Facing Death: Parashat Vayilech – Deuteronomy 31:1-30

At the end of Deuteronomy, Moses is facing his own demise. He will not succeed in his life’s dream, leading the Israelites back to the land they left four centuries earlier. That will be left for Joshua to accomplish. How did Moses deal with such a disappointment? What does the way he faced death say about his character?

I assume Moses was sixty when he was about to die. I know that is not what the text states. Genesis 6:3 reads: “The Lord said, ‘My breath shall not abide in man forever, since he too is flesh; let the days allowed to him be one hundred and twenty years.’” Moses, when he addressed the Israelites prior to his death, said to the gathered multitude, “I am now one hundred and twenty years old. I can no longer be active.” (Deuteronomy 31:2) When he went up Mount Nebo to the top of Pisgah, the text reads (Deuteronomy 34:7), “Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died.”

Further, even the New Testament, in Acts 7:23, says that Moses was forty when he fled Egypt after killing an Egyptian guard. That would mean that he spent forty years as a shepherd hosted by his Midianite father-in-law and then at eighty responded to the summons to return to Egypt and rescue the Israelite slaves from the tyranny of the Pharaoh. So how can I argue with the text which seems to assign forty years to each of the periods of Moses’ life, his upbringing and sojourn in Egypt, his family life among the Midianites and his confrontations with the Pharaoh followed by his leadership of the Israelites for four decades through the wilderness?

Of course, my suppositions are far from definitive, to say the least, but they help me make sense of the text. I am sure that the rabbis over the ages have debated this possibility since it is hard to find any interpretation that they did not consider. My arguments for this claim are as follows: the actions of Moses killing the Egyptian guard are consistent with the behaviour of a young man of twenty rather than a mature individual of forty. The murder, even if in defense of a victim of an assault, is both rash and excessive. Second, it was also imprudent since there were witnesses. Finally, he fled the scene of the crime. None of this is congruent with the behaviour of a forty-year-old. By then a male generally has become emotionally mature. The behaviour is definitely not that of a man at forty who is expected to transfer education and wisdom to his own children when he himself is generally free of the treacherous passions that afflict a teenage male and one in his early twenties.  (See The Works of Philo Judaeus: Volume II:VII)

Surely the text would include an account of what happened to Moses between the ages of twenty and forty. In addition, it is one thing to live under the guardianship of your in-laws for twenty years; it is quite another, and somewhat unimaginable, to envision that situation for forty years. Finally, can one imagine a male of eighty taking up the task of confronting the Pharaoh? At the age of forty, as difficult as it may be, it is at least within the realm of the possible.

But there is other evidence. Vayigdal (וַיִּגְדְּל) means, “when he was big,” that is, when he was grown up. That is the term used to refer to Moses when he went to Goshen, saw his kinsmen being overworked and killed the Egyptian guard. (See Genesis 25:27; Judges 13:24; Kings 4:18) It is not a term you would use to describe a forty-year-old. One final argument. There are at least two Jewish new years. Rosh Hashanah (רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה) means the “head [of] the year,” Yom Teruah (יוֹם תְּרוּעָה), the “day of shouting or blasting.” It is the first day of Tishrei and the beginning of the Jewish High Holy Days (יָמִים נוֹרָאִים Yamim Nora’im). Ordinarily, this is the day referred to as the New Year, but, in fact, it is only the religious New Year.

There is also the first of Nisan. Exodus 12: 1 & 2 reads:

א  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל-אַהֲרֹן, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לֵאמֹר. 1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying:
ב  הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם, רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים:  רִאשׁוֹן הוּא לָכֶם, לְחָדְשֵׁי הַשָּׁנָה. 2 ‘This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you.

This is repeated in Deuteronomy Chapter 16.

א  שָׁמוֹר, אֶת-חֹדֶשׁ הָאָבִיב, וְעָשִׂיתָ פֶּסַח, לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ:  כִּי בְּחֹדֶשׁ הָאָבִיב, הוֹצִיאֲךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מִמִּצְרַיִם–לָיְלָה. 1 Observe the month of Aviv, and keep the passover unto the LORD thy God; for in the month of Aviv the LORD thy God brought thee forth out of Egypt by night.

