Moses’ death and our life

By Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker
Parashat Vayeilech

Our rabbis are great storytellers with great imaginations. Some of their best work revolves around the verse in parashat Vayeilech, “God said to Moses: The time is drawing near for you to die” (Deuteronomy 31:14). From this verse, the stories are amazing.

They generally start with the understanding that Moses doesn’t want to die. After everything he’s been through, he wants to see the Promised Land. Moses wants more time — his life isn’t over. And Moses isn’t just anybody…he’s Moses. He’s talked with God face to face. He’s seen God’s presence. He’s debated angels, he’s debated God — and he’s won.

So, when God tells Moses that he’s about to die, Moses says, “No.” Our rabbis envision God ordering all the angels to not allow Moses’ prayers into heaven. Our rabbis envision God starting to give in to Moses until the sun, moon and stars refuse to keep turning. Moses was destined to die on a specific day, you see, so the day would last as long as needed for Moses to fulfill his destiny.

My favorite is when God asks each of the angels in turn to go and collect Moses’ soul. They all refuse because they can’t bear to watch Moses die. That’s when the angel Samael is asked to do the job. Samael is thought to be the Angel of Death or Satan or its own entity, depending on the text. Regardless, Samael is excited to take Moses’ soul. 

When he finds Moses, Moses is writing God’s name and looks just like an angel himself. He sends Samael away and Samael is so intimidated that he leaves. God has to tell Samael to go get Moses’ soul again! This time Samael draws his sword. And that’s when Moses, who’s approximately 120 years old, gives Samael, aka “The Angel of Death,” a beatdown. Moses takes his staff, inscribed with God’s name, and strikes him until Samael flees.

These stories from Midrash conclude the same as in the Torah — with God ultimately taking Moses’ soul and God burying Moses on Mount Nebo. And as entertaining as such stories are, they leave us with much more — their lesson for us is that everyone, even Moses, has to die. In last week’s Torah portion, we were commanded to “choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19). Now we’re reminded we have only so much life to live. 

These ideas complement one another. Choosing life implies choosing a life of meaning and learning and connection. And if our days are finite, then we want to make sure that we’re making the best use of our days. And in this moment between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it’s the perfect time to ask the question: What kind of life am I living?

It’s a daunting question to ask during this time of great uncertainty, with so much we can’t control. And yet every day we fill our time with something. It is within our power to strive for holiness and goodness and gratitude. We are capable of recognizing the fragility and beauty within ourselves and within every person we meet. We can focus only on ourselves and our impulses and our enjoyment, or we can choose a different path. 

Our time is limited. Our life is precious. Let’s make good use of this sacred gift.

Charlie Cytron-Walker is rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville.

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