On Simchat Torah(“Rejoicing in Torah”) Jews read the end of the Torah scroll, where Deuteronomy/Devarim comes to a close, then roll the scroll all the way back to the beginning and read the opening of Genesis/Bereishit. (We also dance with the scroll when it is rolled up and dressed in its cover.)
How does the Torah scroll end? The final scene in the final Torah portion, Vezot Habrakhah (“And these are the blessings”) is the death of Moses.
The book of Deuteronomy is set in the lowland (below sea level) at the north end of the Dead Sea, where the Israelites are encamped on the east bank of the Jordan River. Moses speaks at length to the people he has led for 40 years. Then at the end of the book, following God’s instructions, he climbs Mount Nebo in the Pigsah range of mountains near the border of Moab.1
Moses knows that God will not let him cross the Jordan River with the people he has shepherded all the way from Egypt. But God does miraculously enable him to see the entire “promised land” of Canaan from the mountaintop. (There is a good view from Mt. Nebo, but not good enough to see all the way to the Mediterranean without supernatural help.)
And Moses, the servant of God, died there in the land of Moab, al pi God. (Deuteronomy 34:5)
al pi (עַל־פִּי) = at the bidding of, by the order of; at the peh of. peh (פֶּה) = mouth; opening, edge; statement, command.
The Torah makes it clear that even though he is 120, Moses does not die of old age:
Moses was 120 years at his death; his eye was not dim, and his vigor was not gone. (Deuteronomy 34:7)
He dies because it is time for the Israelites to cross the Jordan and begin conquering Canaan without him. But what kills him?
The phrase “al pi God” (always using the four-letter name of God)2 appears 25 times in the bible. Twelve of these times Moses, or Moses and Aaron together, take action at the bidding of God.3 Ten times the Israelites act al pi God, though they do not know they are obeying the God of the Israelites. God “sends” raiding parties from Babylon and its vassal states to exterminate the kingdom of Judah, and “indeed, al pi God it happened to Judah to clear it away from God’s presence…” (2 Kings 24:3)
One other time Aaron acts by himself at the bidding of God: And Aaron the Priest ascended Mount Hor al pi God, and he died there… (Numbers/Bemidbar 33:38)
That leaves only one instance in which something simply happens al pi God, without any information about who did it: when Moses dies at the end of Deuteronomy. Does this unusual use of the phrase “al pi” mean that Moses deliberately died in order to carry out God’s order? Or does it mean that he died by the “mouth” of God?
Death with an Exhale
Most English translations imply that Moses died when God ordered him to die.5 He does not need to commit suicide; he simply knows God wants him to die now, and he releases life, exhales, and dies.
Is Moses the kind of person who would obediently die at God’s bidding? When he first becomes God’s prophet at the burning bush, he accepts the job of being God’s mouthpiece only because God will not take no for an answer—and then he tries one last time to get out of it, on the ground that he has a defective mouth. (See my post Va-era & Shemot: Uncircumcised, Part 2.)
While he is leading the Israelites across the wilderness for 40 years, his relationship with God is mouth-to-mouth, as God says to Miriam and Aaron:
“Listen to my words: If a prophet of God happens among you, in a vision I make myself known to him, in a dream I speak to him. Not so my servant Moses; he is trusted in all my household. Peh to peh I speak with him; and appearing, not in riddles; and the likeness of God he looks at.” (Numbers 12:6-8)
Ironically, the less advanced prophets Miriam and Aaron hear God directly in this passage. But they never speak directly to God in the Torah, so in this regard they and God are not in a peh to peh relationship.
Moses, however, often has direct conversations with God. Sometimes God starts the conversation, sometimes Moses does. Sometimes they argue, sometimes they negotiate. Sometimes God threatens to do something and Moses talks God out of it.6
But in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses looks back on the 40-year adventure with resentment at how much trouble the Israelites gave him, and resignation that God will not let him cross the Jordan. (See my post Devarim: In God We Trust?) By the time he has retold the history, restated and elaborated on God’s laws, and finally blessed the Israelites earlier in the portion Vezot Habrakhah, perhaps he is willing to die. Why not leave the world in a final act of obedience to God?
