A Grave Mystery: V’Zote Habracha 2015

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Questions to Start: What do you typically do when you visit the graves of a loved one? Do you leave a small stone at the grave, or a different item? Do you talk with companions about the person buried there? Do you speak aloud to the grave? 

For many of us, periodic visits to the graves of loved ones can provide us with comfort and meaning. So why would God and the Israelites wish to hide the resting place of Moses, the greatest prophet in Israel’s history? Let’s explore below … 

[A couple of notes before we go further: First, I’m playing with the format of these weekly posts; let me know what you think! Second, V’Zote Ha’Bracha is not read on Shabbat – it’s read on Simhat Torah morning, which never takes place on Shabbat (we’ll do so this year on Tuesday morning). As a result, the portion often is overlooked. But there are still things to say …]  

“[Moses] was buried in the valley in the land of Moab in the valley opposite Beth-peor; and no one knows of his grave until this day.” (Deuteronomy 34:6) 

Commentary #1:
“He buried himself, for he entered a cave in the valley. … The matter is clear that the place where Moses died is the place that he was buried.” – Ibn Ezra 

Commentary #2:
“Ten things were created at twilight of Shabbat eve. These are: the mouth of the earth [that swallowed Korach]; the mouth of [Miriam’s] well; the mouth of [Balaam’s] donkey; the rainbow; the manna; [Moses’] staff; the shamir; the writing, the inscription and the tablets [of the Ten Commandments]. Some say also the burial place of Moses and the ram of our father Abraham. And some say also the spirits of destruction as well as the original tongs, for tongs are made with tongs.” – Ethics of the Fathers 5:6 

Commentary #3:
“The note ‘in the valley opposite Beth-peor’ gives the impression that Moses’ grave was probably still well known in earlier days, but that in the course of time the knowledge of it was lost and that in the opinion of the narrator the grave ought never to be known to men.” – Gerhard von Rad, Deuteronomy 

Follow-Up Questions: Conventional wisdom states that Moses’ burial place is hidden because God did not want the grave to become a shrine or a place for sacrificial offerings. This fits in with von Rad’s theory, but Ibn Ezra takes the idea of a hidden grave more literally. And the suggestion from the Ethics of the Fathers suggests that the grave is so essential that it is among the first items created by God. 

Which theory is most compelling to you? Would we be better off if we knew where Moses is buried? If so, what would you do or say if you were to visit his grave? If not, what are other ways to honor Moses’ memory? How would your life change if you could no longer find the graves of your loved ones? What is the ultimate value of a burial place to a family’s legacy? 

Emanu-El Happenings: Even though a rainy Sukkot has changed some of our plans, we won’t let it dampen our spirits as the fall holidays draw to a close. Certainly, we’ll be in a festive mood when we dance with the Torah scrolls on Simhat Torah! Join us for a Back To the Future-themed evening Monday night beginning with Happy Hour at 6:00PM and followed by services, dancing, and unpredictable revelry … topped off at the end with ice cream. Our celebration continues Tuesday morning beginning at 9:30AM, which will include more dancing, as well as an opportunity to watch the congregation prank me while I’m trying to chant the Haftarah! 

The Big Inning at the End:
On the topic of remembering the past … I’ve had the privilege to visit numerous Major League stadiums, and I’m always interested to see how teams choose to remember distinguished players in the franchise’s history. Some have ballparks have small museums with memorabilia and photographs of the team’s important moments, sometimes with a team Hall of Fame. Every team has retired at least one uniform number of a former player. And some utilize the ballpark’s architecture to engrave names and faces of franchise legends – some stadiums even have life-sized statues with the likenesses of these players! What purpose(s) do these practices fulfill for the team and for the team’s fans? I’m not sure I know why … 

Shabbat Shalom! And Moadim L’Simcha – hope you have a great conclusion to the Fall holidays!