The Final Chapter: What Moses can Teach Us about End of Life

Photo: Rabbi Susan Elkodsi, The Peak of Mt. Philo, VT

The Final Chapter: What Moses can Teach Us about End of Life
Dr. Ellen S. Cohn

As a young adult, I reveled in Existentialism, a philosophy that expressed my new-found independence and self-determination. I gave scarce heed to what lent permission to that autonomy, the premise that everyone eventually dies alone.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

Viewing myself at 70 however–a chaplain and researcher of isolation among older adults–I have become less enamored about the idea of dying alone. Thus, I support the initiative No One Dies Alone (NODA) that provides companionship to those bereft of family and friends. Yet, while administering pastoral care for the lonely, I am made shockingly aware that the Torah prescribes a solitary death for Moses, our Leader and greatest Teacher.

Moses–the only person to whom God has actually spoken “face to face.” 1 Moses–about whom “there is no equal” since “there has not arisen a prophet since, like him in Israel”2–must die alone, ending his life apart from the people he has cared for. Painfully, Moses, who had always advocated for the Israelites, attempts in vain to fight on his own behalf3. Struggling against the inevitably of his own mortality, he entreats God to permit him “to cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan,”4 but the Almighty remains resolute.

This is usually interpreted as punishment because Moses, in a lapse of faith, hit the rock instead of speaking to it as he had been commanded.5 However, the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks asserted that the necessity for Moses to step aside stemmed from neither punishment nor dint of failure. Rather, the Israelites who are now poised to enter the Land possess a different temperament than those whom Moses had heretofore escorted. While he had successfully piloted former slaves through the desert, this cohort of Israelites has been born in freedom. As such, they demand a leader with a fresh perspective, capable of meeting the challenges of that “specific generation.” 6

Seeing our generation dismissed in favor of new leadership feels agonizing. As Baby Boomers, we were often the trailblazers who devoted our lives to “changing the world;” we do not want to relinquish the reins! My parents often talked about being passed over as they aged; but I knew that would never happen to me. Our generation who triumphed relevance could never become irrelevant!

The psychologist Erik Erikson proposed this dialectic for middle-aged adults, a developmental stage that can be extended into one’s late 60s/early 70s.7 In Erikson’s paradigm, we are forced to confront Generativity vs. Stagnation.8 Can we be content to lay the foundation for the next generation to flourish and be content with that (Generativity)? Or should we cling to our accomplishments, insisting that the struggle was MINE, and thus are due reward for our achievements. It is natural to resent that what we wrought mostly benefits those who come after us (Stagnation).

Moses’ plea in Va’Etchanan becomes understandable. Why shouldn’t he be entitled to enter Israel, the culmination of his life’s work: bringing the people from Egypt into Israel, from servitude to living the Torah in their own Land? Shouldn’t he be permitted to continue as the leader?! Ironically in what turned out to be his last speech, Dr. Martin Luther King accepts his own life’s mission: 

I’ve been to the mountaintop… I would like to live a long life…. But I’m not concerned about that now.
I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain… I’ve seen the promised land.
I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.9

Moses ultimately accepts his mortality, as he takes his leave and climbs Mount Nebo. Yet God grants him what the rest of us may only yearn for: to know with certainty what he has accomplished. He literally witnesses those for whom he devoted his life embark into Israel. As Rabbi Tarfon taught, it may not be “up to us to finish the task.” 10

The Torah hints that Moses has not been abandoned to die alone. Rather, the Torah–bolstered by the commentaries–describes how as God dictates the passage about Moses dying, Moses engraves the parchment “with tears”11. Therefore, within Moses’ enforced “solitude,” he is not alone, but remains in his relationship and dialogue with God. God hears the resonance of Moses’ grief and stays with him, much as we do in emulating God’s Presence in chaplaincy. Moreover, while The Torah does not explicitly detail how Moses’ body was somehow buried, it tells us that it was: “And he was buried in the valley in the land of Moab over against Beth-peor….”12 Rashi speculates that when the Torah says “he was buried,” that it was God, The Holy One, Blessed be He, in His Glory, who performed the sacred task.13

My rabbi, Rabbi Yehuda Kelemer zt”l, credited the Brisker tradition in explaining why Moses merited The Almighty’s personally coming to bury him. Upon leaving Egypt, Moses paused to demonstrate compassion toward Joseph, personally gathering his bones so that Joseph could accompany his descendants to their homeland in Canaan. Consequently, God acknowledged Moses’ kindness, and accompanied him in his final moments. We likely will not accomplish anything as momentous as patiently guiding mobs of dissonant Jews through the desert, nor have we the opportunity to personally attend to the bones of Joseph. Yet our compassion towards others, the sensitivities and good deeds that we have wrought in our lives, will somehow merit that we die knowing that we have fulfilled our purpose. And that God –and those who we have loved or influenced, will be there with us in our final chapter.

After directing adult and family life education, Dr. Ellen Cohn earned her doctorate in Jewish Education from Yeshiva University. Her research, a study of 850 adults nationwide  explored how life cycle and transition impact one’s spiritual needs. Additionally, she earned Master’s degrees in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary and in Jewish Professional Leadership from Brandeis University. She was a “Fellow” at  the Drisha Institute’s first full time program. Dr. Cohn completed 4 units of CPE and earned a Certificate in Gerontology and Palliative Care from the Wurzweiler School of Social Work at Yeshiva University. She works as an interfaith and eldercare chaplain at John T. Mather/Northwell Hospital in Port Jefferson, NY.

1  Devarim 34:10
2  Ibid  34: 10
3  Ibid 3:23
4  Ibid 3:25
5 Bamidbar 20: 10-11; Dvarim 3:23-29, 32:49-52, 34:4 chukat-why-was-moses-not-destined-to-enter-the-land
7  Vaillant, G. E. (2002). Aging well: Surprising guideposts to a happier life from the Landmark Harvard study of adult development. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 2002; The Midus Institute
8 Erikson, E. H. (1980). Identity and the life cycle. New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.; Erikson, E.H. (1982) The Life Cycle Completed: A Review..  New York: :  W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
9 King, Martin Luther, Jr. (April 3, 1968). I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” Delivered at Mason Temple in Memphis,  Tennessee.
10 Pirke Avot 2:16
11 Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, Dvarim 34:5; Sifre Dvarim 357:28
12 Devarim 34:6
13 Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, Dvarim 34:6

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