Moses Didn’t Want to Die
In this week’s Torah reading, God instructs Moses that the time has come for him to die—in fact, He says this more than once. The reading opens with Moses relating that “the Lord said to me, ‘You shall not go across the Jordan’” (Deut 31:2). A little later, the Torah reports that, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘The time has come for you to die’” (31:14). If this was not enough, God tells him yet again, “Now you will sleep with your fathers” (Deut 31:15). In fact, the Rabbis counted no fewer than ten passages in the Torah (going back as far as Num 27:12) in which God tells Moses of his impending death.
Why did Moses need all these different summonses? Was he afraid of dying? He himself recounts the reason for his reluctance to die. He simply wanted to complete his mission, the one that he had been seeking to fulfill for forty years: to lead the people of Israel across the Jordan and into the land sworn to their ancestors. “I begged of the Lord at that time, saying, ‘O Lord God…Let me cross over, I pray, to see the good land beyond the Jordan’” (Deut 3:23), but God turned down his request: “You shall not cross the Jordan” (Deut 3:27).
To our rabbis, the formulation “You shall not cross the Jordan” seemed to contain a possible loophole, and Moses, no doubt an expert in the ways of legal exactitude, immediately seized upon it. According to an ancient midrash, he said to God, “Fine! I won’t cross the Jordan itself. But can you at least turn me into a bird, so that I can fly over the river and see the land from the other side?” God said no. Another time, Moses said: “Well then, please make me into a fish, so that I can swim in the Jordan as far as the other bank (but not exactly cross it entirely) and in that way complete my mission.” Again God said no.
Frustrated by the limits imposed by his own mortality, Moses is said to have gone (how or when is not specified) to the city of Hebron, where not only were Abraham and Sarah, Rebekah and Isaac, and Israel’s other ancestors buried, but Adam and Eve as well. “I must speak with Adam,” Moses said upon his arrival. Now, it is well known that the dead are always reluctant to be awakened, and Adam was no exception. But Moses was quite insistent; at last, an angry Adam appeared before him.
“How could you have done what you did in the Garden of Eden?” Moses asked. “Because of your disobedience in eating from the forbidden tree, all humans are sentenced to die.” Adam, despite his ill humor, merely laughed. “You are allegedly the one who brought the Torah down from the mountain and gave it to the people of Israel?” “Yes,” Moses replied. “And you know that the Torah itself was created two thousand years before God created the world?” “Of course,” Moses said. “Well then, look inside the Torah that you brought down, in the book of Numbers [chapter 19:14]. What does it say there? ‘This is the procedure for when a man dies inside a tent.’ So you see, I am not responsible for human mortality; it was already decided that humans were to die two thousand years before I was created.”
Thus reproved, Moses at last accepted his fate. God did, however, allow Moses to have his last wish fulfilled, at least in one sense. He instructed Moses to climb to the top of Mount Nebo so that from there he could see the entirety of what Israel had been given. “And the Lord said to him, ‘This is the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob’” (Deut 34:1-3).