Death with a Kiss
On the other hand, medieval commentary interpreted the word peh literally, and wrote that God took Moses’ life with a kiss, mouth to mouth. Here is one version:
God said: “Moses, fold your eyelids over your eyes,” and he did so. He then said: “Place your hands upon your breast,” and he did so. He then said: “Put your feet next to one another,” and he did so. Forthwith the Holy One, blessed be He, summoned the soul from the midst of the body, saying to her:7 “My daughter, I have fixed the period of your stay in the body of Moses at a hundred and twenty years; now your end has come, depart, delay not … Thereupon God kissed Moses and took away his soul with a kiss of the mouth … (Devarim Rabbah 11:10, circa 900 CE.)8
In this anthropomorphic interpretation, just as God’s mouth blows the first human’s soul into the body,9 God’s mouth inhales Moses’ soul out of the body.
This is a more intimate way of being peh to peh with God.
This week’s Torah portion, the book of Deuteronomy, and the Torah scroll end:
Never again did a prophet rise in Israel like Moses, whom God knew face to face, for all the signs and the omens that God sent [him] to do in the land of Egypt for Pharaoh and for all his servants and for all his land; and for all the strong power and for all the great awe that Moses achieved in the eyes of all Israel. (Deuteronomy 34:10-12)
In other words, Moses is unique as a prophet in his tremendous effect on both Egypt and the Israelites. And by the way, God knew Moses face to face.
And spoke with Moses mouth to mouth. And, perhaps, took Moses’ soul, his life, with a kiss.
At the end of the Torah scroll, Moses dies al pi God, by God’s mouth or bidding. Then, on Simchat Torah, Jews roll the scroll back to the beginning, and we read how God created the heavens and the earth through speech.
And God said: “Light will be,” and light was. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:3)
Both the death of Moses and the creation of the world come, in one way or another, from the mouth of God.
Maybe this is another way of saying that both death and birth are too mysterious for humans to ever understand.
- This is the same mountain range where King Balak of Moab led the Mesopotamian prophet Bilam so he could look down on the Israelites and curse them. The king was foiled when God put words of blessing in Bilam’s mouth instead. (See my post Balak: Three Places to Be Blessed.)
- See my post Lekh-Lekha: New Names for God.
- Moses act al pi God in Numbers 3:16, 3:39, 3:51, 4:37, 4:41, 4:45, 4:49, 10:13, 13:3, 33:2, 36:5; and Joshua 22:9.
- The Israelites act al pi God in Exodus 17:1, Leviticus 24:12, Numbers 9:18-23, and Joshua 19:50.
- E.g. “at the command of the Lord” (Jewish Publication Society), “according to the word of the Lord” (King James Version), “as the Lord had said” (New International Version), “at the order of YHWH” (Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses, Schoken Books, New York, 1995), and “by the word of the Lord” (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses,W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004).
- For example, after the Israelites worship the golden calf, God and Moses take turns getting angry and calming one another down (Exodus 32:7-35). Then they negotiate, and God reveals some divine attributes to Moses (Exodus 33:1-34:10).
- All Hebrew words for “soul” are feminine.
- Translation of Devarim Rabbah 11:10 from Simcha Paull Raphael, Living the Dying in Ancient Times, Albion-Andalus Books, Boulder, Colorado, 2015, p. 78-79.
- Genesis 2:7.
- Talmud Bavli: Mishnah Sotah 1:9, Sotah Gemara 14:a.
- Rashi (11th-century CE rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki), commentary to Deuteronomy 34:6; explained by 16th-century CE rabbi Obadiah Sforno.
- Talmud Bavli Sotah 14:a, commenting on the incident in Numbers 25:1-3.