Israel, Torah

This Is the Land: A Midrash on God, Moses, and the Holy Land

This coming Shabbat, Jews will begin the Torah again in earnest after the preview of the creation narrative that we received on Simchat Torah last weekend. Yet as we prepare for this momentous liturgical transition, I find myself still stuck at the end of the Torah, in Vezot Habracha.

The Torah closes with Moses climbing atop Mount Nebo in order to gaze upon the land to which he has led his people but which God has barred him from entering. “This is the land,” God tells him, “that I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants. I have let you see it with your own eyes—but there you may not go” (Deut 34:4). Moses then immediately dies “at the word (pi, literally ‘mouth’) of the LORD” and is buried in Moab, in a location that is forever to remain unknown (Deut 34:5–6). Even as Joshua steps into the role of leader and the Israelites prepare for their new chapter, the Torah reminds us that Moses will always be incomparable: “Never again in Israel did there arise a prophet like Moses, whom the LORD knew face-to-face” (Deut 34:10).

I have leyned this final aliyah on Simchat Torah for many years, and I cannot overstate how much I cherish it. I know of no other scene in the Hebrew Bible—perhaps in all of literature—with quite this combination of heartbreak, tenderness, loneliness, peace, and loss. I know that, as a Bible scholar, I am supposed to keep the historically and literarily contextualized meaning of the text (peshat) separate from later rabbinic interpretation. Yet I confess that I am incapable of reading this scene without the Rabbis’ remarkable suggestion that it was God himself who stewarded Moses to his final resting place—an act of love for his old friend. According to well-known midrashic traditions, God took Moses’s life with a gentle kiss and buried him himself—the paradigm of pure kindness (chesed shel emet). He then had Joshua write the final lines of the Torah, sparing Moses the pain of preemptively writing about his own death. Every Simchat Torah, as I read this scene aloud in shul, I think of these Rabbinic interpretations. I weep for Moses, who did not get to see the fruit of his life’s work—and I weep for God, who had to say goodbye to the only human being who ever truly knew him.

Less than a week ago, I walked up to the Sefer Torah in shul to leyn this moving passage under circumstances that I had never known before. Already on Shemini Atzeret, we had gotten enough news to know that something terrible was unfolding in the very land that we were reading about. However, it was only on Simchat Torah that the full scope of the calamity came into view. As I placed the yad on the parchment, I took my stand with Moses atop Nebo and gazed upon the land through his eyes. But instead of the breathtaking sweep from Gilead to Dan, the whole land of Judah, and the valley of Jericho all the way to Zoar, I saw what Moses, for all his unparalleled prophecy, did not see: death, destruction, and unspeakable suffering across both southern Israel and Gaza. This is the land. Even as we near the next parasha, I am still standing there with that vista. And I find myself wondering whether, until now, I had been misunderstanding what transpired between God and Moses in that final, lonely hour that I cherish so much. Perhaps, just before God shoveled the final heaps of dirt over Moses’s humble grave, just before he completed that chesed shel emet, he bent down and gave his old friend one last kiss, a gentle kiss on his lifeless forehead, and whispered:

“Oh Moishele, you thought that when I didn’t let you enter the land with everyone else, I was punishing you. Sweet Moishele, don’t you see? I was sparing you. That land that I’m giving them flows with milk and honey, yes—but also with blood. Its air makes people wise, yes—but also drives them mad. It contains nine of the world’s ten measures of beauty, yes—but also nine of the world’s ten measures of sorrow. When I condemned the scouts that you dispatched, I did it because they told the truth, because they revealed My great secret: the land really is, just as they said, a land that swallows its inhabitants—for it is a land whose inhabitants swallow each other. Oh Moishele, I know that you regretted that you never got the chance to finish your beautiful Torah. Please, don’t worry—I asked My servant Joshua to finish it for you. He wrote that there will never arise another like you! Sweet, sweet Moishele, it’s true: among all the myriads crossing into that land, and among all the myriads of their descendants, there will never arise another who will know the rest and the peace that you will know here, in this place that no one will ever find, that no one will ever deem holy, and that no one will ever call home.”

Ethan Schwartz is Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible at Villanova University.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.