Ah, sweet judgment. How quickly it can be passed. How much harder it is to own that we've jumped the gun, reached an incorrect conclusion, or assumed something without having full perspective.
In a 3rd century rabbinic text known as the Mishnah, there is a tractate known as Ta'anit, which addresses the laws and practices that are to be observed on a public fast day. In one passage, the Rabbis write, "Five things befell our fathers on the 17th of Tammuz and five on the 9th of Av." Among their detailed list, the Rabbis identify the 17th of Tammuz on the day in which Jerusalem was breached, and the 9th of Av as the day on which the First and Second Temples were destroyed. In this case, there is less time between the actual tragic events and the rabbinic recording of what transpired. But for that synagogue, to claim that they know the date of Moses' death, seemingly, more than a thousand years earlier, if Moses actually lived, is downright bizarre.
Ah, sweet judgment. So comforting to be absolved of any responsibility to unearth a version of truth other than my own prejudiced and biased knowledge. So easy to wipe my hands clean and forget about it.
But it turns out that there are many fascinating stories and perspectives about the dating of Moses' death. As my teacher of Midrash in rabbinical school, Dr. Edward Goldman often said, "Nothing about the biblical text was superfluous for the rabbis, not a single word, or letter, or vowel. Everything could be explored for meaning." In the Talmudand an even earlier text known as the Tosefta,the date of Moses' death and birth is revealed as the 7th of Adar. 11th century commentator Rashi calculates that the Israelites bewailed Moses for thirty days, and then three days later, which the book of Joshua records as the 10th of Nisan, they crossed the Jordan River under Joshua's leadership. Taking thirty-three days from the 10th of Nisan yields the 7th of Adar. Chabad offers that in Moses' address to Israel on the day that he died, he says, "ha-yom," "today I am one hundred twenty years old," suggesting that the day is also Moses' birthday.
The date of Moses' birth and death is generally assumed to be in the month of Adar, or Second Adar in a leap year, but this week we passed the 7th of First Adar, and a further connection to this special date is made with this week's Torah portion, Parashat Tetzaveh. Tetzaveh is the only portion in the last four books of the Torah not to include a direct mention of Moses, or to include Moses' own words. According to the Etz Hayim Torah Commentary, some commentators suggest that since Tetzaveh is read in the week of the 7th of Adar, and Moses is said to have died this week, this is the reason that Moses doesn't appear in this parashah. With the focus of the Torah portion on establishing the priesthood and the worship of God, the Torah saw fit not to make Moses the center of attention.
Avivah Gotlieb Zornberg challenges the notion of the absence of Moses, inviting us to go ever deeper. She examines the use of the Hebrew word v'atah, meaning "and you." The word v'atah introduces Exodus 27:20 and the instruction to create the eternal lamps in the Tabernacle. V'atahintroduces Exodus 28:1 and the direction to bring forward Aaron and his sons to serve as priests. And v'atahintroduces Exodus 28:3 instructing the creation of Aaron's special vestments with which he will serve as priest. So where is Moses? The word v'atah,"and you," is God speaking to Moses, imparting instruction to Moses without naming him directly. Zornberg suggests, "In all three cases, Moses is singled out as the vehicle of God's will...Implicitly, enigmatically, it is Moses who represents the dynamic out of which the priestly function takes its vital force...The paradox is compelling: absence and presence, anonymity and insistent naming. Moses' role becomes both conspicuous and problematic."
The tasks at hand are far more important than the identity of the individual person. Moses, after all, is known especially as rabbenu, our teacher, for his abounding humility. Our tradition teaches that he, among all people, enjoyed the inexpressible privilege of knowing God face-to-face,and that in the moment of his death, God kissed him, to allow his passing to be as painless as possible. Moses was one of, if not the most special teachers to ever grace our people, or our tradition.
Some seventeen years later, I look back on that know-it-all young-twenty-something too-young-to-be-a-rabbi-rabbinical student and I'd love to go back to that street corner and give that boy a good talking to. And besides this sermon of learning and textual exploration, I'd say to him, "That synagogue put Moses' name on the Yahrzeit board because they wanted to honor him, and bring honor to his memory. A gesture like that is not worth judging, and shouldn't be disregarded. Think about your dismissive words and their impact. You may not understand. You may not have all the facts. And then. Even then."
Rabbi Steven Leder has written, "Never trust a religion or a person with all the answers. Trust instead in the religion and people who admit there are things we can never know, simply because we are human." Perhaps there is a reason why lawyers practice law, why doctors practice medicine, and why all of us, whatever our profession or status in life, keep recognizing the dynamic journey of our existence. V'atah, "and you" - sometimes we get mentioned by name, sometimes our name is left out, sometimes our name gets trampled on and knocked down, sometimes our name is called in a different direction, for an unexpected purpose or a reason unbeknownst.
None of us ever perfects the maddeningly imperfect journey of being human. But maybe someday, in some small corner of our universe, a passerby on the street might see our name posted on a board somewhere, and giving us the benefit of the doubt, research or not, maybe they will just simply say, "I guess this one is worth remembering."
Mishnah Ta'anit 4:6.
Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 38a.
Tosefta Sotah 11:2.
Etz Chayim Torah Commentary, p. 503.
Avivah Gotlieb Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture, pp. 352-353.
Deuteronomy Rabbah 7:10, 11:10, Book of Legends, p. 104.
Steven Z. Leder, The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things, p. 85.