I suggest that there are (at least) two Jewish new years, one in the spring, the secular new year for planting and renewal, and the first of Tishrei in the autumn that initiates the religious new year and the Days of Awe. Thus, each of our calendar years is two years for the Israelites. By contemporary means of counting, that would mean that Moses died at the age of sixty, spent almost all of his first twenty years in the Egyptian court, the next 20 years as a guest of his father-in-law Jethro and the final twenty years (not forty) leading the Israelites through the desert.

I have one final, very subjective, argument for suggesting that Moses died at the age of sixty in terms of our calculations. I can identify with that. The Israelite 60 is our contemporary 80 in terms of health and longevity. When Moses at the age of 60 reached the borders of Israel, he was facing his own death.

How did he face that death? Did he think of his sister Miriam and his brother Aaron who preceded him? Was he haunted by the ghosts of the past? No. He focused on the future – first the future of his successor, Joshua, as a conqueror under the guidance of God. Moses asked the Israelites to be “strong and resolute,” to march forward with courage rather than fear (31:6) and promised that God will be with them and will not forsake them. He echoed the same message to Joshua (31:7-8). And then he instructed the Levite priests to hold future holy days to commemorate this great event.

Then there was a switch in tone – chapters 14-23 – which the Plaut text claims is an interpolation. It is a prophecy. The Israelites will go astray and God will hide from them in response to their breaking the covenant with Him.  Evil and troubles will fall upon them. Then in chapter 24, another shift, ritual instructions to the Levite priests and a characterization of the Israelites, not so much as straying from the path of righteousness so much as continuing their pattern of defiance that will be all the stronger now that Moses will have passed away. Then the two depictions are joined. “For I know that, when I am dead, you will act wickedly and turn away from the path which I enjoined upon you, and that in time to come misfortune will befall you for having done evil.” (31:29) And, finally, he wrote a poem that I plan to discuss next week.

Can you imagine that? Moses is on his death bed. In spite of all his qualities of true grit, of determination to get a job done, he cannot. His legacy he bequeathed on the Israelites with mixed hope and despair. And he said absolutely nothing about any afterlife. I do not know the source of Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald writing that, “In parashat Vayilech, Moses teaches the people how to prepare for death by leaving the world with a sense of hope and the assurance that life continues beyond the physical life of any particular individual, no matter how great, no matter how indispensable–-even Moses.”


For the life of me, I do not get it. From reading the text, I have no sense of Moses comforting the people who might be distressed at the loss of their leader. Moses did not bless the people. I have no sense that he empathized in any way with their emotional state. In fact, I see no clue in the text that tells us how they were feeling at his imminent demise. Rashi, at least, recognized that Moses was at his wits end, unable to complete his life’s mission. His virtue of wise guidance had left him so than he became schizophrenic, promising military success at one moment and moral failure on the next. Moses “went,” vayilech, “to the Beit Hamidrash, the House of Study, to be taught Torah by others.” The great leader was deeply humbled when facing death.

It is said that during the Days of Awe, Jews in their worship, experience death and a rebirth. On Yom Kippur, we fast and deny our body any satisfaction of its appetites. It is a kind of stand-in for death. Even the best of us cannot conquer death. Nor the necessary despair that goes with it. But also hope. If you are a great leader, the most tremendous gift you can bequeath to your people after you die is hope and a sense of purpose.

I watched the excellent documentary, “In Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates.” What comes across is not just the brilliance of his brain, but the quality of persistence, the quality of insisting that the job get done and be completed even if it is not finished in your lifetime. His work on toilets and sanitation treatment for the third world, on safe nuclear plants and on eliminating polio have all met setbacks, but Bill Gates persists. So did Moses. Determination and dedication to completion and a commitment to leaving the world in a better place than how you found it, this was Moses’ greatest quality and one he passed on – “To strive, to seek, and not to yield.” Each of us must strive for greater heights and not despair at setbacks.

Moses’ ultimate goal was unfilled by him. But he had left his people in a position to complete his work. During his lifetime he had offered a number of innovations and made critical contributions to civilization. He was a social and political inventor. Most of all, he left hope and expectations while warning that there would be setbacks and despair.

In sum, he was a prophet for his time and for all time.

