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Thursday, October 8, 2009

Midrash on the Death of Moses

This Sunday or Saturday (depending on which tradition you observe) we celebrate Simchat Torah (Rejoicing with the Torah). On this festival Jews around the world finish reading the end of the book of Devarim/Deuteronomy and then begin reading the start of Bereshit/Genesis.

In honor of the end of the Torah reading cycle I would like to share with you a midrash on the death of Moses that I wrote. This is a follow-up to another midrash focusing on Gershom, the oft-forgotten eldest son of Moses. In this midrash Gershom discovers that God and Moses had an agreement that neither of Moses's sons would succeed him as leader, as Moses did not want either of them to be as alienated from his family and his people as he was in his life.

I hope you enjoy this sequel. If you'd like to read the first midrash please let me know and I can post it or send it to you.

Chag Same'akh - Happy Holiday,

A Kiss Divine

Moses stood at the top of Mt. Nebo and surveyed all that was before him. "So, this is the land," he said, "This is the place of promise and the end of my journey." Until that moment Moses's eyes remained as bright and clear as they had been when he first beheld the Burning Bush, or when he witnessed the miraculous splitting of the Sea of Reeds. Throughout 40 years of wandering the intensity, which burned in them when he first approached Pharaoh demanding the people's freedom and when he smashed the tablets at the foot of the Golden Calf, never died. Now, suddenly his eyes began to dim. A sadness could noticed - if anyone were there to see them. "Promise!" Moses said, " I should have known better than to put my faith in a promise, even from God. This land, the promise of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel and Leah, was never to be my promise, was it?" There was no answer, which was not exactly what he expected. Always before, especially on mountaintops, God would always respond to Moses’s questions. Perhaps God was preoccupied. Perhaps God was deeply pondering the question and trying to formulate exactly the right response for God's beloved servant. So Moses waited ... and waited ... and waited. No response. Finally, Moses asked his question again, "God, was the land ever truly to be my promise, even before I struck the rock? Did you simply lead me to believe it was to be so that I would do your bidding all those years?" Again, no response. Moses's sadness began to turn to anger, "God, why are you hiding your face from me again? Why won't you respond? Why are you leaving me to die alone? Where is your Presence?" The only response Moses heard was the echo of his words floating over the mountain.

Alone. Utterly alone. For the first time since the days when he was wandering in the desert after fleeing Egypt and before he came upon the camp of the Midianite priest Jethro and his daughter Tzipporah. Alone. No family. No community. No God - it seemed. Suddenly he heard a voice speaking softly to him, "You are not alone." Moses listened closely. He knew the voice well, but it was not the voice he had expected to hear at this moment. Moses turned around and, looking up, he saw Gershom, his eldest son, standing there with tears streaming down his face. Gershom sank to his knees and tightly embraced his father. Moses sat there for a moment not knowing what to do. After 120 years this was actually a new experience for him. Then he tilted his head slightly, just enough so that it rested on the top of his son's head and he too began to weep. At that moment Moses wept as he had never wept before. He wept for his Egyptian family who certainly must all be dead by now; he wept for his Israelite family, Yocheved, Amram, Miriam and Aaron, all dead. All buried by Moses himself. Yet he never had time to mourn them for, after all, the people needed him. He wept for those slaughtered after the Golden Calf incident at his command. He wept for all those who had died during the years of wandering. But most of all, he wept for himself - and for the two sons whom he had never really known. Moses’s and Gershom’s tears dripping onto the sandy earth beneath them and flowed together into a river of tears.

After what seemed like an eternity Moses spoke, "Gershom, I am glad that you are here with me. But what made you come? I never expected this." "Nor did I," replied Gershom, "but I realized that I could not let you die without seeing you one last time." "And your brother?” Moses asked rather tentatively. "I don't know where Eliezer is. I haven't seen him for days. But I wouldn’t expect him to come. Then again, I wouldn't have expected me to come either. I assumed that was this was another one of those 'Dad and God' moments, so there was no room for me." For the first time Gershom noticed a look of pain in his father's eyes as the old man began to speak, "I am sorry for that. I cannot undo the past. It all seems like a dream right now. But we have this moment to be together for the last time, or perhaps for the first time. Let us make the most of it. Still, I don't understand what brought you here?" "Not what," replied Gershom, "but who.” Moses looked puzzled as his son continued, "It was God who helped me to see that I needed to come. It was God who helped me to understand that you are passing the mantle of leadership to Joshua not because you thought him more deserving, but because you made God promise not to make my brother or me your successor in order to protect us from your fate. You didn’t want us to be isolated and alone as you have been through so much of your life."

Moses felt at once stunned and relieved. The secret was finally revealed! And by the ultimate Revealer at that!

"Gershom, in many ways I feel blessed to have been chosen to be God's messenger and to lead the people to this moment. Yet this blessing was also a curse. I was cursed that I was unable to truly be a father to you and your brother, or for that matter a husband, brother or son as well. Being God's right hand man is a full time position unlike any other. I know that I have done well and helped prepare the people to go into the Promised Land, but I am afraid that I have not prepared you or your brother very well. I have left you no legacy. I am leaving you alone without ever having been able to be with you while I was alive. For this I am deeply saddened and sorry."

Gershom held his father as again his tears flowed, mingling with his father's and soaking into the sand beneath them. After a long silence Gershom responded, "Father, I know now that you did what you did because it was what you needed to do. What I thought was indifference and rejection was really a part of the pain and sadness that you were feeling. I wish that I had been able to see that then, but I am glad that I can see it now before you leave me. I only wish my brother were able to see it as well." At that moment Gershom heard footsteps behind him. He turned hoping with all of his being that he would see his brother standing there. But this was not to be so. Instead it was Joshua, the man whom he had hated up until a short time ago. The man who had been chosen to take his father's place instead of him or his brother. "Gershom," Joshua said, "it is time to go. God has told me that your father must be alone at the moment of his death." "No," said Gershom emphatically, "God has been with my father every step of the way. I have never sought to be there when I knew that it was not my place. But I will not leave my father at the moment of his death. I deserve to be with him and he deserves to have me there." Joshua just stared at him. The look in Gershom's eyes was so similar to the look in Moses's eyes when he first caught a glimpse of the Golden Calf at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Joshua knew then that Gershom could not be moved.

Before Joshua had a chance to respond Moses spoke, "Joshua, please leave us. I need to speak with my son. If God wants me to be alone when I die then I will wait to receive the message directly from the Divine lips as I always have." Knowing better than to argue, Joshua bowed his head. He looked into Moses’s eyes one more time, realizing that this was the last time that he would see him. Then he turned and left.

Then Moses arose and put his hands on Gershom's shoulder. "My son, on this day I have placed my hands upon Joshua's head and passed to him the mantle of leadership. I have also addressed each of the tribes, the children of Israel, and blessed them. But I have not yet blessed you, my son. You who are blood of my blood and flesh of my flesh. Before I die I want to offer you a blessing. I know that it is no substitute for the years when I was not with you, but I hope that it will allow us to at least treasure this moment when we shall last see each other." With these words Gershom bowed his head, as if by instinct, and Moses placed his hands up the ebony curls of his eldest son.

And Moses spoke to Gershom, saying, "My beloved son, may God bless you with the strength to be a leader, not of tens of thousands, but of one. May you feel the spirit of the Divine flowing through you at all times so that your soul will lead your feet in the path of righteousness, justice, kindness and compassion.

"May you always know that the spirit which guides your life desires you to join with others on the journey. May you never feel that you are alone, even when no one is near. May you always feel the sense of connection to your people and to all humanity, past, present and future, for that is your connection with the Divine Spirit.

"Finally, may the God who blessed me by showing me the Divine glory on Mount Sinai, in the descending cloud and in the holy Tabernacle, show you the divine glory that dwells within you and within everyone. May that glory always shine through your eyes, illuminating the hearts and souls of all whose lives you touch. May you live in peace with your world, your people and, most important of all, with yourself. This is my blessing. May it be God's will. May it be your will." Then Moses kissed his son's head, something that he realized he had not done since Gershom was a boy sitting on his knee in the desert of Midian.

"Now go," said Moses, "Joshua has informed me that God wants to be alone with me one last time. I must take his word for this, for it is clear that, since I am no longer God's messenger, God will only speak to me through Joshua."

"But father," replied Gershom. "Please," Moses interrupted, "the fact that you are here and that I could bless you is more than I could have hoped for. Should your brother ever ask please tell him that I am not angry. I understand why he is not here and I wish for him the same blessing that I have given you. Now go." They embraced one last time and Gershom turned and began to walk away. After he had walked a few paces he felt a warm breeze coming from behind. He then heard what sounded like a soft, soothing breath. He turned around and saw an iridescent cloud descending upon the spot where his father stood. Not taking time to think about what he was doing he ran back towards his father. He entered the cloud and felt a Presence unlike anything he had ever experienced before. The presence at once enveloped and embraced him while also urging him to return to his rightful place. Suddenly Gershom reached out his arms and felt the warmth of his father shoulders. He pulled his father close to him, barely able to see anything through the mist. Yet Moses's eyes still shown like beacons of divine light. Gershom pulled him closer and kissed his father on the lips for the last - and the first - time. At that moment he felt the breath of life rush out of his father's body as he fell lifeless into Gershom's arms.

Then Gershom heard a voice. It sounded like his father's voice. It sounded like his voice. But he knew that it was neither. "Gershom, your father is now with me. He is at peace. He is finally at home." Tears once again flowed down Gershom's face. Then God spoke again, "Gershom, look down at your feet." Gershom did so and he saw a sapling sprouting miraculously out of the desert sand. It grew before his eyes and within moments blossomed with the most beautiful flowers he had ever seen. "Gershom, this plant is growing from the spot that was watered by your tears and your father's tears. This is the spot where I will bury my most faithful servant, as a gift to him for all that he has done for me. No one will know where your father is buried, except for you. I trust that you will keep this secret because I know it is what you want. This spot will always be a place for you alone to come and be with your father's spirit. Once you are settled in the land I have promised you will see this very bush blossom wherever you dwell as a reminder of your father's eternal presence in your life. That is my blessing for you and I ask you to carry it with you along with your father's blessing. Now place your father's body on the ground next to the bush, for you are merely holding your father’s body. His soul - his essence - is with me. Then return to your family and to your people. Fulfill the blessing that your father bestowed upon you and enter the land that he could only see from afar and live there." And so Gershom did as God asked of him and returned to his people to enter the Promised Land.

Years later, as Gershom neared 120, the same age his father reached at the time of his death, he heard a young girl reading aloud the last verses of the story of the people’s 40-year journey through the desert. Gershom closed his eyes as he listened to the words being read aloud. The words penetrated his very soul, 'For there never arose another prophet like Moses who knew God face to face.' He smiled, as if to say to himself 'if they only knew.' Then, almost imperceptibly he said aloud "and there will never arise another father like Moses who, at the end of his life, came to know his son face to face." Then the final words of the Torah were read. The young girl exclaimed, "my mother told me that when it says that Moses died 'al pi adonai', by the mouth of God, it meant that he died with ‘a kiss from God!" Again, Gershom smiled, "Yes," he said to himself, "perhaps it was God's kiss at that. But isn’t that how we all shall die?" And with those words Gershom's life breath left his body and returned to its source - and to be with his father once again and for all eternity.

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