Monday, March 18, 2013

The Mourning After

Most people would tell you that the death of Moses is the last event recorded in the Torah, but that's not quite true; the narrative ends one month later (Deut. 34:8): "So the Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the days of weeping and mourning for Moses were completed." That means that the Torah does not end on the 7th of Adar, the date of Moses' birth over three millennia ago, as well as his death; instead, it concludes today, on the 7th of Nisan. However, this verse seems wholly superfluous. Why do we need to know how long the mourning lasted, and why do we need to know that it ended?

Setting aside this question for a moment, another detail is remarkable (v. 6): "No man knows his burial place until this day." This is the universal translation, but the fact is that the Hebrew literally reads: "No man knew his burial place." After all, the verse gives a location: "And He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-Peor." This is the location both of the Israelites' settlement in the desert (ibid. 3:29) and the site of Moses' final speech (4:46). Actually, we find a similar formulation in Moses' own words: "God did not give you a heart to perceive, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, until this day" (29:3-4). It is the lack of knowledge that ends "this day." The Torah seems to be telling us that Moses' grave was unknown until the month of mourning was over, at which the point the Torah was finally completed and transmitted and the information revealed. Why?In Jewish tradition, there are two types of mourning: twelve months for parents and thirty days for siblings and other close relatives. To which group does Moses belong? He answers this question himself, promising: "Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers" (18:15). This successor is not meant to be Moses' prophetic equal, as the Torah declares (34:10): "There has never been another prophet in Israel like Moses, whom God knew face to face." However, his heirs are "like Moses" in their being "from among your own brothers". Moses is a brother. We are all God's children (14:1), not Moses'. Ultimately, it is important for us to know that Moses was human, fallible and imperfect, a person who was born, died and was buried. He gets the same thirty days of mourning as any brother. During that time, the location of his grave is not revealed, as the physical reality of the loss would be too traumatic; but when the pain begins to subside, it is essential to know that the Torah of Moses is now sealed, and it is time for the nation to move on.

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