On Yom Kippur we read the story of the Ten Martyrs. Rabbi Akiva was among those ten great personalities who died sanctifying G-d’s name. The Talmud in Berachos 61b relates that as Rabbi Akiva was being tortured to death his students saw him reciting the Shema with joy, seemingly oblivious to the pain he was enduring. The incongruity of the moment was so apparent that even Tyrnus Rufus, the Roman commander who had ordered the execution, asked Rabbi Akiva how he was able to laugh in the face of such horrendous torture.
Rabbi Akiva’s students, who were equally amazed at their teacher’s endurance understood the moment to be far more profound than mere stoic courage and endurance. They asked their beloved teacher, “Is the Mitzvah of reciting the Shema incumbent upon an individual under such dire circumstances?” Rabbi Akiva explained. “The Torah commands us to love G-d with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our belongings. All my life I wondered whether I would ever fulfill this Mitzvah of loving G-d with all my soul. Now that I have bee granted the opportunity of loving G-d with my very life should I not do so with joy and exultation?”
As a nation that has survived millennium of persecution and suffering, we have a fascination with how our heroes have died and how one should die. In the aftermath of the Swiss Air tragedy, a Talis was found floating in the ocean. Tragically, Mr. Klein, a “frum (observant)” man, was a passenger on that fateful flight and it was his Tallis that had been recovered among the wreckage. Mr. Klein’s children confirmed that their father never placed his Talis and Tefilin through the regular baggage service but always carried them with him on board. The problem was that it was nighttime when the flight crashed into the Atlantic and the Talis, which is usually not worn at night, should have been enclosed in its zippered velvet “zekel – bag” which was inside a zippered plastic cover. How did Mr. Klein’s Talis get out of its bag? The children surmised that in the six minutes prior to the crash when the passengers knew that the plane was in trouble their father, knowing that the situation was serious took out his Talis and put it on. That is the way a true “Eved G-d – Servant of G-d” prepares for possible disaster – wrapped in his Talis and immersed in Tefilah – prayer. It is fair to assume that Mr. Klein’s final words, like Rabbi Akiva’s, were “Shema Yisroel…”
Moshe Rabbeinu said this week’s Parsha in the final hours of his life. Moshe knew that he was about to die and the final two Parshios of the Torah, Haazeinu and Zos Habracha, record his last words, thoughts, and feelings. So, how did Moshe die? The final moments were recorded in the Medresh as “the kiss of G-d.” However, far more fascinating than his actual death were the moments preceding that final kiss.
In last week’s Parsha, Vayelech 31:2, Moshe said to the Bnai Yisroel, “I can no longer come and go, and G-d has told me that I am not to cross over the Yarden.” Rashi explained that Moshe was physically capable of coming and going as well as crossing over the Yarden. As the Torah attests, (34:7) Moshe was 120 years old… his eyes had not weakened and his vigor had not diminished.” The meaning of Moshe’s words, “I can no longer come and go” was, “I am not capable of leading you across the Yarden into the Promised Land because G-d did not give me permission to do so.”
My Grandfather ZT’L asked, if Moshe was physically capable of coming and going but would not do so because G-d had not given His permission, why didn’t Moshe simply say, “I can’t lead you because G-d did not give me permission.” Why did he say, “I am not capable of coming and going?”
My Grandfather ZT’L’s answer illuminates Moshe’s unique attitude at the time of his death. Moshe was able to come, go, and cross over the Yarden. He was the picture of health and he had the same prodigious strength as when he was in his prime. The reason Moshe said that he was not able to come and go is that he was not able to go against G-d’s wishes. His understanding of G-d’s mastery over every atom of the universe made it impossible for Moshe to not listen to G-d’s commandments. For Moshe, not listening to G-d was tantamount to drinking poison or putting his hand in fire. The same natural aversion we would have to drinking poison or grasping a red-hot iron was the degree of Moshe’s aversion to not listening to the commandment of G-d.
Moshe may have been the only person in the world to have been granted power over the Angle of Death. My Grandfather explained that Moshe did not have to die. He was given free will over death! However, because G-d commanded him to die, Moshe willingly and joyfully ascended Har Nebo. As Rashi explains in Zos Haberacha 34:1, “To ascend Har Nebo should have required many steps but Moshe jumped them all in a single bound.” For Moshe it was a last opportunity to do the will of G-d, therefore, he ran to do it!
So, how does such a man prepare for death? This week’s Parsha is a glorious symphony of joyous exaltation. Moshe sang forth his love for G-d, his love for his nation, and his love for G-d’s Torah. Moshe’s strong voice must have enveloped the Bnai Yisroel in an uplifting embrace of intimacy and hope. As the Jews faced Moshe’s eminent death and struggled with their own fears of abandonment and loneliness, Moshe’s harmony and melodies reached in to the depths of the nation’s heart and soul with love and longing.