At the end of Deuteronomy, Moses is facing his own demise. He will not succeed in his life’s dream, leading the Israelites back to the land they left four centuries earlier. That will be left for Joshua to accomplish. How did Moses deal with such a disappointment? What does the way he faced death say about his character?

I assume Moses was sixty when he was about to die. I know that is not what the text states. Genesis 6:3 reads: “The Lord said, ‘My breath shall not abide in man forever, since he too is flesh; let the days allowed to him be one hundred and twenty years.’” Moses, when he addressed the Israelites prior to his death, said to the gathered multitude, “I am now one hundred and twenty years old. I can no longer be active.” (Deuteronomy 31:2) When he went up Mount Nebo to the top of Pisgah, the text reads (Deuteronomy 34:7), “Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died.”

Further, even the New Testament, in Acts 7:23, says that Moses was forty when he fled Egypt after killing an Egyptian guard. That would mean that he spent forty years as a shepherd hosted by his Midianite father-in-law and then at eighty responded to the summons to return to Egypt and rescue the Israelite slaves from the tyranny of the Pharaoh. So how can I argue with the text which seems to assign forty years to each of the periods of Moses’ life, his upbringing and sojourn in Egypt, his family life among the Midianites and his confrontations with the Pharaoh followed by his leadership of the Israelites for four decades through the wilderness?

Of course, my suppositions are far from definitive, to say the least, but they help me make sense of the text. I am sure that the rabbis over the ages have debated this possibility since it is hard to find any interpretation that they did not consider. My arguments for this claim are as follows: the actions of Moses killing the Egyptian guard are consistent with the behaviour of a young man of twenty rather than a mature individual of forty. The murder, even if in defense of a victim of an assault, is both rash and excessive. Second, it was also imprudent since there were witnesses. Finally, he fled the scene of the crime. None of this is congruent with the behaviour of a forty-year-old. By then a male generally has become emotionally mature. The behaviour is definitely not that of a man at forty who is expected to transfer education and wisdom to his own children when he himself is generally free of the treacherous passions that afflict a teenage male and one in his early twenties.  (See The Works of Philo Judaeus: Volume II:VII)

Surely the text would include an account of what happened to Moses between the ages of twenty and forty. In addition, it is one thing to live under the guardianship of your in-laws for twenty years; it is quite another, and somewhat unimaginable, to envision that situation for forty years. Finally, can one imagine a male of eighty taking up the task of confronting the Pharaoh? At the age of forty, as difficult as it may be, it is at least within the realm of the possible.

But there is other evidence. Vayigdal (וַיִּגְדְּל) means, “when he was big,” that is, when he was grown up. That is the term used to refer to Moses when he went to Goshen, saw his kinsmen being overworked and killed the Egyptian guard. (See Genesis 25:27; Judges 13:24; Kings 4:18) It is not a term you would use to describe a forty-year-old. One final argument. There are at least two Jewish new years. Rosh Hashanah (רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה) means the “head [of] the year,” Yom Teruah (יוֹם תְּרוּעָה), the “day of shouting or blasting.” It is the first day of Tishrei and the beginning of the Jewish High Holy Days (יָמִים נוֹרָאִים Yamim Nora’im). Ordinarily, this is the day referred to as the New Year, but, in fact, it is only the religious New Year.

There is also the first of Nisan. Exodus 12: 1 & 2 reads:

א  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל-אַהֲרֹן, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לֵאמֹר. 1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying:
ב  הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם, רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים:  רִאשׁוֹן הוּא לָכֶם, לְחָדְשֵׁי הַשָּׁנָה. 2 ‘This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you.

This is repeated in Deuteronomy Chapter 16.

א  שָׁמוֹר, אֶת-חֹדֶשׁ הָאָבִיב, וְעָשִׂיתָ פֶּסַח, לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ:  כִּי בְּחֹדֶשׁ הָאָבִיב, הוֹצִיאֲךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מִמִּצְרַיִם–לָיְלָה. 1 Observe the month of Aviv, and keep the passover unto the LORD thy God; for in the month of Aviv the LORD thy God brought thee forth out of Egypt by night.

