“AND NO MAN HAS KNOWN HIS
The last of the Tishrei festivals, termed “The Period of Our Rejoicing” concludes with “Atseret” – “Assembly”. Since the time when Jewish communities adopted the yearly (Babylonian) cycle of the Torah reading, this holiday has become “Simchat Torah” – “The Joy of the Torah”, a climax of joy, characterized by many customs expressing that joy. It is interesting to note that in those moments in particular when we call to the Torah the Chatan Torah – “the Groom of the Torah”, we read those verses which describe the death of Moshe and his burial. A short and dramatic chapter paints Moshe’s ascent to
his passing and his burial, concluding with the passing of this major figure.
From here on begins a new story; the entry of the Israelites into the Mt. Nebo will be told in the Book of
Joshua. Land of Israel
Let us examine verse
“And he was buried in the glen in the
opposite Beth-Peor, and no man has
known his burial place to this day.” land of Moab
The first part of the verse describes the location of Moshe’s burial, but in the second, the Torah informs us that no man knows where Moshe is buried (according to Chazal in the Sifri and Tractate Sotah!!).
The Talmud in Sotah (Bavli Sotah 13b) discusses the paradoxical nature of the passage, without offering any explanation:
“And he was buried [translator’s note: The Hebrew for “he was buried” may, because of the lack of vocalization signs, be also read as “He buried”] in the glen in the
, opposite Bet-Peor” - Said R’ Berechia: A sign within
a sign, and despite this, “no man
has known his burial place”. land
R’ Hezkia ben Manoah, author of the Hizkkuni commentary, develops Chazal’s reading into an explanation:
He buried him in the glen – The Omniscient gave three signs for the location of Moshe’s burial place, as is written ‘in the glen’, and where is this glen? ‘In the
’, and where
in this land? ‘Opposite
Bet-Peor’, and despite all this, ‘no man has known his burial place’, to
teach you that Moshe was not
buried by man.” (Hizkuni, Devarim 34:6) land
The view that Moshe was not buried by man is buttressed by the lack of a clear designation of the clause’s subject - who “buried”? This lack of clarity facilitates the possibility that Moses buried himself (Rabbi Yishmael in the Sifri on Naso, and Ibn Ezra). Rashi argues that the Holy One himself buried Moshe (also based on Chazal).
Obviously, none of these suggestions can be understood literally. R’ Ovadia of Solferino, author of the Seforno commentary, adds:
“If he buried himself, as some Sages suggest, it was his non-material soul [ha’nefesh ha’nivdelet], because he died on the mountain, the
Here there is a clear differentiation between the flesh-and-blood Moshe and “his non-material soul.”
The ambiguity surrounding the death and burial of Moshe prompted a Talmudic opinion that Moshe never died:
It has been taught: R. Eliezer the Elder said: Over an area of twelve mil square, corresponding to that of the camp of
Israel, a Bath Kol made the proclamation, ‘So
died Moshe, the great teacher
Some say that Moshe never died; it is written here, ‘So Moshe died there’
and elsewhere (Shemot 34) it is written: And he
was there with the Lord. As in the latter passage it means standing and ministering, so also in the former it means standing
and ministering. (Sotah 13b) Israel
Here, too, we may assume that Chazal are referring to the “nefesh ha’nivdelet” of Moshe and not to the flesh-and-blood Moshe.
It seems to me that the confusion created by the Sages and commentators’ readings of Moshe’s demise and burial place in the Biblical narrative creates a unique mood, and comes to make a number of important points, which we will discuss later.
Our exegetes, of earlier and later periods, deal with the question of the location of Moshe’s burial site in different ways.
The Talmud (Sotah 14a), according to the BaCH’s version, attempts to answer the question “Why was Moshe’s grave concealed?”:
Hama bar Chanina: Why was Moshe’s grave
concealed? Because the Holy One knew that
the Temple would some day be destroyed and Israel would go
into exile, and that might they stand
and weep and mourn over Moshe’s grave, saying to him: Moshe our teacher, stand
and pray for us, and Moshe
would stand up and cancel the decree.
According to this understanding, God wanted to prevent the Children of Israel from arousing his mercies (Moshe’s? The Almighty’s?). by turning his grave into a place of prayer.
Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum (the Elder) of Sátoraljaújhely (Hungary) Chassidic author of the commentary “Yismach Moshe”, uses the juxtaposition of our passage to the one following in the Talmud (Ibid., Soncino translation) for the following exposition:
Hama son of R’ Hanina further said: What
means the text: Ye shall walk after the Lord your God? Is it, then, possible for a human being to walk after the
Shechinah; for has it not been said: For
the Lord thy God is a devouring fire? But [the meaning is] to walk after the
attributes of the Holy One, Blessed
Be He. As He clothes the naked, for it is written: And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife clothes of skin, and
clothed them, so do thou also clothe the naked […] The Holy One, blessed be He, buried the dead, for it is written:
And He buried him in the valley, so do
thou also bury the dead. (Until here, the quote from the Talmud). I add my explanation, for it is known that they [the Sages] interpreted “Let them
follow this order” [The reference is to the
Thirteen Attributes of God] (Rosh
Hashana 17b) ‘Saying is
not sufficient, but there must be action,
they must act in accordance with the Thirteen Attributes (quoted above in
the Haphtara of Tetseh). R’ Hama bar
Hanina’s first exposition is problematic—Does the Holy One, blessed be He, hate Israel , forefend, that He
devises stratagems to avoid
cancellation of the decree [to live in
exile]? But the solution is that His intention is to benefit them, for
actually they could have
themselves cancelled the decree with the Thirteen Attributes. But in order for
them [the Thirteen Attributes] to benefit
them, they must act in accordance with this order, therefore was Moshe’s burial place concealed,
so that they would be forced to act
according to His attributes
in order to cancel the decree. Thus, the second exposition ‘follow His attributes’,
and this is His will as He
cautions them to follow his attributes, therefore was Moshe’s burial place hidden, so that they would be
forced to act according to His attributes, thereby cancelling the decree . . . (Yismach Moshe II, 153b)
It is not desireable that Jewish prayers at Moshe’s grave offer an effortless substitute for actions encompassed by “walking in His ways”.
R’ Hezkia ben Manoach, author of “Hizkuni”, emphasizes the non-establishment of Moshe’s grave as a place of worship, along with an additional reason:
“Until this day: So that no one else be buried alongside, such as was the case in Bet-El, and so that inquirers of the dead not come with their requests.”
RaLBaG, explains the secrecy of the grave’s location similarly, but in greater detail (RaLBaG on Devarim 34:6):
The Lord did so [that no one know the location] because if the site were to become known, future generations may mistakenly make of him a divinity because of the famous wonders which he performed. Do you not see how the copper serpent which Moshe formed resulted in some of
because of the greatness of its creator (II Kings 18:4), and because God buried Moshe [secretly] as an omen,
no one ever touched his grave.
R’ Shimshon Rafael Hirsch also explained in similar vein:
Let us recall how rituals bordering on idolatry often developed around the graves of great men who did much for humanity, and thereby we can understand the greatness of this final stroke in the picture of Moshe’s life.
R’ Meir Simcha of Dvinsk took a slightly different approach:
No man has known: In the sense of has not recognized, i.e., had no relationship whatever to his burial place. This is because he was “a man of God in his lifetime, and very humble, and was not connected to, not involved, in the material and in general matters as are all men, and this is the meaning of “and no man has known” – not even Moshe.
Despite their shades of difference, the above explanations of the fog hovering over Moshe’s grave move in one direction:
Moshe, the man (incidentally, when the Children of Israel demanded of Aharon “Rise up and make us a god” it was the concrete “the man Moshe” they missed) of flesh and blood, whose life was partially described in the Torah, died like every man. The Torah describes his plea to enter the Land. Chazal, too, in different sources, depict his longing to realize this dream and his desire for eternal life.
Moshe our teacher, man of God, greatest prophet of all time, “nafsho hanivdelet” in Seforno’s words, did not die, because “the righteous, even in death, are considered alive”. He continues to live within us through the Torah, written and oral, in which “every innovation of future distinguished scholars has already been presented to Moshe at Sinai”. Therefore it is improper to desecrate his memory with idolatrous ritual. Rambam writes (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Mourning 4:4):
“[…] monuments are not erected over the graves of the tsaddikim because their words are their memorials, and one should not go to visit the graves”
The living Moshe should not be replaced with inanimate gravestones. Perhaps Moshe our teacher teaches us even with his death and burial a most important lesson: Our Torah is a Torah of life, and has no interest in turning graves into ritual sites and ‘holy places.” Holiness is not found in the ground, in stones and graves, not even in the tablets of the covenant (see RaSHar Hirsch’s last commentary on the Torah and the “Meshech Chochma” on Parashat Ki Tissah). It is to be found in Man’s striving to sanctify his behavior during his lifetime.