October 19, 2011 (Shimini Atzeret and Shabbat)

Moving forward.  We have completed most of the holidays in Tishrei, ready to ascend in completing the Torah and then restarting it again this week with Simchat Torah and Shabbat Breishit.

Our final parasha, V’zot Haberakhah, which we will read on Thursday night and Friday morning, has always been for me, one of the most difficult parts of the Torah to comprehend.  The language is not only poetic, but uncommon. The tribes are discussed as a single person.  Emotions run rampant throughout the text.  However, I like to think I am capable of getting past these difficulties.  The biggest dilemma is we have been following the life of a great leader, and the severest injustice is committed!  The leader dies, and we are not told where he is buried!  We know the mountain he climbs, per se.  We know that Aaron died there too – but we really have no idea today where he is buried.  How can we make sense of this?

Shortly before the Torah ends, Moses dies.  When we want to remember someone wholeheartedly we pay homage to their being in a variety of ways:  we tell stories of triumph and respect; we speak of their progeny; we build characters of love and pain and valor; and reflect.  We cannot just “remember someone.”  We need to say Kaddish.  We need to light a Yahrtzeit candle.  We need to hear that dirt hit the coffin with a resounding thud.  We need concrete connections.  I need to visit Moses’ grave to be at one with our Jewish heritage.  But, we see in Deuteronomy 34:6 that no one knows the whereabouts of Moses’ burial place.  How can this be?  How can we not make a pilgrimage to the final resting place of the venerated and exemplary leader of our people?

The commentators are likewise troubled by the omission of Moses’ burial place.  The answers seem to be in some sort of agreement, i.e. we do not know where Moses is buried because if we did, we would turn it into a shrine.  By virtue of Moses’ relationship with God, we would begin to worship Moses, or worse, we would begin a following devoted to the spirit of Moses.  Keeping to a political mindset, what would happen if there were a disagreement over the burial place?  If two factions claimed that “this is the spot where Moses is buried” (not far off from the hotels claiming “George Washington slept here”, or have you ever seen the Original Drifters?), there would be inherent strife.

It is difficult to accept these answers to my quest to find Moses’ burial place.  And so I attest that we DO know where Moses is buried.  Moses is buried in the text, or, like George Washington, “first in the hearts of his countrymen.”  We read the end of the text in Parashat Ha’azinu, which we read on the Shabbat after Rosh Hashanah, Shabbat Shuvah.  God tells Moses he is going to die in Deuteronomy 32:50, it is difficult to fathom that God would allow Moses to suffer from that point onward.  As God finished speaking, I am certain that Moses died right there and was fulfilled because God assured him that the land would be given to the Israelite people.

V’zot Haberakhah, in its entirety, is the epitaph on Moses’ tombstone, poetry of his accomplishments and conquests, our goals and our downfalls.  This is not a Blessing for us.  This is a Blessing for Moses.  The epitaph pays homage to Moses.  These are stories of triumph and respect.  We are included in the progeny.  We have reconstructed a life of love and pain, and we constructively or symbolically visit the burial place so that he is truly remembered.

It is appropriate that we “visit” the final resting place of such a hero in this season.  Just as we are beginning to walk in the shoes of new life, we are humbled that even the greatest of our leaders have to succumb to death.  And so, we finish our Torah and then we begin anew, reading from Breishit and our creation because the way to visit Moses and the way for us to gain new meaning is to reread our sacred texts each and every year.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham