Reflection on Deuteronomy 34:1-12 by The Rev. Margaret Rose
I have been traveling the last few weeks and took Moses along with me. I have always loved the story or stories of Moses: his birth in turbulent times; the courage of his mother and the miraculous hiding in the bull rushes; the intelligence of his sister Miriam ( I have a daughter named for her!) in suggesting Moses’ own mother as a wet nurse; the years in Pharaoh’s court, yet never forgetting his Hebrew identity; and finally of course Moses’ own life in God, accepting the call to lead the people of Israel out of bondage into freedom—the Exodus story which has been the basis of liberation theology. Those long years in the wilderness which followed recount times of suffering and challenge, with occasional joyous glimpses of hope that the land long promised will one day belong to the people of Israel.
And then it is time for Moses to die. In the Deuteronomy text today, Moses peers from the top of Pisgah looking over into Jericho and the land that he himself will never inhabit, but toward which he had journeyed for long years. “I have let you see it with your eyes, says the Lord, but you shall not cross over there.” And then Moses dies, and no one knows the burial place.
Something about this death, this simple recounting after so much writ large of Moses’ life, is profoundly sad. After all this work--nothing? The people weep of course, and there is I suppose some comfort in the knowledge that the successor is there to carry on. Joshua had been prepared, full of the spirit of wisdom after Moses’ holy hands in blessing had been placed upon him. Yet the sadness and sense of loss is the predominates.
Coincidentally, as I was departing for two weeks on the road, I opened an unsolicited email from the Shalom Center and Rabbi Phyllis Berman. I learned by chance that this week too was one in which the death of Moses is the portion of Torah appointed. It was read for the dancing festival of Simchat Torah or the Joy of Torah. Rabbi Berman tells us that the portion is called “V’zot ha”Brakha—And this is the Blessing.” “It is the shortest portion of the Torah, she writes, betokening the ever-shortening breaths as Moshe breathes his last. As all our teachers, parents, heroes, breathe their last.
It is the only portion, of all the 54, that is never read on Shabbat. Instead, it is read only at this week’s dancing festival. And the moment it is finished, the readings move to the Creation of the world. As she writes, “We move from the end to the Beginning, as if the Scroll were held in one great circle so that its ending indeed leads straight to its beginning. Perhaps, she speculates, “This is indeed the blessing—that the tears of loss open the wellsprings of Creation?”
I was profoundly moved by this notion and by the joyous possibility this opened up. For in my travels these weeks I was first in the poverty of Haiti and later at a reunion of college friends brought together by one colleague whose recently diagnosed brain tumor suggests that months with be the measure of his remaining life.
In Haiti, where it seems that every step forward for democracy or health seems to be thwarted by political or natural disaster, I was nevertheless astounded by the energy and hope that my hosts continued to offer to that country and their people. Sister Marjorie Raphael, a Sister of St. Margaret who has been in Haiti for many years told the story of the funeral of 4 popular musicians whose tragic death in a car accident brought the nation together in mourning as they prayed and sang their sorrow in a mass gathering. They sang hymns in the public square, bearing the load of personal sorrow and national unrest yet also praising God. The gift of life and hope and even moments of joy were present in that gathering. She tells of her astonishment and gratitude to God who made human beings with a life-source deeper and beyond tragedy.
It was not only the people whose hope astounded me as I listened to Sister Marjorie, it was hers as well. Frail and in her 80’s, I knew that the years of hard work, the long haul journey Marjorie Raphael had experienced in Haiti would not be one in which she reached the destination either—the promised land of Haiti’s original independence and liberation was still a distant hope. And the fruit of her work there would be enjoyed by others. Yet, neither was she in despair but spoke in hope of democracy and freedom which she had glimpsed post Papa Doc. Even amid the violence which has ensued, she is like Moses in Moab looking over to Jericho. She will no doubt not experience that promised land for which she worked so long and hard. But the legacy will not be forgotten.
And then there was Dominique who gathered 22 friends from student days for a retreat, some of whom had not seen one another for many years. He told his own story of a slight headache one day and a massive brain tumor the next and of his hope that this gathering might be the start of renewed friendship and community for years to come.
It would be trite I think, to say that every end marks a beginning--- a little too Pollyanna to say that things always turn out for the best. They don’t always.
And yet, as I acknowledged the coming death of my friend Dominique, I knew that the friends he had brought together were more alive because of him. And would remain so. A new creation was possible in the relationships of friends in community who rarely see one another. And Haiti is the better for the presence of Marjorie Raphael.
Perhaps that is what we should know about Moses as well. It does not really matter that his grave is not marked. Rather more important is that Joshua carried on. As will the friends of Dominique and all those working for healing in Haiti. And in all the other places around the world. The blessing is the creation that surely comes.