Kollot Haftarah Dvar Torah: On Death

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 22 September 2018

Kollot Haftarah, Shabbat Haazinu 5779.  From Sifre Dvarim, 34 on the verse “You shall die on the mountain you are about to ascend”. (Deut 32:50):

“Moses said to God, “Ruler of the Universe, why must I die?  Would it not be better for people to be able to say ‘Moses is good’ out of personal experience than out of hearsay?  Would it not be better for people to be able to say ‘This is Moses who took us out from Egypt, who split the sea for us, who brought manna down for us who performed miracles and wonders for us’ than to say ‘Moses did such and such and said such and such’?”  God said to him, “Enough, Moses.  This is my decree; it applies equally to all human beings.” 
The ministering angels said to the Holy One, “Ruler of the Universe, why did the first man die?”  God said to them, “Because he did not follow my instructions”.  [They said] “But Moses did carry out your instructions”.  God said to them, “This is my decree; it applies equally to all human beings.” 

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“G’zeirah hi milfanai, shaveh b’chol adam” – “This is my decree; it applies equally to all human beings.”  So says our haftarah about the death of Moses.  Death comes to all of us, to everybody.  Even to Moses.
Moses argues, he doesn’t want to die.  The angels argue – they think it will be better if he lives.  But “G’zeirah hi milfanai, shaveh b’chol adam” – “This is my decree; it applies equally to all human beings.”

Of all the learnings that the rabbis took from Moses’s death, this is perhaps the most profound.  All of us will die.  If even the greatest, the one of whom Torah states, “never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses”, if even the one who spoke face to face with God, if even he dies, then so will we all.  Irrespective of wealth, fame, even righteousness.
The most that we can hope for is that, like Moses, we are granted a good death – one that meets our hopes for our death, as his, midrashically, does.  But die we will.

This is a message that we have reflected on a great deal this week.  It is one of the underlying themes of Yom Kippur.  The day on which some of us wear a kittel, the garment in which we will be buried; The day on which we invite the presence of death to come close, to remind us of our own mortality.  The day on which we acknowledge that “Our days are short, like grass; like a flower in the field, yet the breeze will pass over us and we too will be gone”.   Or, as Ben Sira put it, “As a drop of water in the sea, as a grain of sand on the shore – thus are your few days”.

This is not meant as a spur into hedonism, though it carries that risk – the risk that we will say, “If we are all going to die, why not eat, drink, enjoy?”  Kohelet comes close to giving that voice in our tradition, but it is not the message we are supposed to take.  Rather, at this period our awareness of our mortality is supposed to inspire us to ask what is really important in our lives.
It is especially appropriate that we read of the death of Moses between the Yamim Noraim and Sukkot, in case we have lost sight of what we were doing just a couple of days ago.  According to many traditions, although we are judged on the Day of Atonement, that verdict is not delivered until the last day of Sukkot, and until then a person may still repent. According to the Zohar the day on which a verdict is delivered is actually Shemini Atzeret. The last chance to change one’s judgment is therefore Hoshanah Rabbah; whoever has not yet repented by then has their verdict handed down on Shemini Atzeret.   Until recently, the liturgy of the Yamim Noraim was still in use over Sukkot in many places, especially in Eastern Europe – zokhrenu, for example.  Some Mahzorim even added Untaneh Tokef to the musaf of Hoshanah Rabbah, declaring: “On Rosh HaShanah judgment is made, on Yom Kippur it is written, on Hoshanah Rabbah it is sealed.”

We are still in that period of reflection.  There is still time for that process, to celebrate that we are alive, and therefore we can still change.

G’zeirah hi milfanai, shaveh b’chol adam – It is my decree, equal for all human beings
For even Moses died – and so shall we.  The idea is not that we should be scared.  in the words of our funeral service: “al nifchad b’noch’chut mavet – in the presence of death, let us not fear”.  Nor should we descend into hedonism.  But rather we might ask ourselves a question – one that we do not ask ourselves nearly enough, caught up as we are in the rigours of life:
Given that we are going to die, given that our death is a fact, that even Moses died, what will we really make of our lives?