Vezot Habrakhah: An Open Mouth

April 12, 2011 at 8:23 pm | Posted in Vezot Habrakhah | Leave a comment

(This blog was first posted on September 20, 2010.)

And Moses went up from the dry plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, the summit of the border range that faces Jericho; and God made him see the entire land … (Deuteronomy/Devarim 34:1)

And God said to him: This is the land … but you will not cross over to there.”  And Moses, the servant of God, died there in the land of Moab, according to the mouth of God.  And he was buried in the valley in the land of Moab, in front of the House of Peor; and not a man knows his grave to this day.  Moses was 120 years at his death; his eye was not dull, and his sap was not gone.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 34:4-7)

Har Nevo = Mount Nebo; mountain of prophesy

peh = mouth, opening, statement, command, bidding

Peor = a proper name for both the third mountain where Bilam stood and blessed the Israelites (Numbers/Bamidbar 23:28); and for the local Moabite god worshiped through sexual rites.  Derived from the verb par = to open wide (as a mouth), to gape, to expose genitals

leichoh = full of sap, fresh and moist, vigorous

At the end of the Torah proper, the “Five Books of Moses”, Moses dies.  He dies on the “wrong” side of the Jordan River; God does not let him cross over into Canaan with the people he has shepherded all the way from Egypt.  But God does miraculously let him see the entire “promised land” of Canaan.  (There’s a good view from Mt. Nebo, but not good enough to see all the way to the Mediterranean without supernatural help.)

Why does Moses die when he’s still sharp-eyed and full of juice?  Because God would not let him cross the Jordan.  God had told him repeatedly that because of his mistake when he hit the rock at Meribah-Kadesh, he would not enter the land.  So the Israelites camped by the Jordan for a long time while Moses delivered his final oration—the entire book of Deuteronomy/ Devarim.  But he could not filibuster forever.  Finally , in the last Torah portion, Vezot Habrachah (And These are the Blessings), Moses gives the tribes his final blessings, then walks away and climbs Mt. Nebo alone.

How does Moses die?  The phrase I translated above as “according to the mouth of God” is usually translated in other parts of the Torah as “according to God’s word/command/bidding”.   But for this verse only, medieval commentary interpreted the word for “mouth” literally and anthropomorphically; they wrote that God took Moses’ life with a kiss.

Why and how is Moses buried in a valley below the mountain top where he died?  The Torah does not say who buried him.  One opinion in the Talmud says God did it (Mishnah Sotah 1:9).  For God, it would be no problem to teleport Moses’ body.  A second opinion in the Talmud is that Moses miraculously buried himself; his soul left his body, and then carried his corpse down to the valley and into the ground.  But neither of these miracles is necessary, since the Torah text does not rule out a human being finding Moses’ body on Mount Nebo, carrying it down, and burying it in secret.  However the burial happened, the important message is that Moses was not wafted up into heaven, like Elijah, but was buried down in the ground, like the human being he remained to the end.  Thanks to the wording in the Torah, no one can turn the grave of Moses into a site of idol worship.

But why was he buried in front of the House of Peor?  This “house” is probably the temple of the local Moabite god Baal-Peor, who, according to Numbers/Bamidbar chapter 25, was worshiped through sex.  Medieval commentary says Moses’ burial there atones for the sins of debauchery and idolatry.

When I looked up the etymology of Peor, I learned that it comes from the same root as the verb for gaping, or opening wide like a mouth.  Thus  Moses dies on the Mountain of Prophecy by the Mouth of God, and his grave lies somewhere in front of the House of the Gaping Mouth.

No wonder his death and burial are mysteries.  What can we do when anyone dies, when the life vanishes from a person’s body?  We can only standing gaping, literally or figuratively, as our mouths drop open in horror or awe or incomprehension.

The Torah tells us that even a Moses, who speaks with God face-to-face, has a human death:  incomprehensible.

For Jews, the end leads right into the beginning.  On Simchat Torah, the evening of September 30 this year, we read about the death of Moses at the end of the Torah scroll, and then move straight on to the creation of the universe at the beginning of the Torah.  Both the death and the creation happen through the word of God, the mouth of God.

Maybe this is another way of saying that both death and birth are too mysterious for humans to ever understand.

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