Dr. Yocheved Engelberg Cohen
Former Shlicha, Syracuse (5760-1) and Princeton (5764-5)
Currently working as a Hebrew-to-English translator, her current project translating R. Eliezer Melamed’s Peninei Halakha series
Death is perhaps the ultimate slap in the face to humanity. We are almost powerless to combat it or defy it. Nevertheless, we long to overcome it. Despite this longing, we cannot even easily define death. At what point does one cross from life to death? The Torah reading of Simchat Torah relates to this enigma.
“It was there in the land of Moav that God’s servant Moshe died at God’s word. He buried him in the valley, in the land of Moav, opposite Beit Peor. No one knows his burial place to this day” (Devarim 34:5-6).
These verses report the death of the most revered leader of the Jewish people, Moshe, in a rather strange fashion. On the one hand, we have a very clear and unambiguous statement that Moshe died and was buried, seemingly in the normal human way. On the other hand, after providing us with a detailed description of where Moshe was buried, the verse adds that no one knows where he is buried. Additionally, who buried Moshe? The only subject available would seem to be G-d. Apparently G-d buried Moshe in an undisclosed location. This would be vastly different from the way most people leave this world. Did Moshe die a normal death and have a normal burial or not?
The Talmud (Sotah 13b-14a) addresses this issue:
“He buried him in the valley, in the land of Moav, opposite Beit Peor.” Rabbi Berachyah said: (The Torah provides) guidepost after guidepost (in describing this location), but nevertheless, “no one knows his burial place to this day.”
The Talmud then tells the story of an unsuccessful attempt by the Romans to find Moshe’s mysterious burial place. They come up with a seemingly foolproof way to find the grave, yet they fail. For this grave and this burial are evidently outside the realm of the strictly natural. This concept presumably informs the opinion in Pirkei Avot (5:6) that Moshe’s grave was created at twilight on the eve of the Sabbath. Here, at the border of the natural and the supernatural, at a time when profane and sacred, the mundane creation and the holy Sabbath are indistinguishable, the grave of Moshe came into being. As Dr. Rella Kushelevsky states, this “gives an additional dimension to the illusive nature of the grave of Moshe: not only does it disappear in space, it disappears in time as well” (“A Study of the Midrashic Sources on the Death of Moses,” www.biu.ac.il/JH/Parasha/eng/sukot/kushel.html).
If you think that’s radical, compare this incredible quote from the same page in the Talmud:
Some say: Moshe did not die. It is written here: “Moshe died.” And it is written elsewhere (Shmot 34:28), “He [Moshe] remained there with G-d [for forty days and forty nights].” Just as there he (was not dead but rather) was standing in the service of G-d, so too here (at the end of Moshe’s one hundred and twenty years, he did not die, but rather is standing) in the service of G-d.
Since the verse states clearly that Moshe did die (regardless of precisely who buried him precisely where), presumably this suggestion is not meant to be taken literally. It reveals a wish that even if regular people cannot evade death, at least Moshe, a spiritual giant, should be able to do so. It suggests as well that he succeeded, to a certain extent, in doing so. For Moshe’s legacy continues everywhere Torah is studied and lived. By transcending himself, Moshe indeed lives on.