And concerning joy [I said], "What does this accomplish?"
In one of his books, Adam Baruch z"l wrote that as a young man studying at the Hevron Yeshiva he once danced enthusiastically at the hakafot for Simhat Torah. The rosh yeshiva came over and tapped him on the shoulder and said: "Young man, for what you have studied – you have danced enough."
I think that this encounter with Simhat Torah, (which in the Land of Israel has overshadowed Shemini Atzeret and is rooted in the Babylonian custom of reading the Torah in a one year cycle and which has developed into a folk holiday of dancing and the loosening of various restraints) with the content of the parasha read on that day expresses the same paradoxical dialectic.
In the Diaspora a distinction is maintained between the original holiday of Shemini Atzeret, which is firmly founded in Scripture and rabbinic literature and Simhat Torah, which is celebrated on the "second festival day of the Diaspora." However, no sign of Shemini Atzeret survives in the Land of Israel except for the maftir reading and the amidah prayer. The entire People Israel celebrates Simhat Torah.
On this day, even when it does not fall on Shabbat, we read parashat VeZot HaBrakha, which is, of course, the concluding parasha of the Torah.
As we all know, the Torah devotes a few verses (Devarim 34:5-12) to describing Moses' death:
5. And Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there, in the land of Moab, by the mouth of the Lord.
Moses, servant of the Lord and the prophet who achieved the greatest intimacy with God, died by the mouth of the Lord; there was no medical explanation for his death, rather, he died because that is the common fate of human beings as decreed by God. Midrashim describe Moses' dialogue with God, expressing his desire not to die and not just his desire to enter the Land of Israel. Thus, when Moses joins the rest of humanity, dying by the mouth of the Lord, the man of God is transformed into a human figure rather than an angel or a part of the Divinity.
Furthermore: Our Rabbi Moses, greatest of prophets, has no gravesite! His burial place is unknown. One can only imagine what kind of rites would have been practiced by his grave, and indeed, various commentators (Hizkuni and R. Yitzhak Shmuel Reggio) discuss the matter. R. Yitzhak Shmuel Reggio (Northern Italy 19th century) writes:
And no person knows the place of his burial – Behold this is a wonderful matter; the Torah tried to specify the place of burial as thoroughly as possible - in the valley, in the land of Moab, opposite Beth Pe'or – but despite all that God arranged things so that no person knows the place of his burial. He did so that future generations would not err and worship him [Moses] as a god in reaction to the fame of the wonders he worked.
The Jerusalem Talmud (Shekalim chapter 2, 47a, halakhah 5) also expresses concern that the graves of the righteous should not become places of worship:
We learned: Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: "A nefesh [memorial structure built over a grave] should not be made for the righteous; their words are their memorial."
And the RaMBaM (Hilkhot Avel 4:4) states:
The entire cemetery should be marked and a nefesh should be built over each grave, but a nefesh should not be set up over the graves of the righteous for their words are their commemoration and one should not be given to visiting graves.
Regarding the Torah's concluding words, which Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel, Rashi writes:
before the eyes of all Israel [This expression alludes to the incident, where] His heart stirred him up to smash the tablets before their eyes, as it is said, and I shattered them before your eyes (Devarim 9:17). - [Sifrei 33:41] And [regarding Moses shattering the Tablets,] the Holy One Blessed is He gave His approval, as Scripture states, “[the first Tablets] which you shattered” (Shemot 34:1); [God said to Moses:] “Well done for shattering them!” - [Shabbat 87a]. (Judaica Press translation)
It would appear that the death of the ultimate leader is a sad event, and so concerning joy, What does this accomplish? Why conclude the Torah reading of the festival known as Simhat Torah – the rejoicing of the Torah – with this depressing episode?!
I think that investigation of this short passage teaches us something about the paradoxical joy that is appropriate on this day. Verse 8 states: And the sons of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab for thirty days, and the days of weeping over the mourning for Moses came to an end. That is to say, Moses' death was mourned in the same normative and limited fashion as is the death of anyone else: for thirty days.
This limitation, together with other elements discussed above, highlights the fact that despite his fame as the greatest of prophets, Moses was only human. Perhaps this can teach us that each of us can, as a human being, rise spiritually in his own way, even if we cannot achieve Moses' station. This is not a matter reserved for "angels."
Let us conclude with a clear statement from R. Meir Simha MiDvinsk's Meshekh Hokhma:
All of the types of holiness, [that of] the Land of Israel, Jerusalem and the Temple, they are but details and branches of the Torah, and they are sanctified through the Torah's holiness...Do not imagine, God forbid, that the Temple and the Tabernacle are intrinsically holy objects! God dwells among His sons in order for them to worship Him, and if they, to a man, have transgressed the Covenant (Hosea 6:7), all holiness is removed from them [the Temple, etc.], and they become like profane vessels "intruders came and desecrated it." Titus entered the Holy of Holies with a prostitute and was not harmed (Gittin 56b) because its holiness had been removed. More than that - the Tablets - the writing of God - are not holy in themselves, but only for your sake when you observe that which is written in them...no created thing is holy in itself, but only in that Israel observes the Torah.
...None of the holy places are founded in religion... [As for] Mount Sinai, the place of religion, as soon as the Divine Presence left it - the sheep and cattle climbed up it (Shemot 19:13)! (Meshekh Hokhmah Shemot 32:19;12: 21)
Yeshayahu Leibowitz broadened this principle to encompass every phenomenon in our lives that we tend to call "holy":
Our Rabbi Moses exemplified this when he broke the tablets as soon as he saw the people transgress the commandment make no idol or image for yourself. We must understand that the expression idol or any image applies not only to the golden calf made by Israel, but to every natural existent: Nation, land, homeland, flag, army, idea, a personality, and so forth, whenever they are treated as being holy. (Y. Leibowitz: Sheva Shanim shel Sihot al Parashiyot HaShavu'a, pg. 401)
Perhaps it is precisely the knowledge that what is left for us is "the Torah of Moses" – which is the "Torah of Life" that can be interpreted in every new generation, and that we are commanded to choose life and not worship of the dead, of graves, or of other objects - that can be a source of true joy and significance.