There are no more dreaded words from the doctor, ‘There’s nothing more that I can do.” For the doctor who has exhausted her medical expertise in the efforts to heal a patient it is a moment of anguish. For the patient who hears those words-the world and time stop. For the family and friends of the patient often the sense of helplessness is overwhelming. A terminal illness brings the date of death into stronger focus. While we can never know for sure when a person will die the sense that there is no more hope for recovery brings that reality into sharper focus. Hearing a pronouncement that the end is immanent changes everything. When all options are exhausted at some point acceptance of death must be confronted.
This is what happens to Moses in this week’s portion, Parshat Pincus. While he doesn’t have a terminal illness, God does tell Moses that the time has come. His death is imminent. “And God said to Moses, “Ascend these heights of Abarim and view the land that I have given to the Israelite people. When you have seen it, you too shall be gathered to your kin, just as your brother Aaron was” (Num. 27:12-13). This is Moses’ death sentence.
This is the man who has carried the burden of the People Israel from Egypt to the edge of the Promised Land. He can see it and dream about it but can never reach it. What must Moses have felt in that moment when God said, “No?” The Torah doesn’t say. Was he angry at God? At himself for losing his temper in front of the Children of Israel and hitting the rock to bring forth water to quench their thirst? This of course is the reason God gives for not letting Moses into the Promised Land. “For in the Wilderness of Zin when the community was contentious you disobeyed My command to uphold My sanctity in their sight by means of the water. Those are the Waters of Meribath Kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin” (Num. 27:14). Moses struck the rock rather than speak to it. He was impatient and tired of the complaints of the people. And his impatience led him to act rashly.
What did Moses feel when God told him he would die outside the Promised Land? Was he like a terminal patient whose doctor informs him that the end is near?
But this moment in the Torah affirms Moses’ humanity. He has in some ways done a super human job. He has confronted kings and gods. He has carried the people to this moment. He has led and cajoled, taught and shepherded. He has shaped slaves into a nation. But his death is a reminder to all that he is mortal.
Midrash Petirat Moshe is a small collection of aggadic midrash on the final chapters of the Torah about the hours before Moses’ death. He pleads and begs to no avail. The angels and God are present in this Midrash as Moses’ takes his final breaths surrounded by the heavenly family!
If only that were true for all of us as we take our own last breath. Moses is not alone even as he is dying. And that is the challenge for all of us: to stand by our loved ones, our family and our friends even when the end is near. Not to run away or be scared of death. To be a vessel of kindness when hope for recovery is no longer manufactured, that is our challenge.