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.

The Unclaimed Dead

This week’s Torah portion is Chaye Sarah, and begins with the death of Sarah.

After the ordeal of having to nearly sacrifice his son, Abraham returns home to the death of his wife. (Some commentators connect the two events, saying Sarah died when she heard about what Abraham had done.) Abraham then begins the difficult process of making arrangements, something we all find ourselves in the middle of after a passing. The grief is there, but the mourning can not fully start until the arrangements are made.

The same is true in our contemporary mourning practice. One is not considered a “mourner” until after the burial. Between death and burial is an intermediate time known as aninut during which one makes the necessary arrangements.

Abraham sets out to make the arrangements. Having left his ancestral home, he is living among the Hittites in Canaan.  He goes to see the local chieftain, Ephron ben Zohar, to inquire about purchasing a cave in which to bury Sarah. Ephron knows of Abraham’s reputation as a leader and man of God, and so offers to gift him the cave. Abraham insists however on paying for it, and a deal is struck for Abraham to purchase the cave, and he proceeds to bury Sarah within.

There is much that can be said about the merits of a sale versus a gift. Gifts imply an ongoing relationship (a subtle expectation that the gesture of a gift will be returned at some point) while a sale is a clear transaction. Gifts are open ended. A sale is final.

So while some will read this about land claims, it perhaps has to do more with the need to make “final arrangements” when it comes to mourning a loved one. Part of our mourning practice is to provide some formal act of transition between experiencing the death of a loved one and the beginning of the mourning process. This is the function of the funeral and burial. Sometimes circumstances require a service at a later date, or unconnected with burial. But the need to do right by our loved ones so we can begin to heal is a powerful motivator, the need to honor those who have died with ritual and acknowledgement is a necessary process. Abraham’s actions demonstrate this.

Two weeks ago I had the honor to participate in a commemoration organized by Interfaith Works in conjunction with the Thurston County Coroner’s Office. It was a memorial service—held in conjunction with All Souls Day/Dio de los Muertos—for all the unclaimed dead this past year. These were the people who did not have anyone to care for their bodies, or unbelievably, those whose families did not want to take responsibility and walked away.

The ceremony felt very much like a tikkun, a repair. To leave the dead unacknowledged felt like a tear in the fabric of what is right. These seven people did not have anyone to ritualize their passing, did not have anyone to offer a prayer or some words. Since this usually falls to the family and friends, and there weren’t any, it then falls to the community to do so. We, like Abraham, insist on making the arrangements for our honored dead.

I was asked to offer a eulogy, an interesting prospect for people I did not know and for whom there is no one to fill in the details of the life lived. I opened with the poem “Each of Us Has a Name” by Zelda, translated by Marcia Falk. And then here is what I shared:

We recall the names.

Names are often what we leave behind. A name etched on granite, on a headstone, on a wall, printed on paper.

Or a name etched on our hearts, on our minds.

We know the power of names. Our ancient biblical ancestor Abraham, as we know him now, but his name was originally Abram, his name changed to Abraham, father of many nations, when he was granted by God with the covenant.

His grandson Jacob, also in covenant with God, whose encounter with an angel in the middle of the night resulting in a blessing and a change of his name, from Jacob to Israel, “one who wrestles with God”, a name that will come to define a people for millennia to come.

The power of a name.

Think about your own name. Maybe you were named after someone at birth. Why were you given the name you have? What hopes and dreams were meant for you when your name was bestowed upon you? What family history is wrapped up in your last name? Do you have a nickname? Did you change your name? Did you choose your name, perhaps after some significant life event.

For we know that a name is much more than a name. A name is a life, a life of meaning.

We come to remember these honored dead. Defined, as we remember them here, only by their names. We do not have the stories that made up their lives. But the name is only an entry way into understanding their life.

These people: Annette Paula Emerick, Edward Harvey Epstein, Cleveland Anthony duBois, Jordan C. Silver, Juanita K. Hinchliffe, Christoper J. Rabe, Larry G. Ryan. Someone gave them the name that they have. Someone bestowed upon them this blessing of a name. What was in their minds when they did so? What family history was in their last name? Was the middle name “Harvey” after a beloved uncle? Or what is the story of the “Hinchcliffe” family? Someone thought and cared to bestow upon a name. They are not just individuals but members of a family, a lineage, a heritage.

And as we think about these beloved dead, let us not just stop at their names. Let us think about the person who gave them the name, who held them in their arms and whispered their name. Or used their name in scolding them, telling them to cut it out. Or who called out their name in fear and panic and reminded them to look both ways before crossing the street.

And let us remember the fact that they were called by this name by family and friends. Spoken as an invitation to get a beer after work. Or called out in joy by a young niece or nephew. Or spoken softly by a beloved partner.

Their bodies might not be claimed at death, but throughout life their lives were claimed by anyone who sought them out by name.

It is in this way we can bestow our love and empathy upon them. As we recall what it is like to be called by our names, the love shown when our name is spoken by someone, the pride and heritage we carry when we sign our surname, we can project that same feeling upon these honored dead as we call their names.

And just as they were claimed in life, they are claimed in death. By calling their names. This is what we honor here today. The blessing of their names. The blessing of their lives.

The need for ritual at the end of life is so important, whether carried out by a loving husband, as Abraham did for Sarah, or by a faithful community, as we did for the unclaimed dead of Thurston County. It is in this way we give honor not only to those who have died, but to those of us left behind. It is both a final, and a first, step in the healing process. All lives are thus claimed.