So, how did Moshe prepare for death? Moshe Rabbeinu sang a song of creation and renewal, truth and hope. Moshe called upon heaven and earth to witness the triumph of divine justice over mortal man. Moshe sang forth a challenge to his people to rise above their own limited mortality and become greater than the angels. “…It is the name of G-d that I proclaim, Ascribe greatness to our G-d!” (32:3) So, how did Moshe prepare to die? He prepared himself wrapped in love, longing, obedience, happiness, joy, and song.
Preparing For Yom Kippur – Review and Comment
The holiest day of the year is devoted to prayer and introspection. Although similar to Tisha B’Av as regards the restrictions against: eating, drinking, washing, using ointments, marital relations, and wearing leather shoes; the mood of Yom Kippur is totally different. Tisha B’Av is a sad day steeped in the memories of past tragedies and calamities. Yom Kippur is a solemn day, filled with the hope for forgiveness and the elation of a renewed relationship with both G-d and man.
Yom Kippur is the only biblically ordained fast day, and its origins began in the year 2248 after the Exodus from Mitzrayim. Following the breaking of the first Luchos, Moshe re-ascended Sinai in anticipation of the second Luchos. After 40 days and nights, during which the Bnai Yisroel immersed themselves in prayer and repentance for the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe descended from Sinai on the 10th day of Tishrei bringing the 2nd Luchos and G-d’s love and forgiveness. Thereafter, the day of Yom Kippur has been designated, by the Torah, as the day on which G-d forgives his children for their yearly sins of “worshipping the Golden Calf”. Allow me to explain.
The sin of the Golden Calf captured the essence of why we sin. Following the extraordinary events leading up to Revelation, it is difficult to understand how that generation sinned so quickly and severely. In truth, our generation isn’t any different. Acceptance of a Creator who is intimately involved in directing every aspect of our personal, national, and universal destinies, carries the responsibility of listening to His commandments. To do any less is to deny the purpose that the Creator had in creating us and placing us in the setting of His universe.
Coming to terms with the awesomeness of G-d’s power and control is not easy. Often we do not understand the rules by which He governs and judges, and more often, we aren’t prepared to frame our lives by the restrictions of His demands. Instead, we either engage in the philosophical game of “is there a Creator who truly cares?” Or, we modify G-d in a form that we are more comfortable with, because we can then control the rules of the game. The Jews in the year 2448 knew that G-d existed, but didn’t understand the degree of G-d” love and concern. As a result, they were unwilling to invest in a relationship that demanded complete obedience. To make such an investment requires absolute trust that G-d will continue to care and provide, even if His trusted servant Moshe was no longer present.
Today, we too aren’t sure if we can trust G-d. If we could, it would be foolish not to listen to G-d’s rules and demands considering the promised rewards of health, wealth, and all good things. Instead, we create our own image of G-d, our own Golden Calf that reflects the lack of trust and obedience in our relationship with the Creator. Some may feel that they have good cause to question His trustworthiness, others may admit that they simply aren’t prepared to do what He demands. In either case, we are implored on Yom Kippur to forego our limited understanding, and through fasting and prayer rise above the physical limitations of our mortality to recognize the greater picture of G-d’s continued and trustworthy providence. The mere fact that we have survived the past 3,000 years as a nation is a far greater miraculous revelation of G-d’s presence than the Exodus or the giving of the Torah. Those were mere moments in history; the existence of the Jewish people is history itself. Yom Kippur should focus us on the need to trust G-d, and accept His continued involvement in our lives.
The entire Musaf service is devoted to what had taken place in the Bais Hamikdash. The Kohen Gadol performed the entire service in the hope of exacting forgiveness from G-d for the ongoing presence of the sin of the Golden Calf. He entered into the Holy of Holies to offer the nation’s total acceptance of G-d and His Torah and to beg for compassion and mercy. During that time he was prohibited from wearing his “golden vestments”, because they were reminiscent of the Golden Calf. The very creation of the Mishkan-Tabernacle was because of the Golden Calf. The Mishkan was actually a microcosm of the creation of heaven and earth which is why the 39 Melachot – acts of work prohibited on Shabbos, are derived from the work required to build the Mishkan. Just as G-d rested in Shabbos from creation, so too, we rest from doing the work of creating the Mishkan. On Yom Kippur, the quintessential Shabbos, all the elements of our intended relationship with G-d come together. The holiest man on the holiest day in the holiest place comes as a representative of the holiest people to express absolute trust in the Creator and in His purpose for creating the universe and us.
The final moments of Yom Kippur underscore this concept. After davening and fasting almost 24 hours, we are prepared to embrace the realities of a Creator who is intimately involved in all aspects of our lives. This is publicly expressed when we all proclaim the final words, “G-d is our G-d!” The seven-fold proclamation is our statement of absolute trust and acceptance in G-d. This is followed by the joyous prayer, “Next year in Yerushalayim,” when we will hopefully witness, first hand, the holiest man, serving on the holiest day, in the holiest of all
Copyright © 1998 by Rabbi Aron Tendler and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, Valley Village, CA.