Thursday, September 22, 2011

Going When It's Time

Parshat Nitzavim Vayelekh

by Rabbi Avi Billet

Moshe's good bye speech that is the book of Devarim contains a number of references to the fact that he will not accompany the people into the Promised Land. He talks about how he requested, knelt, pleaded before God to be given a chance to enter the land – if only for a short time – and how each request was summarily rejected.

In the beginning of Devarim, Moshe pins the reason on the event of the spies (1:37). Sometimes, the reasoning becomes more of God's design than a mundane punishment. The Or HaChaim (1:37) quotes a gemara (Sotah 9a) and the Midrash Tehillim (79) to explain how Moshe's non-entry into the land was part of a plan that would ultimately save the Jewish people. Had Moshe entered the land, he would have built the Temple, which God would never allow to be destroyed.

God's ensuing wrath over the people turning from Him was taken out on wood and stones (the destruction of the Temple), rather than against the Israelite nation.

In his work Siftei Tzadikim, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rimanov says that Moshe, the ultimate shepherd of Israel, fulfilled his destiny particularly in his death, through granting Israel an everlasting chance at eternal survival.

To bring the matter to an even more direct level, the Mareh Yechezkel (Rabbi Yechezkel Panet) gives two additional explanations for why Moshe needed to remain outside of the land: for the merit of those who perished in the wilderness, and to serve as a defense against the prosecution of Baal Peor, which would not be able to stand up against Moshe's grave, is in the mountains of Moav, overlooking the place where the negative incident of Bamidbar 25 took place.

In our parsha, Moshe says "Today I am 120 years old and I can no longer come and go. God has [also] told me that I would not cross the Jordan." (31:2)

What does Moshe mean when he says "I can no longer come and go?" Is Moshe referring to his physical prowess? Is Moshe referring to the reality that the end of his life has arrived? Is Moshe saying that he can no longer argue the point with God because it is hopeless for him to enter the land?

Ibn Ezra suggests Moshe could no longer lead the people in battle. Rashi rejects the idea that Moshe's physical strength was ebbing, as he offers Moshe's inability (permission-wise) to enter the land, and that Moshe was no longer capable of deep Torah thoughts. (Ramban prefers this latter interpretation.) Different Tosafists point to Moshe's old age as his reason for not being able to continue – following the logical flow of the verse. The Seforno has echoes of Moshe's destiny when he says "Even if I could physically make the trip (go and come), since God said I can not go, it will be better for you if I do not enter, because this will allow you to pass over the Jordan River, and to enter the promised Land."

There are no set rules for when the body begins to break down. Some people might begin experiencing debilitating ailments or conditions at an early age, some at a later stage, and some go through life as healthy as can be past becoming centenarians.

The big challenge for many of us is how to deal with the cards we're dealt. For Moshe, the Torah says he did not lose his physical strength. But there is room to look at Moshe not being able to lead a battle or to not maintain his highest intellectual capacity – especially after he anointed Yehoshua his successor and gave Yehoshua some of his own "glory."

Moshe grew to accept his reality and to understand that some things, which are clearly part of God's master plan, are what they are. No amount of Moshe's pleading could change his destiny once the decree was given.

Does this mean Moshe did not possess Free Will, and that perhaps his destiny was predetermined? Of course not. Moshe demonstrated his free will many times in the Torah, and his destiny was heavily influenced by his free will choices.

The reality presented by the verse also suggests, however, that Moshe was able to recognize when his time was up, so he could walk off into the sunset while still as close to the top of his game as he could possible be.

May we all be blessed to live to Moshe's ripe old age, and merit to appreciate our final days for what they will be: the prelude to our reunion with the divine.

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