore, we learn that Moses was the “servant of God”; as the ineffable name of God is used, teaching that Moses’ knowledge was of the highest form, not limited to knowledge of God’s providence alone. Through this knowledge, he was converted into God’s servant.
We learn that Moses was referred to as a “Sachel Nifrad”, “a separated intelligence”. This means to say that Moses reached the highest level of any human; he operated completely through his intelligence. Moses was in complete control of his instincts. Thus, he, over all others, was the furthest removed from the idolatrous emotions. Idolatry is not a “taboo”, but a natural force. Its seeds lie within the core of every human psyche. Idolatry is not created from anywhere else than from man’s own emotional and psychological drives. However, Moses, being completely removed from any instinctual component, had no relationship to such drives or emotions. Thereby, Moses reflected the entire Torah. The Rabbis teach, “One who denies idolatry, is as one who follows the entire Torah. One who follows idolatry is as one who denies all of Torah.”
Not forming part of his prophetical teachings, Moses did not write about his own death. However, his death was not simply an event, but it served a precise purpose: it forms part of Torah. How so?
Moses’ Death: The Lessons
The Rabbis teach that Moses’ death atones for the sin of Peor worship. As we stated, Moses’ very being, over all others, did not partake at all of the idolatrous emotion. Now, as he was buried facing the primary idolatrous entity Peor, God teaches us this was done to oppose idolatry. The study of Moses suppresses the drive for idolatry. One cannot entertain Peor, without also recognizing that this very location is Moses’ gravesite. This contrast between Peor (idolatry), and Moses, forces one to recognize the fallacy of idolatry. He recognizes Moses, the one who opposed idolatry par excellence. Thus, one being “atoned” for Peor means the sin of Peor is forgiven, as Moses’ nature suppresses the idolatrous drive in others. “Atonement” is anything, which functions to remove man from evil. Moses’ gravesite faces Peor precisely to remove man from the worst evil: idolatry. For this reason, Moses’ death was essential to Torah. It was not simply a recorded historical event.
This explains why the Rabbis state, “Moses did not die”. Of course Moses is dead, but “not dying,” means that his death was not a negative: he didn’t simply pass with no benefit to man. Moses’ death functions to teach this truth, that idolatry is false. He “did not die” means, his teachings have not ceased: his death was not without a teaching of its own.
This event is so essential; the Rabbis stated that Moses’ gravesite was created during the Six days of Creation. This means that Moses’ gravesite was so essential to creation itself, it forms part of Creation. God’s physical world cannot exist without an eternal and concrete lesson uprooting the fallacy of idolatry. Moses’ gravesite achieves this teaching, thereby forming part of the goal of Creation itself.
Why were those seeking Moses’ gravesite called wicked? The reason is because a grave can also function as a vehicle of idolatry – human worship. This was the very reason Rashi states that Jacob asked not to be buried in Egypt, lest the Egyptians worship his grave. Jacob did not desire that in death, he should detract from mankind’s objective to recognize and serve God alone. Even more does this apply to Moses, and this is why God did not reveal to man Moses’ gravesite.
Moses’ death serves to oppose idolatry. Therefore, inherent in his death, God orchestrated this event that there would be no possibility that Moses become deified, and mutually exclude the very goal of his death: uprooting idolatry. Moses’ gravesite must remain hidden.
This kindness God showed to mankind: He gave us a vehicle through Moses’ death, which counters the fallacy of idolatry. God commenced His Torah with kindness, by supplying Adam and Eve with their psychological needs. Now embarrassed at their nakedness, God placated them psychologically. God also concluded His Torah with kindness: He gave us our metaphysical (spiritual) needs. God gave us an essential teaching through Moses’ death.