Ve-zo’t Ha-berakhah

He buried him in the valley of the land of Moab, near Beth-peor; and no one knows his burial place to this day.  - Deuteronomy 34:6

As Jacob blessed each of his sons before his death, so Moses, the man of God, bade the Israelites farewell before he died (Deut. 34:1), tribe by tribe. His last words were addressed to the nation as a whole. Then, Moses ascended Mount Nebo where God spoke to him for the last time.

Moses was 120 years old when he died and still strong (Deut. 34:7). It is silent regarding how he died and what happened to his physical remains. A beautiful old rabbinic tradition holds that Moses died with God’s kiss (cf. Deut. R. 11:10) and was personally buried by God, too (BT Sotah 14a).

The Torah states explicitly that the exact location of Moses’ burial place remains unknown. It may be intended to prevent inappropriate veneration by those who survive him and later generations. The likelihood of this occurring is suggested by King Hezekiah’s breaking of the copper serpent crafted by Moses in the wilderness as part of his campaign to rid the Temple of idolatrous practices (II Kings 18:14).

One tradition suggests that an optical illusion in the biblical landscape is responsible. To a person standing in the valley [the burial site] looks as though it is on a mountain peak, whereas from the mountain peak it looks as though it is in the valley (BT Sotah 14a). Another holds that Moses never died in the normal sense, but continues to minister to God as he did on Mount Sinai (BT Sotah 13b).

Still another speaks to us directly in this season. We learn that Israel’s great teacher and prophet is buried in a grave prepared for him on the eve of the first Sabbath (BT Pesachim 54a). Linking Moses’ death directly with the mystery of Creation prepares us to return to the beginning of the epoch story of who we are and how we came to be. Indeed, this week we conclude the book of Deuteronomy with Moses’ death and, without pause, start again with the first verse of Genesis, When God began to create….

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