Parashat Nitzavim–Va-yeilekh

Deuteronomy 29:9–31:30

September 24, 2011 / 25 Elul 5771

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Daniel Nevins, Pearl Resnick Dean of The Rabbinical School and dean of the Division of Religious Leadership, JTS.


We have certain aspirations for the last day of a beloved person's life. When that person has lived to a ripe old age and his or her death is expected, then we like to imagine them surrounded by family and friends, quietly reminiscing about the meaning of their life and offering encouragement to the next generation. When such a scene plays out—and I have witnessed it more than once—there is consolation even before grief and a sense of peace at the passing.

If anyone deserves such a peaceful and comforting death, then surely it is Moses. This man has spent his final four decades serving the people of Israel in the most punishing and unforgiving of circumstances. We could certainly understand if Moses were to delegate final decisions to Joshua, lie back on his couch, and reminisce with his family. But that would not be Moses. No, he spends his final day worrying, speaking, haranguing, writing, singing, and, apparently, pacing (va-yeilekh: "he paced"). His family is not mentioned, but he is now the spiritual father of a nation, and his thoughts are with that enlarged family and its uncertain future.

In the first parashah, Nitzavim, Moses tries multiple strategies to protect his legacy, the Torah, which gives substance to the covenant between God and Israel. He opens with a populist line, addressing the entire nation, including the weak, poor, and powerless: this Torah belongs to all of you! Next, Moses tries to terrorize the people with horrific predictions of calamity should they abandon the Torah. Then he swings back into a comforting mode, predicting restoration of the covenant, and reassuring the people that it really is not too much to ask of them.

Having finished with the sermons, Rabbi Moses turns into Teacher Moses. In our second parashah, Va-yeilekh, he literally bombards Israel with his message, using every medium that he can muster. He writes the Torah, giving copies to his own tribe of Levi as well as to all the elders of Israel. He devises a public recitation ceremony to be played out every seven years on Sukkot. He commands the people to write their own copies of the text. Finally, he reads all the words of his song to the elders "until their end" (Deut. 31:30). (It is interesting that a very similar verse describes the thoroughness of his successor, Joshua, but Joshua's zeal is for warfare. He pursues his defeated enemies, striking them "until their end" [Josh. 10:20]). In the next and penultimate parashah, Moses will break into his hortatory song before finally climbing Mt. Nebo and dying a solitary death, attended only by God.

Poor Moses is anxious until the very end. While one can be wistful about the lack of tranquility in his final hours, in truth we know that this is how he wants it. Moses is a loner. Once he has become God's companion, he is isolated from other people. Remember, he has been wearing a mask in public for the 40 years since Sinai. Even Joshua seems to be more of an attendant than a confidante. In his final hours, there is no wife, no son, no sibling or friend around to comfort Moses. Indeed, in the final verses of the Torah we learn that even at the age of 120, Moses was clear-sighted and vital. He died "by the mouth of God," which the Rabbis understand to be the gentlest of deaths, a divine kiss (Avot D'Rabbi Natan A 12, among many other places). As the Psalmist says so powerfully: "Though my father and mother abandon me, the Lord will gather me up" (Ps. 27:10).

If this is so, then perhaps we need not fret that Moses missed his opportunity for a beautiful death. He was vibrant until the end, extending his message with passion and brilliance, and attended by God in his last breath and burial. Still, we may ask whether it worked. Did this final flurry of intense activity by Moses work? Did the people indeed treasure God's word as he demanded?

Yes and no. Obviously, you and I are still engaged in this book, studying its nuances by electronic means several thousand years after the death of Moses, our teacher. This week, we will reenact the very process of repentance described in Deuteronomy 30:2: "Then you will return to the Lord your God, and heed His voice as I have commanded you today, you and your children, with all your heart and all your soul." Yet we also have fulfilled the most pessimistic predictions of our prophet: we have collectively committed every sin in the book; we have abandoned the Torah, cast off our obligations and even spited them. But here we are, back again. Moses understands us very well—our rebellious streak and our yearning to reconcile with God. The beauty of his teaching is that he assures us that we will also have a way back to God. No matter how far we flee, we can always come home again.

Perhaps this is the reason that Moses dies an isolated death, buried by God in a place unknown to mortals. Moses is separated from people. He is denied the ability to settle down in the Promised Land. He is truly a nomad, a man of the desert, not of the homestead. He does not have a domestic death scene, surrounded by living family. Yet his death is more comforting for that. Even in his isolation, he is connected, not only to God but to us. He remains our teacher, and we remain his disciples. Moses is not alone, but surrounded by the souls of all who lived in his day and all who were yet to come. This is so because he lived for a message of holiness, a message whose significance has never expired.

What about you and me? When our time to depart this life arrives, how can we make it a beautiful parting? We cannot control the physical circumstances, but we do have the ability to impart meaning to them. What is our Torah, our teaching? How are we communicating it, and to whom? Are we investing our Torah with insight and urgency? Are we prepared to sing it with pride and purpose?

Look at the last day of Moses. See a man who is superficially isolated but profoundly connected to all of us. This week, make a plan to live just a bit like Moses and, when it's your time, to leave this world with a legacy that brings blessing and life for generations to come.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.