Vayelech – “You Are Still Only Mortal”

The Medrish Rabba relates that in this week’s Torah portion of Vayelech, Moshe Rabbeinu tries one last time to get into Israel; and he has a pretty logical argument! “Moshe Rabbeinu said to Him, ‘Master Of The Universe after all the honor and mightiness that my eyes saw, I am going to die?!’ The Holy One Blessed Be He said back to him, ‘Moshe, who is a man who will live and not see death… (Tehillim 89:49)?’ What does it mean when it says, ‘Who is a man who will live’? Rebbe Tanchuma said, who is a man like Avraham that went down into the fiery furnace and was saved, but afterward it writes, ‘And Avraham expired and died’ (Breishis 25:8)? Who is a man like Yitzchak who stuck out his neck on the alter, and afterwards it writes, ‘Behold now, I have grown old; I do not know the day of my death’ (Breishis 27:2)? Who is a man like Yaakov who had a run in with the angel, and afterwards it writes, ‘When the time drew near for Israel to die’ (Breishis 47:29)? Who is a man like Moshe who spoke to His Creator face to face, and afterwards, ‘Behold, your days are approaching [for you] to die’ (Devarim 31:14).” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

The Maharz”u explains Moshe’s argument and then Hashem’s response. When Moshe said “after all the honor,” he was referring to what he had said previously: “You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness etc” (Devarim 3:24). Moshe argued, “And if so let me please continue. For what reason shall I die? The whole purpose of death is for the soul to bask in the pleasantness of Hashem, for the body, its senses, and the needs of the body separates every other person, and they cannot merit the pleasantness of Hashem in their lifetime. But I who merited that my body and its needs does not separate me at all, for I merited in my lifetime to be close to You in a way that not even the righteous in their death merited, if so, it is better that I enter the land with the rest of the Jews.”

The Maharz”u explains that Hashem’s response was, “Who is a man like Avraham” A man, meaning brave, גבורה, Avraham overcame nature and he was about to die and lived but in the end he did die. So to Yaakov, he overpowered [the angel], he was about to die and was healed by the angel as it says, ‘I saw and angel face to face, and you saved my soul.’ He lived then died. So to Moshe who also overcame, as it writes in Vayikra Rabba 1:1, ‘This day we saw that Hashem spoke to a man and he lived.’ So too Moshe was close to death through Hashem’s speech and still lived so in the end he will die.

If one analyzes the request of Moshe and Hashem’s response, it is clear that they are not speaking to each other. Moshe claimed, and it makes perfect sense what he was saying, that he was able to reach the same closeness, if not better, than many righteous people, in this world as they reached after death in the next world. So why can’t he stay alive, and get even closer to Hashem by being able to perform more mitzvos in the Land of Israel? Hashem’s response was that Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, his forefathers, who were very righteous, also had run-ins with death and lived just as he did. And just as they died, he will die.
What kind of response was that? Maybe they didn’t reach the same level of closeness to Hashem as Moshe did in his lifetime, just as he claimed, and Hashem didn’t deny it?

The Mesillas Yesharim in the beginning of the first chapter clearly states, “Our Sages of blessed memory have taught us that man was created for the sole purpose of rejoicing in Hashem and deriving pleasure from the splendor of His Presence; for this is true joy and the greatest pleasure that can be found. The place where this joy may truly be derived is the World to Come, which was expressly created to provide for it; but the path to this object desire is this world, as our Sages of blessed memory have said, ‘This world is like a corridor to the World to Come’ (Pirkei Avos 4:21).” But Hashem didn’t tell Moshe that it is more appropriate to bask in His splendor only in the World to Come. So why did Hashem respond the way he did?

It would seem from Hashem’s response that Moshe had a good point, which made perfect sense, but Hashem had a different agenda. It must be that Hashem saw that Moshe had a negia, a bias, towards immortality. On a very minute and miniscule level Moshe could not accept the Will of Hashem to die, because like everyone he had a drive to stay alive; so he came up with a logic that made a lot of sense but was still slightly off from Hashem’s Will. So, Hashem had to speak to the negia in order for Moshe to accept his fate. That is why Hashem responded that just as the forefathers were faced with mortal danger, survived, and eventually passed on to the afterlife, so too will he.

Moshe, on a very slight level, got entangled into a bias for physical immortality in a negative way. We are at this moment in time in the days of judgement with Rosh Hashana upon us and we are able to use our bias for immortality in a positive sense, spiritually, to strive in any way to successfully get through this time and be sealed in the Book of Life!

Shana tova umisuka, happy and healthy new year,
Rabbi Dovid Shmuel Milder