Sunday, September 02, 2007

Parshat Vayelech (Rabbi Sedley)


"[Moshe] said to them, 'I am one hundred and twenty years old today, and I am no longer able to go and come...;'" (Deuteronomy 31; 2). Rashi quotes the Talmud (Sotah 13b) to explain Moshe's words: 'Today I have completed my days and years (in fulfilment of the verse (Exodus 23; 26) "I [G-d] will cause you to live out full lives"). On this day I was born, and on this day I will die'. Alternatively 'I am no longer able to come and go in matters of Torah'. This teaches us that the wellsprings of wisdom were closed before him.
The Talmud (Chullin 139b) finds a hint to Moshe's life in the story of Noach, where the verse states (Genesis 6; 3) "G-d said 'My spirit will not continue to judge man forever, since he is nothing but flesh. His days shall be 120 years'". The numerical equivalent of the word "nothing but" is the same as the numerical value of the word Moshe. Therefore, long before Moshe was even conceived it was decreed that he would live to be 120.
Rabbi Yonasan Eibschitz cites an obvious question. If that day was the same date that he was born (and we have a tradition that it was on the 7th of Adar), then that would be his 121st birthday. In order to complete his allotted years exactly he should have died the day before.
The Midrash (Beis Hamidrash a; 122) tells us that Moshe passed away on a Shabbat at Mincha time. However, elsewhere it tells us that on the last day of his life Moshe wrote out thirteen copies of the Torah. Certainly this could not have been on Shabbat, so it seems that the day of his death was on a Friday, before Shabbat. How could there be a disagreement about which day Moshe died on?
We know that the Torah is the source of life, from the verse (Proverbs 3; 18) "It is a tree of life to those that grasp it...". Therefore in certain respects someone who does not learn Torah is removed from life. How much more so would that be true of Moshe whose whole essence was dedicated to the Torah, to the point that it is known as the 'Torah of Moshe'. This is why Rashi gives the alternative explanation that on this day the wellsprings of wisdom were closed before Moshe. Though he was physically alive on this day, in his own eyes he was already dead because he was no longer able to learn Torah. So the 7th of Adar marks the day of his birth and his physical death, but he had completed his years of Torah life on the day before. This explains the two opinions as to when he died, physically it was on Shabbat, but spiritually it was on Erev Shabbat.
The Talmud (Megillah 13a) tells us that Haman was casting lots for a day on which to kill all the Jews. "When the lot fell out on the month of Adar he became overjoyed. He said, 'The lot has fallen on the month that Moshe died'. However he did not know that on the seventh of Adar Moshe died, and on the seventh of Adar he was born." This is very peculiar. If Haman was such an expert on Jewish history that he knew the Oral tradition for the date of Moshe's death, why would he not also know that he was born on the same date, which is explicit in the text of the Torah in our portion? Also, why did it make Haman so happy when he saw that the lot fell out on Moshe's Yarzheit? How would that help him kill the Jews?
Perhaps we can answer these questions with Rabbi Eibschitz's explanation of the day of Moshe's death. The 7th of Adar was the date of Moshe's physical death, but he was already considered as if he had passed away from the day before because he was no longer able to learn Torah. Maybe Haman knew that the Torah was destroyed because the Jewish people had forsaken their study of the Torah. He knew that as long as they studied the Torah and observed the Mitzvot G-d would protect them and ensure that they not be wiped out. But when his lottery fell on the month when even Moshe gave up learning Torah he thought that this was a sign that he would be able to succeed in destroying the Jews.
Certainly he would have known the date of Moshe's birth, but what he didn't know was that at the same time that Moshe's sun was setting, and he was unable to continue with the Torah, he was investing Yehoshua with the task of leading the nation spiritually. "Moshe called to Yehoshua and said to him before all of Israel 'Be strong and brave, for you will come with this people to the Land...'". The Talmud (Sanhedrin 8a) explains the phrase 'will come with', rather than 'will lead' that Moshe said to Yehoshua, you and the elders of the generation will lead the people into the Land". While Moshe was alive he was the Torah, and any questions or doubts would be resolved by him directly. After his death the decisions were rendered by a Sanhedrin (High Court) of many sages. Though they did not have the same direct relationship with G-d as during Moshe's lifetime, more people were involved with the Torah.
Instead of Moshe's death symbolising the end of Torah learning, as Haman had hoped, it marked the beginning of an era of increased individual connection to the Torah. The Torah lived on through all future generations who were learning 'the Torah of Moshe'. This is what Haman failed to understand. "On the seventh of Adar he was born" refers not only to Moshe's physical birth, 120 years earlier, but also to his spiritual rebirth through the continued study of the Torah by the Jewish people on the day of his death. Instead of Adar being the month when the Jews were more vulnerable to his threats, this was the time when each individual took over the role of Moshe, and strengthened their Torah study.

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