Yochanan Gordon

“Vayikbor oso bagay, b’eretz Moav, mul Beis Pe’or, v’lo yada ish es kevuraso ad ha’yom ha’zeh — And he buried him in a valley, in the Moabite region, adjacent to Beis Pe’or, and no man is aware of his burial spot until this very day.”

These are the words near the conclusion of the parashah of V’Zos HaBerachah that we read annually on Simchas Torah.

Now, I must admit, I have a terrible sense of direction. But if I was looking for a location and was given such precise directions I would have no problem finding it. What is going on here?

This pasuk has piqued my interest for so long and, for reasons that I can’t put my finger on, it was only this year as I was reviewing that section of the parashah, ahead of Simchas Torah, that I decided I was going to set out to locate the burial place of Moshe Rabbeinu.

My journey to find his tomb on the mountain of Nevo in the Moabite region would not require airfare, a hotel stay, car rental, or security detail because it was going to take place within the four walls of my father-in-law’s study where we had been spending yom tov. I was not bothered by the fact that it couldn’t be found as much as I was bothered by the need for the Torah to spell out its precise location while knowing that it could not be found. On its face, it seems like a taunt of sorts. Well, if it was for the purpose of someone like me poring over the sources that discuss this cryptic verse then I guess it served its purpose.

There have been geographical searches to find Moshe’s burial place in the past. The Gemara in Sotah on 13b relates: “A contingent from the Roman Empire was sent to Gistera requesting that they be shown where Moshe was interred. It had initially seemed to them that Moshe was interred at the top of the mountain; but when they climbed to the top it had seemed that he was interred at the foot of the mountain. They then divided the contingent into two groups and to each of them it seemed that the kever was in the opposite direction; in order to fulfill the dictum of, ‘And no man is aware of his burial place until this very day.’”

There is a whole roster of reasons as to why G-d ordained Moshe’s passing in such a mysterious fashion. The Ben Ish Chai and the Meshech Chochmah shed light in their respective fashions on this incident. However, I wanted to share an interpretation of the Heichal HaBerachah, which is a commentary on the Chumash written by the Komarna Rebbe, Reb Yitzchak Isaac of Komarna, who was a student of the famed Chozeh of Lublin. On the words, “And no man is aware of his burial place until this very day,” the Komarna writes that it is because Moshe is concealed within the hearts of each and every Jew; he is there in the heart of a Jew to aid in arousing him or her to do teshuvah. He is interred in the heart of a true tzaddik who thinks lowly of himself. In the edition of the Chumash Heichal Haberacha that I have, the Me’or Einayim, from Reb Nochum Chernobyler, is cited from Parshas Terumah where he writes that nobody knows where Moshe is buried because he is concealed within the heart of every Jew who humbles themselves like Moshe, of whom the Torah attests was exceedingly humble.

The weekly study of Chumash and Rashi of that week’s parashah is a pretty basic regimen that is even an obligation, deduced from the words “V’eileh sh’mos,” which is an acronym for “V’chayav adam lilmod ha’parashah shnayim mikra v’echad targum—And each person is obligated to study the parashah twice and with the interpretation of Targum Onkelos.” I’ve noticed that not many people get around to learning V’zos HaBerachah with Rashi since after noticing how Rashi interpreted the verse “And Moshe’s eyes did not dim and his vibrancy did not wane,” and asking a handful of people if they knew what Rashi wrote on those words, they could not tell me.

Fascinatingly, on the words “His eyes did not dim,” Rashi writes: “Even after he had passed.” This too, was an interpretation that left me scratching my head. It compelled me to ask others just to see how they understood what Rashi was imparting.

However, in what could only be chalked up to sheer hashgachah pratis, I opened up the sefer Yaaros Devash from Reb Yehonasan Eibeschutz in the eighth chapter of his first derashah and he seems to paraphrase this Rashi, explaining that Moshe continued to watch after the Jewish people even after he had passed on. He writes that during Haman’s decree to annihilate the Jews, Moshe was instrumental in the decree ultimately being overturned due to his tears and prayers on our behalf.

