How Did Moses Face His Fear of Dying?

Moses striking the rock instead of speaking to it.”

On a recent walk, I was listening to the Hidden Brain podcast on NPR, and chose to listen to an interview with Dr. Sheldon Solomon called “We’re All Going To Die!” Feeling strongly as I do that we live in a society that thinks we can somehow “cheat” death, I was interested in hearing what he had to say.

Dr. Sheldon Solomon and his colleagues, Drs. Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski, have done extensive empirical research based on the theories of Ernest Becker (author of Denial of Death, 1973). They posited that being reminded of one’s mortality impacts that person’s behavior in various situations. In a study of judges in Tucson, AZ, the researchers gave half of the judges a questionnaire that included something about death, and the other half the same questionnaire but without that question. Afterwards, the judges were asked to set bail for a prostitute. For the control group, the average bail set was $50, which is about the average. For the group where death was mentioned, the average bail was $455! Other studies confirmed that when people were reminded that eventually they would die, their attitudes and behaviors were different than the control groups who were given the same questionnaires, but without the reminder of death.

Based on Becker’s work, Solomon et al came up with Terror Management Theory, which proposes that a basic psychological conflict results from having a self-preservation instinct while realizing that death is inevitable and to some extent unpredictable. This conflict produces terror, and the terror is then managed by embracing cultural beliefs, or symbolic systems that act to counter biological reality with more durable forms of meaning and value. You can read more about this in the book The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life by Solomon along with Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski.

I bring this up now, as we approach Shabbat Hol Hamoed Sukkot, because the special Torah reading, which takes a break from our weekly reading series, begins by speaking about Moses’ frustration at being chosen by God to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land (Exodus 33:12). The past few Shabbat portions have focused on Moses’ impending death at the age of 120, along with the transfer of leadership to Joshua.

The reason most often given for why Moses wasn’t allowed to enter the land has to do with the incident where he “hit the rock” rather than speaking to it as God had commanded, so that it would bring forth water. It made God look silly in the people’s eyes, and appeared to be an overt act of disobedience. However, as I’ve written before, the people had no water because Miriam had just died, and in my mind, Moses was acting out of grief.

Having heard Dr. Solomon interviewed on NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast, Moses’ behavior makes even more sense. When someone dies, each of us is reminded of our own mortality, but unlike a possible “brush with death,” which often impels people to make positive changes in their lives, Terror Management Theory shows that the reaction is different when one is simply reminded of his or her mortality. In fact, a study of Israeli soldiers found that those who were aggressive drivers to begin with, became more aggressive when faced with the idea of their death.

As we age, the reality of death gets closer, and the anxiety of death–perhaps not the “being dead” part, but the dying part–looms larger in our minds. When this comes up, when we attend a funeral or shiva, when we hear of a celebrity death, especially someone younger, we can be aware of our reactions and feelings, and choose our behavior.

The gates are still closing. We pray for health and life for ourselves and those around us. May we be blessed with the presence of mind to take a moment to breathe, think and speak before we react.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Latest Sermons

Yom Kippur: Hope, Despair And A Shining Sun
Yom Kippur: Hope, Despair And A Shining Sun

Yom Kippur 5783 Like many of the quotes and poems that make their way into use, a poem attributed to an anonymous person in a concentration camp, or in hiding, became somewhat of an urban legend, and has often been taken out of context, as well as not accurately...


Kol Nidre, 5783 On Rosh Hashanah, we began our prayers in the hopes of moving God, the Holy Blessed One, from kisei din, the throne or seat of judgment, to kisei rachamim, the throne or seat of compassion. Ten days later, here we are at the eve of Yom Kippur,...

Shema: Listening, Hearing and the Shofar

Rosh Hashanah 5783, Day 2 The word, “Shema.” What do you think of when you hear it? Usually, we think of “The Shema” as the verses we chant or sing from the book of Devarim, Deuteronomy, and in that context, it’s a bold theological statement. It is an idea which goes...

Latest Midrash HaZak

Kedoshim: Coming of Age in Holiness
Kedoshim: Coming of Age in Holiness

Photo and art by Rabbi Susan Elkodsi Kedoshim: Coming of Age in Holiness Rabbi Dr. Jill Hackell As I move through my 70s I find myself increasingly aware of my “senior” status in our society. Suddenly, by virtue of my age I am in a category that labels me vulnerable–I...

Parasha Vayakhel: A Mirror of the Holy Whole
Parasha Vayakhel: A Mirror of the Holy Whole

                                  Parasha Vayakhel: A Mirror of the Holy Whole Cherie Karo Schwartz  My Mom, Dotty Karo of blessed memory, was an ultimate crafter. She had a room stuffed with kaleidoscope-colored treasures she’d collected or had been gifted by...

Ki Tavo: Entering the Land and a New Age

Ki Tavo: Entering the Land and a New Age Charles Goldman This midrash speaks to me. Just as the people of Israel were about to embark on the next mega steps of their lives in the Holy Land, and Moses was intoning to them that they have “a heart to know, eyes to see,...

Latest Personal Blogs

Blessing My Bended Knees-A Poem
Blessing My Bended Knees-A Poem

This past week, I participated in a Ritualwell class with Alden Solovy on "Writing From One Word of Torah." I distilled 3 stream-of-consciousness prompts on the word "Baruch/Berekh," the root of which can mean "blessing' and "knee, into this poem. Blessing my bended...

The Eshet Hayil In Our Lives
The Eshet Hayil In Our Lives

Photo: The Eshet Hayil In Our Lives An email from My Jewish Learning about “A Woman of Valor” prompted me to pivot the next evening’s planned adult learning session to looking at these 22 verses from Mishlei, the Book of Proverbs. These verses...

Live Long and Prosper?
Live Long and Prosper?

By Oklahoma Heritage Association, Gaylord-Pickens Museum - Author, CC BY-SA 3.0, Live Long and Prosper? January 5, 2022 began the third year of the seven and a half-year cycle of Daf Yomi, the practice of...

Pin It on Pinterest