…We are this week in a paradoxical moment in the Jewish calendar. It is a time of beginnings: Moshe has just begun his great peroration, preparing the people to enter the Land of Israel. But it is also a time of imminent death, as Moses confides to his people that his death has been decreed:
“I begged the Eternal One then, saying: ‘O Eternal God . . . Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and Lebanon.’
“But the Eternal One was cross with me for your sakes (למענכם), and would not heed me. The Eternal One said to me, “Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again! Go up to the summit of Pisgah and gaze about, to the west, the north, the south, and the east. Look at it well, for you shall not go across yonder Jordan.” (Devarim 3:24-26)
As the people are about to be reborn in their own land, Moshe is preparing to die. And not only that, but as Samson Raphel Hirsch wrote, Moshe, toward the end of his life, had become “embittered,” believing “that his life’s work was of no account, and that all he had done for the nation had been in vain.” (Comment to Bemidbar 20:12
) Here he is, dying unable to taste the fruits of his labor, his work still far from complete. Like so many he will perish, In Naomi Shemer’s beautiful words, “in the middle of summer / just when the peaches are bountiful / and all the fruits are laughing in the basket.”
And yet this section is always read on Shabbat Nahamu, the Shabbat of Consolation, the Shabbat on which we read Isaiah’s prophecy to the exiles in Babylon of national restoration: “נַחֲמ֥וּ נַחֲמ֖וּ עַמִּ֑י יֹאמַ֖ר אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם: “‘Be consoled, be consoled, O My people!’ Says your God. ‘Speak to the heart of Jerusalem, and declare to her that her term of service is over, her iniquity expiated.'” (Isaiah 40:1-2)
How can it be that we read of Moshe’s tragic death, his unanswered prayers to live to see the conclusion of his mission, on the very Shabbat dedicated to our consolation? Where is the consolation?
There is a hint that Moshe had come to peace, at least to some extent, with his own death. Recall that he said God refused his petition to live long enough to enter the land “למענכם.”
Many commentators understand this to mean “on account of you” – i.e., on account of the people’s sins. But למען does not mean “on account of” but “for the sake of” – it does not point to the cause, but the purpose of a thing. Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman explains Moshe’s meaning this way: Moshe’s death is “for the benefit of the Jewish people.” God decreed it not out of wrath or as judgment, but in order “to serve as an enduring lesson for the Jewish people – and it was for this reason that God would not, or could not, grant Moshe’s plea.”
What is that lesson? All human beings die; and even the greatest of us may die without tasting the fruits of our labor. But, God exhorts us, “Be consoled, O my people.” There is consolation, but it is not for us as individuals. We are only consoled when we understand ourselves as part of a larger whole – of the Jewish people. Even Moshe Rabbeinu is, in the end, only a small part of a project much greater and longer than himself. And the span of human life is too short to measure the success or meaning of that project.
This is true for all the great, generational projects of which we are a part – living up to the ideals of Torah, creating a just Jewish state in the Land of Israel, playing our part in the redemption of humanity. We cannot measure their success by the span of our own lives, and we all of necessity die “in the middle of summer.” The work will not be completed in the course of any one life or even a thousand lives. Our part is to be of service to the great project. And in knowing that we can serve as one link in a long and still unfinished chain, there is consolation…