V’zos Ha’bracha: A Servant of G-d Unto the Very End
On Simchas Torah, we conclude our annual journey through Chumash with the reading of V’zos Ha’bracha. The end of Sefer Devarim and the finale of the Chamisha Chumshei Torah speaks of final blessings, parting words and poetic prophecies. And the finality of death. In the fortieth year of desert travels, as the nation stands poised to enter the Land, we read the fateful pasukim:
וַיָּמָת שָׁם מֹשֶׁה עֶבֶד-ה’, בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב--עַל-פִּי ה, and there Moshe died, the servant of G-d, in the land of Moav, by the mouth of Hashem…וְלֹֽא־יָדַ֥ע אִישׁ֙ אֶת־קְבֻ֣רָת֔וֹ עַ֖ד הַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה, and no man knows his burial place until this very day… וְלֹא-קָם נָבִיא עוֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, כְּמֹשֶׁה, אֲשֶׁר יְדָעוֹ ה’ פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים, And there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moshe, whom Hashem knew face to face (Devarim 34:5-10); וּלְכֹל הַיָּד הַחֲזָקָה, וּלְכֹל הַמּוֹרָא הַגָּדוֹל, אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה מֹשֶׁה, לְעֵינֵי כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל - and all the strong hand, and all the great awesomeness, which Moses did before the eyes of all Israel (ibid, v.12).
After forty years of leadership and dedication to his people, after decades of journeying through desert lands to reach the Holy Land - for after all, this was the purpose of Moshe’s mission! (see Shemos 3:8) - after 515 tefilos uttered to be allowed entry into Eretz Yisrael; alas, it was not meant to be. Because of the sin of Mei Merivah (Bamidbar 20), Moshe was banned entry into the land of Israel.
Moshe died alone on the eastern side of the Jordan River, never to cross into Eretz Yisrael. Even in death, he did not merit kevura ba’Aretz. Each year our heart is pained as we read of Moshe’s demise. And yet, even as he ascended to his death atop Mt. Navo, he did so with alacrity and purpose, to fulfill the command of G-d.
Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm (1927-2020) z’l teaches, “The great hasidic thinker R’ Zvi Elimelech Shapiro (d.1841, known as the Bnei Yissaschar) explains that we must dedicate not only life but also death towards the spiritual goal of executing G-d’s will. According to the author of the kabbalistic work Asara Ma’amarim, Adam, who represents collective man, was given not one but two commandments. The first one is well known: ‘וּמֵעֵץ, הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע לֹא תֹאכַל, מִמֶּנּוּ, But of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil you shall not eat’ (Bereishis 2:17). What is not so widely known is that the rest of the verse also constitutes a commandment: ‘כִּי, בְּיוֹם אֲכָלְךָ מִמֶּנּוּ--מוֹת תָּמוּת, For in the day you eat of it you shall surely die.’ That is not only a prediction but also a commandment: If you violate the negative ‘you shall not eat,’ then you must perform the positive commandment, ‘you shall surely die!’ This is not only a fact of nature - it is a divine commandment.
“In that case, the Bnei Yissaschar continues, the Jew must approach death with kavana (intention), even as he does in the case of any other positive commandment. It is for this reason that the Torah tells us that ‘so Moshe the servant of Hashem died there.’ Moshe was an eved Hashem - a servant of G-d - not only in his conduct of his life, but also in the manner of his death - even as he dedicated all his life to G-d, so did he respond to the summons to die with the same inner participation and dedication.
“Thus, he explains the verses in our sidra: ‘Go up onto this mountain of Avarim… and die on the mountain where you will go up’ (Devarim 32:49-50). Note that the Torah does not say ‘and you will die on the mount,’ but ‘and die.’ This form is the imperative rather than the future. G-d does not merely inform Moshe that he will die. He commands him to do so! Death as the last mitzvah!
“…If one had spiritually died a long time ago, then physical death is as devoid of dignity as was one’s life. There are people who live without dignity, and they are (as if they are already) dead. And there are people who not only live with dignity, but die with dignity - and such people deserve the epithet ovdei Hashem, servants of the L-rd!… As we say right before reciting the Shema, ‘ki heim chayeinu v’orech yameinu’ - the words of the Torah are our life and the length of our days - and even beyond it” (Derashot Ledorot, Deuteronomy, p.135-140).
An eved Hashem not only lives to serve G-d, but also dies to serve G-d. This brings to mind the Gemara that records the details of the death of the great Tanna, Rabbi Akiva (Brachos 61b):
בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁהוֹצִיאוּ אֶת רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא לַהֲרִיגָה זְמַן קְרִיאַת שְׁמַע הָיָה, וְהָיוּ סוֹרְקִים אֶת בְּשָׂרוֹ בְּמַסְרְקוֹת שֶׁל בַּרְזֶל, וְהָיָה מְקַבֵּל עָלָיו עוֹל מַלְכוּת שָׁמַיִם. אָמְרוּ לוֹ תַּלְמִידָיו: רַבֵּינוּ, עַד כָּאן?! אָמַר לָהֶם: כׇּל יָמַי הָיִיתִי מִצְטַעֵר עַל פָּסוּק זֶה ״בְּכָל נַפְשְׁךָ״ אֲפִילּוּ נוֹטֵל אֶת נִשְׁמָתְךָ. אָמַרְתִּי: מָתַי יָבֹא לְיָדִי וַאֲקַיְּימֶנּוּ, וְעַכְשָׁיו שֶׁבָּא לְיָדִי, לֹא אֲקַיְּימֶנּוּ? הָיָה מַאֲרִיךְ בְּ״אֶחָד״, עַד שֶׁיָּצְתָה נִשְׁמָתוֹ בְּ״אֶחָד״. יָצְתָה בַּת קוֹל וְאָמְרָה: ״אַשְׁרֶיךָ רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא שֶׁיָּצְאָה נִשְׁמָתְךָ בְּאֶחָד״
When the Romans took Rabbi Akiva out for execution, it was the time for the recitation of the Keriyas Shema. As they were raking his flesh with iron combs, he was accepting upon himself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven. His students, witnessing this scene, exclaimed, “Rebbe, are you so devoted to G-d, that as you are being murdered, you are able to declare and accept His Oneness?” Said Rabbi Akiva, “All my life, I was pained over the command to ‘Love the L-rd G-d with all your soul”, which means: even if He takes your soul! And I said to myself: when would the opportunity to fulfill this mitzvah come to me? Now that it has come me to fulfill, shall I not fulfill? “ He elongated the recitation of the word אֶחָד, G-d is One, until his soul departed with the word “One.” A heavenly voice emanated and said, “fortunate are you Rabbi Akiva, that your soul departed with the word ‘One.’”
This, then, is the final lesson of Moshe Rabbeinu, as we close Sefer Devarim. To be G-d serving and G-d fearing is not only in life, but also in death. Avodas Hashem is in this world and unto the Next World. While this is a level that giants amongst us live on, it is important to know that there is such a level and it is attainable to those who strive to reach it.
May we always merit to sanctify G-d’s Name as we live, so that we will blessed with the arichus yamim and shanim that was granted to Moshe, to fulfill our mission unto the final day - and beyond.
בברכת בשורות טובות ,חג שמח ושבת שלום.