It’s interesting to point out that there is an inherent similarity between Yaakov Avinu and Moshe Rabbeinu. Chazal even state that Yaakov and Moshe represent the externality and internality of the same being. Yaakov Avinu is our forefather on whom the Gemara tells us he did not die. Similarly, the Gemara in Sanhedrin writes of Moshe Rabbeinu, “Lo meis Moshe—Moshe did not die.” It was in this light that I wanted to interpret the words “Lo yada ish es kevuraso” to mean that not even G-d considered the physical demise of Moshe Rabbeinu. Regardless of whether or not he physically passed on, Moshe was more of a soul than a body even in his lifetime in this world. Therefore, nothing was lost from us with his demise. It is perhaps for this reason that the happiness of Haman when he realized that the lot fell out to annihilate the Jews in the month of Adar, the month that Moshe died, was counteracted by the fact that Moshe was born in the very same month. This says that the day of his passing was of no consequence and that only his birth mattered. As Reb Yehonasan Eibeschutz insinuates, which has precedent in many other sifrei kabbalah and Chassidus, leaders on the level of Moshe Rabbeinu are beyond the effects of physical demise.

Because Moshe continues to live on in the hearts of Jews the world over, the influence that he or the reincarnate of Moshe could have in our lives on a day-to-day basis is only commensurate with the level to which we are aware of his presence.

One of the most touching stories of the Lubavitcher Rebbe that I have heard retold is that of Elliot Lasky of Monsey, NY. The story itself is remarkable but more so is the manner in which it was retold by him in a video interview that was conducted in August 2013.

Lasky was a college student at the State University of NY in Buffalo. Lasky retells that he had grown up in a frum home in Boro Park, where his parents spoke primarily in Yiddish. He had received a regular yeshiva education, but, like many in the 1960s, ended up squandering much of what he learned and he let go of observance of Judaism. A musician on the side when he wasn’t in school, in the summer of 1972 Lasky was on a summer tour with The Rolling Stones at the age of 24 when he was contacted by a Zen Buddhist friend of his who had traveled from California to New York; he piqued the interest of Lasky who was undergoing a spiritual reawakening of sorts.

During his time at college, he had befriended Rabbi Nosson Gurary who was then the Lubavitcher shliach on campus and to whom he began to unload all the faith questions that didn’t cease gnawing at him for a moment.

After taking the time to listen, Rabbi Gurary concluded that only the Lubavitcher Rebbe would be able to put his crisis of faith at bay.

Although in the 1970s it was not easy securing a meeting with the Rebbe, whose doorstep was the address for people the world over seeking blessings and guidance, Rabbi Gurary told him to seek out his brother-in-law, Yossi Hendel, at 770 Eastern Parkway on a specific day at a precise time when the Rebbe would pull up to 770 from the Ohel where he brought many of the requests for blessings to the graveside of the Friediker Rebbe, Rav Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson.

Lasky described the day as a frigid day in January when the Rebbe’s car pulled up where he’d walk from the car into 770 and directly into Minchah. He said that he approached the Rebbe and asked in Yiddish, “Excuse me, are you the Lubavitcher Rebbe?”

Lasky tearfully related how their eyes locked and he expressed that he hadn’t ever before seen eyes as piercing as the Rebbe’s. After regaining a bit of composure he noted that the Rebbe didn’t say yes or no; he just proceeded to ask, “What is your name and where are you from?”

Lasky recalled: “I gave him my name and told him where I and my parents are from and then I said, ‘I have a question.’

“The Rebbe responded, ‘Ask.’ Again, I must stress that at that point our eyes were locked; it was a very spiritual experience for me, and I asked him, ‘Where is G-d?’

“The Rebbe responded, ‘Everywhere.’

“I pressed further, ‘I know, but where?’

“Again the Rebbe responded, ‘Everywhere and in everything — in a tree, in a rock.’

“And I said to the Rebbe, ‘I know, but where?’

“He then said something that blew me away, so to speak: ‘In your heart if this is how you ask.’

