As I read this week's parashah, Matot, I was struck anew by one particular verse. Says the Torah: "Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites after which you will be gathered to your kin." (Numbers 31:2) Reading the Torah in any moment, I believe, is a reflection of and reflects towards that which we are experiencing in that moment in time. So, the truth is I was struck by two completely different ideas within the verse itself.
First, the idea that God is suggesting that Moses lead the Israelite people into war with Midian in what appears to vengeance for the people. Moses, in turn, calls to the people, announcing that they will assemble a holy war to avenge for God. With the events unfolding in Israel, it is hard not to read this verse and wonder and ask difficult questions about vengeance, battle, and holy wars. Having just returned from Israel last week, my heart is especially tuned to the pain and suffering, and like so many others, I find myself reading every news article trying to understand the situation just a bit more. However, for just this moment, I acknowledge that the verse raises more questions and leave the analysis of war to those more versed in the specifics than I, and choose to look at the second topic that the verse raises for me.
"Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites after which you will be gathered to your kin." In other words, once Moses completes this task, he will die.
On the one hand, given where this appears in the narrative, it is not so unusual. We are approaching the end of the book of Numbers which will find the people poised to enter the land of Israel. So, perhaps it is not surprising that we begin hearing about Moses' death. After all, we already know Moses is not to enter the land of Israel. At the same time, it is bit curious to me that in the very next verse, Moses takes immediate steps to rally the troops from all twelve tribes to fulfill the Divine command to seek vengeance against Midian, working on what is to be his last task.
The text seems to say that he will not die until this last task is finished. And, according to the rabbinic commentary on the book of Numbers, Sifre Moses did indeed understand that once he did this final act, his life would indeed come to an end. So, wouldn't it be natural to think that Moses would want be hesitant to accomplish the task and would do whatever necessary to delay his death, even if just for a little while? In fact, according to the words of Rabbi Yehuda in Midrash Rabbah: "Had Moses desired he could have lived many more years, for the Holy One blessed be He told him 'Avenge' and 'Afterward you shall be gathered.'" (Midrash Rabbah 22:2) In other words, perhaps his end was in his hand and he could have staved off death? Yet, with no hesitation and with what appears to be eager participation, he jumps in to the task, calling together the members of the tribes to accomplish the task at hand.
I have read commentaries that suggest this is yet another way in which Moses understood his public role as leader of the Jewish people and was considering national welfare over his own. Since Moses would not live to enter the land of Israel, it was necessary for him to die in order for the continuing narrative of the people to unfold and for them to enter the land of Israel. In other words, had he delayed the battle, and as a result his own demise, it would have caused the Children of Israel to linger in the desert even longer. Instead, he takes off on his final mission, knowing that it would bring his own death closer.
I think there is another message - one that is inspired by the recent loss of my beloved cousin, Jackie Franenberg, who taught me so much in the end of her life even as she did in the fullness of her life. Even as we live our life, fulfilling our life's work and divine mission, consciousness of (and even discussion of) death need not be avoided. For many talking about death is a taboo, as if talking about it will somehow superstitiously make it happen, even when it is the inevitable. (Of course, it is the inevitable for each one of us, for none of us are immortal, but here I mean it is imminent and known that it is near). In the words of Socrates "To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils."
It is true - we don't know what happens when we die. After all, no one has ever come back from death to tell us of the experience. And, we want as much time on this earth with our loved ones as we can possibly get and our tradition teaches us u'vecharta b'chaim - in the face of life and death, choose life. But, the many stories we have of people who know they are dying spending their last days sharing their wishes, planning their own memorial, saying their final goodbyes, coming to peace with their demise, and drawing together family and friends remind us that there is an intrinsic holiness in dying and we are the agents in experiencing that holiness for others and for ourselves.
Contrast, if you will, between this type of experience of loss and one that is more unexpected after an accident or unanticipated illness. In addition to the trauma of the loss and confusion over the many decisions that have to be made, we often feel cheated by not having had an opportunity to say goodbye, to express our love, and/or to know what our loved one wanted for themselves and/or in their final goodbye.
The second century apocryphal writer, Ben Sira, reminds us of the fact that "we are all destined to die. We share it with all who have ever lived and all who will ever be." We have no control over when it will come, or how it will come, but we do have the choice of whether we will have found ways to address our own end with our loved ones. So, as I read this verse this year, I am reminded anew of the need for advance planning, stating our end of life wishes, having the important conversations of love and reconciliation that open us to another aspect of holiness even as we continue to participate with joy and gusto in fulfilling our divine mission!
Ken yehi ratzon - so may it be for each of us