I suggest that there are (at least) two Jewish new years, one in the spring, the secular new year for planting and renewal, and the first of Tishrei in the autumn that initiates the religious new year and the Days of Awe. Thus, each of our calendar years is two years for the Israelites. By contemporary means of counting, that would mean that Moses died at the age of sixty, spent almost all of his first twenty years in the Egyptian court, the next 20 years as a guest of his father-in-law Jethro and the final twenty years (not forty) leading the Israelites through the desert.

I have one final, very subjective, argument for suggesting that Moses died at the age of sixty in terms of our calculations. I can identify with that. The Israelite 60 is our contemporary 80 in terms of health and longevity. When Moses at the age of 60 reached the borders of Israel, he was facing his own death.

How did he face that death? Did he think of his sister Miriam and his brother Aaron who preceded him? Was he haunted by the ghosts of the past? No. He focused on the future – first the future of his successor, Joshua, as a conqueror under the guidance of God. Moses asked the Israelites to be “strong and resolute,” to march forward with courage rather than fear (31:6) and promised that God will be with them and will not forsake them. He echoed the same message to Joshua (31:7-8). And then he instructed the Levite priests to hold future holy days to commemorate this great event.

Then there was a switch in tone – chapters 14-23 – which the Plaut text claims is an interpolation. It is a prophecy. The Israelites will go astray and God will hide from them in response to their breaking the covenant with Him.  Evil and troubles will fall upon them. Then in chapter 24, another shift, ritual instructions to the Levite priests and a characterization of the Israelites, not so much as straying from the path of righteousness so much as continuing their pattern of defiance that will be all the stronger now that Moses will have passed away. Then the two depictions are joined. “For I know that, when I am dead, you will act wickedly and turn away from the path which I enjoined upon you, and that in time to come misfortune will befall you for having done evil.” (31:29) And, finally, he wrote a poem that I plan to discuss next week.

Can you imagine that? Moses is on his death bed. In spite of all his qualities of true grit, of determination to get a job done, he cannot. His legacy he bequeathed on the Israelites with mixed hope and despair. And he said absolutely nothing about any afterlife. I do not know the source of Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald writing that, “In parashat Vayilech, Moses teaches the people how to prepare for death by leaving the world with a sense of hope and the assurance that life continues beyond the physical life of any particular individual, no matter how great, no matter how indispensable–-even Moses.”


For the life of me, I do not get it. From reading the text, I have no sense of Moses comforting the people who might be distressed at the loss of their leader. Moses did not bless the people. I have no sense that he empathized in any way with their emotional state. In fact, I see no clue in the text that tells us how they were feeling at his imminent demise. Rashi, at least, recognized that Moses was at his wits end, unable to complete his life’s mission. His virtue of wise guidance had left him so than he became schizophrenic, promising military success at one moment and moral failure on the next. Moses “went,” vayilech, “to the Beit Hamidrash, the House of Study, to be taught Torah by others.” The great leader was deeply humbled when facing death.

It is said that during the Days of Awe, Jews in their worship, experience death and a rebirth. On Yom Kippur, we fast and deny our body any satisfaction of its appetites. It is a kind of stand-in for death. Even the best of us cannot conquer death. Nor the necessary despair that goes with it. But also hope. If you are a great leader, the most tremendous gift you can bequeath to your people after you die is hope and a sense of purpose.

I watched the excellent documentary, “In Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates.” What comes across is not just the brilliance of his brain, but the quality of persistence, the quality of insisting that the job get done and be completed even if it is not finished in your lifetime. His work on toilets and sanitation treatment for the third world, on safe nuclear plants and on eliminating polio have all met setbacks, but Bill Gates persists. So did Moses. Determination and dedication to completion and a commitment to leaving the world in a better place than how you found it, this was Moses’ greatest quality and one he passed on – “To strive, to seek, and not to yield.” Each of us must strive for greater heights and not despair at setbacks.

Moses’ ultimate goal was unfilled by him. But he had left his people in a position to complete his work. During his lifetime he had offered a number of innovations and made critical contributions to civilization. He was a social and political inventor. Most of all, he left hope and expectations while warning that there would be setbacks and despair.

In sum, he was a prophet for his time and for all time.

With the help of Alex Zisman

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