“Because I felt it would be difficult to talk philosophically in Yiddish, I asked the Rebbe if we could switch to English, to which he agreed. I said: ‘Isn’t it so that when we declare, “Hear O Israel, G-d is your G-d, G-d is One,’ He is the same age for all people, whether you are a Jew, a black man, or an Indian?’

“He said, ‘The essence of the black man is to be who he is as a black man, and the essence of an Indian is to be who he is as an Indian, and the essence of the Jew is to be bound to Hashem through Torah and mitzvos.’”

The story doesn’t end there, but Lasky relates how it took a couple of months but he began putting on tefillin daily and then keeping Shabbos before adapting to a fully observant life and building a family of his own. What I wanted to bring out from this story is what it feels like to have faith to the point where you can know with certainty the most basic facts of G-d’s existence but that knowledge gives way to a feeling of desperate uneasiness until you’re able to point with your finger and identify the presence of G-d in everything.

Faith, in Judaism, extends to the belief that G-d gave the Torah to the Jewish people through Moshe Rabbeinu, as the verse states: “And they believed in G-d and in Moshe his servant.” Chazal refer to Moshe as a composite of human and G-d, with the bottom half being human and the top half G-d-like. In the Meshech Chochmah, Reb Meir Simcha HaKohen from Dvinsk’s explanation of the verse, “And nobody knows his burial place until this very day” notes the fact that Moshe even during his physical life in this world was closer to heaven than he was to earth. We noted earlier that Moshe is concealed within the hearts of every Jew, and it is incumbent upon us, especially in times like these, to fan the flames of our inner Moshe and allow it to come to the fore and help lead us with confidence through these trying times.

In discussing the end of Moshe’s physical life in this world, one needs to reflect on the fact that despite praying with all his being, he ultimately wasn’t allowed entry into Eretz Yisrael. In the end, G-d commanded him up the mountain and allowed only his eyes to see the land into which he sought to enter.

When we talk about the fact that Moshe davened to enter the land of Israel, what was his claim to G-d to allow him in? On what grounds did he approach G-d and say, “Because I did such and such I should be allowed to enter into the land of Israel?” Certainly Moshe possessed a long list of praiseworthy accolades with which to be allowed entry into the land of Israel.

The Ba’al HaTurim notes, that Moshe didn’t say, “I led the Jews out of Egypt, I took them through the Yam Suf, I gave them the Torah, and I led them through the desert.” What did Moshe claim to Hashem to allow him to enter into the land of Israel? The Ba’al HaTurim writes that when the Jews expressed apprehension about going into the land of Israel after the negative report from the spies about the 31 kings and their armies that they would have to encounter, Moshe told them, “Just like G-d looked after you in the desert, He will clear the path of any obstacles for you in the land of Israel.” Quite simply, Moshe encouraged them and intuitively gave them the confidence that through Yehoshua they will enter the land of Israel and it will all be good.

We are at a period in our lives, collectively, when we are craving leadership. There are certainly individuals and organizations who are exerting themselves to lessen some of the symptoms that we are experiencing through these trying times, but we are in desperate need of a selfless leader whose only motivation is to restore pride and confidence in the people he was sent to lead. We often like to lament the leaderless-ness in our generation as if it gets us some sort of free pass, but the truth is that like the Torah says about Moshe: “Mah sham omed u’meshamesh af kan omeid u’meshamesh — Just like during his lifetime he was standing in service of the Jewish people, so, too, here, after his physical life, he continues to act on our behalf.”

If you are not used to and are uncomfortable with these concepts, take solace in the fact that Rashi himself notes that Moshe’s vision remained vivid even after his physical demise. We can’t allow ourselves to be talked down to, discouraged, and made to feel like without the leadership of whoever claims to know the way out of this we will be doomed to failure. Jewish leaders don’t lead from the outside; they don’t take us by the hand and walk us through the troubling situations. They convince us that we intuitively possess the power and wherewithal to deliver ourselves through it with confidence. Let us unearth that spark of Moshe within us and merit the day that we are reunited with our leader in the physical sense.

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