By Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson
For some of us, a dawning sense of adulthood came with our first awareness of death. Perhaps it was the death of a pet, or the passing of a grandparent, but the realization that life would not last forever changed each of us in an instant. Suddenly life was transformed from light and joy to a complex, bittersweet mix. The melody of life switched from a major to a minor key and we begin the lifelong task of learning to savour life’s joys, despite its inevitable sorrows.
Each of us develops different ways of dealing with death’s sting. Some deny its power, acting as though personal greatness can override the inevitable. Others accumulate great wealth or power in the subconscious hope of joining the immortals.
This week’s Torah portion speaks of the inevitability of death through the eyes of one great man, Moses. Surely, if there was any Jew deserving of eternal life it was Moses. He alone, of all humanity, had spoken to God face to face and lived. He had liberated God’s people, received the Torah, and assured its honoured place at the centre of Jewish life. With compassion for the people and passion for God, this great prophet and teacher certainly deserved to live forever.
Yet it was not to be. The Torah records that ‘The Lord said to Moses: “the time is drawing near for you to die…You are soon to lie with your ancestors.”’
Moses’ mortality becomes a metaphor for the human condition. Midrash Devarim Rabbah states: ‘Rabbi Judah says, “No one has power over the Angel of Death to be saved from death itself.”’ We all must inevitably pass beyond the portals of this world, through death.
The Midrash continues to explore this theme: ‘No one, when about to die, can say, “I will send my slave in my stead.” Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta says, “No one has the power to say to the Angel of Death, “Wait for me until I have made up my accounts.”’
There is no way to avoid dying, and there is no negotiating with death when one’s time has come. “After all the greatness which Moses has enjoyed, when the day of his death came, he could not hold it back.” And if Moses could not restrain death, what hope is there for us?
Perhaps Moses knew that. He trained himself his whole life not to look for salvation from anything that pertains to this world alone. He never pursued wealth as an end in itself, nor amassed great power as a source of self-satisfaction.
Instead, Moses’ behaviour in the face of death provides a beacon for us all. Moses knew that to enter eternity requires identifying with something eternal. So he cast his lot with the Jewish People, with the Torah, and with God. Those three carry eternity in their midst, and so can we, when we bring the three together in the knot of our souls.
By living in the midst of the Jewish community, making the mitzvot our own personal pathways through life and nurturing our awareness of God’s love, we train ourselves to survive death – not by evading or denying the inevitable, but by transcending it.
To rise above time, we must link ourselves to the timeless – the household of Israel, the Torah of Israel, and the God of Israel – and through that portal, to all humanity and creation.