On the Anniversary of Moses’s Death, We Can Prepare for Ours

The Jewish month of Adar is known primarily for the celebration of Purim. This holiday, recognizing the events of the biblical book of Esther in which Esther was able to save the Persian Jewish population from destruction at the hands of Haman, is marked by fun and games and a lighthearted tone. It falls on the 15th of Adar which this year begins on Saturday night March 11.

In the month of Adar, however, we have another anniversary. While not a holiday per se, it is a date our tradition records as one of note: the 7th of Adar, which is traditionally understood to be the yahrzeit (death anniversary) of Moses. Moses, who the Torah records as leading the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery through the wanderings in the desert to the edge of the Promised Land, dies just short of reaching the goal. The Torah ends, in fact, with Moses’s death and tradition records that it was God who buried him.

The recounting of the story in the Torah is simple, sweet and sparse. The classical midrash (commentary) comes to fill in the gaps in what happened on this last day of Moses’s life, here as recounted in the famous modern collection of classical midrash, The Legends of the Jews by Louis Ginzburg: (a big long, but worthwhile)

On the seventh day of Adar, Moses knew that on this day he should have to die, for a heavenly voice resounded, saying, “Take heed, O Moses, for you have only one more day to live.” What did Moses now do? On this day he wrote thirteen scrolls of the Torah, twelve for the twelve tribes, and one he put into the Holy Ark, so that, if they wished to falsify the Torah, the one in the Ark might remain untouched. Moses thought, “If I occupy myself with the Torah, which is the tree of life, this day will draw to a close, and the impending doom will be as naught.” God, however, beckoned to the sun, which firmly opposed itself to Moses, saying, “I will not set, so long as Moses lives.” When Moses had completed writing the scrolls of the Torah, not even half the day was over. He then bade the tribes come to him, and from his hand receive the scrolls of the Torah, admonishing the men and women separately to obey the Torah and its commands…

Moses on this day showed great honor and distinction to his disciple Joshua in the sight of all Israel. A herald passed before Joshua through all the camp, proclaiming, “Come and hear the words of the new prophet that hath arisen for us today!” All Israel approached to honor Joshua. Moses then gave the command to fetch hither a golden throne, a crown of pearls, a royal helmet, and a robe of purple. He himself set up the rows of benches for the court, for the heads of the army, and for the priests. Then Moses betook himself to Joshua, dressed him, put the crown on his head, and bade him be seated upon the golden throne to deliver from it a speech to the people…

While Joshua and all Israel still sat before Moses, a voice from heaven became audible and said, “Moses, thou hast now only four hours of life.” Now Moses began to implore God anew: “O God of the world! If I must die only for my disciple’s sake, consider that I am willing to conduct myself as if I were his pupil; let it be as if he were high priest, and I a common priest; he is king, and I his servant.” God replied: “I have sworn by My great name, which ‘the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain,’ that thou shalt not cross the Jordan.” Moses: “God of the world! Let me at least, by the power of the Ineffable Name, fly like a bird in the air; or make me like a fish transform my two arms to fins and my hair to scales, that like a fish I may leap over the Jordan and see the land of Israel.” God: “If I comply with your wish, I shall break My vow. Moses: “Let me skim the land with my glance.” God: “In this point will I comply with your wish….God thereupon showed him all the land of Israel….

To this mountain [Nebo], upon God’s command, Moses betook himself at noon of the day on which he died.

This beautiful story shows us a more complex approach to dying than does the Torah itself. Understanding that he is to die, Moses takes it upon himself to get his affairs in order: he writes Torah scrolls to give to the tribes so that his teaching lives on. And he honors his successor Joshua in front of the entire community so that he can be assured that there would be continuity in the congregation and that it will continue on with out him.

But Moses does not go easy. He thinks by taking on the project of writing the scrolls his death will be delayed since it would take so long. And he pleads and bargains with God to allow him to go into the land, even though he knows that is not to be his destiny.

Moses’s death, like all death, is filled with competing tendencies—a desire to be prepared and a desire to resist. And as with Moses, so too with us. Death is a hard subject to think about, though we all must no one of us wants to.

The 7th of Adar, Moses’s yartzeit, can thus take on special significance for us. And it has, in contemporary Jewish practice. While not a “holiday,” the 7th of Adar has become a day of special significance. Some traditional religious Jews would fast on this day. And as a community, the 7th of Adar was the date on which the local chevra kadisha (burial society) would meet, have a banquet and conduct any business that needed to be done. It was a date that the community set aside to deal with the communal preparations for deaths in the community.

And we can use the 7th of Adar (this year falling on Sunday, March 5) as an opportunity to think about our own death and, like Moses, overcome the resistance to do what we need to do to prepare. Moses knew he was dying, and moved to get his affairs in order. But we do not need to wait. We can begin to think about things like advance directives, Do Not Resuscitate orders, what type of funeral service we would like, how do we get our affairs in order, ethical wills and on and on. These are all things that we can do now so as to put our mind at ease, let our wishes be know, and take decision-making burdens off of our children and loved ones.

On the traditional anniversary of his death, we can follow the example of our greatest spiritual figure Moses and do the work to ease the way for the next stage of the journey, both ours and those who come after us.

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