A Lonely Creation
G-d’s oneness is not a unity of pieces. It is unique, absolute; there is no human analogy to G-d’s oneness. Only G-d is absolutely one.
And yet, the loneliness of the human being resembles G-d’s oneness, no more so than in the life, and especially the death, of Moses. There can be no representation of the oneness of G-d in memory or narrative, no humanization of G-d — “Anyone who pairs the heavenly name with something else will be uprooted from the world, as it is stated (Exodus 22:19), ‘Only to G-d alone’” (Sukkah 45b) — and yet, certain rare rivulets remind us of G-d.
Among these reminders:
• G-d’s selection of a singular people to receive His will in its fullest form. “Who is like unto you, Israel, one nation on earth?” (I Chronicles 17:21).
• G-d’s preference for the character of His people: unity. “Israel encamped in the wilderness” (Exodus 19:2), like one person with one heart (Rashi). “Just as a palm tree has but one heart (sap found only in its trunk, not in its branches), the nation of Israel has but one heart, devoted to its Father in Heaven (Sukkah 45b)
• G-d’s preference for the character of the members of His people: self-awareness of human uniqueness, of being created “in the image” of the one G-d.
‘Gathered To His People’
Another reminder of G-d’s oneness: man’s aloneness. When I am alone in prayer, Iam alone with the Alone. The person who was most alone with the one G-d was Moses. Once G-d began to reveal the Torah to Moses, Moses lived apart. When he received prophecy, he received it alone. In the end, he died alone, his burial site unknown. In this, he was very different from his brother Aaron the High Priest.
A volume in memory of the late dean of the Hebron yeshiva was titled “After He Was Gathered to His People.” This is how the Torah refers to the death of Moses. “And die on the mountain where you will ascend, and be gathered to your people, as Aaron your brother died on Mount Hor, and was gathered to his people” (Deuteronomy 32:50).
Why does “gathered to your people” mean to “die”? The simple sense seems to be, “Join your forefathers, who have gone before you.” But there is an alternative explanation: In death you can be gathered to the people still living.
Moses is told: Die as your brother Aaron died — “that death of Aaron that you saw and you desired” (ibid., Rashi). How did Aaron die? Rashi’s stark, simple, incandescent description (Numbers 20:26):
“Moses stripped Aaron of his first [priestly] vestment and dressed [Aaron’s son] Elazar with it, and so with the second and the third priestly vestments, and Aaron saw his son in his glory.
“Moses said to Aaron: Aaron my brother, go up on the bed, and he went up. Stretch out your hands, and he stretched them out. Stretch out your legs, and he stretched them out. Close your eyes, and he closed them. Close your mouth, and he closed it. ‘And he went to himself’ [he died].
“Moses said: Happy is he who dies like this.”
What delighted Moses? Not only the perfect peace of Aaron’s death, but the perfect continuity. Aaron takes off his priestly vestment and sees Moses dress his son in it. In death, Aaron was gathered unto his people still living. Aaron did not really die. He lived on in his son, and he knew it, and saw it. The priesthood was passed down in Aaron’s presence.
That done, Aaron died in his utter serenity and simplicity.
He died the kind of death of which Moses said, “Happy is he who dies like this.” Meaning: Aaron lived on.
Aaron died the kind of death he did, Aaron was “gathered unto his people,” his living people, because of the life he lived. Only because he lived the kind of life he did, did he die the kind of death he did.
Continuity Alone and Forever
How may Moses’ death be compared to Aaron’s?
Moses was also told: Be gathered to your people — like Aaron your brother was gathered to his people. But Moses did not take off any vestments, did not die with his brother present, or with any other person present. Moses died alone on the mountaintop. He was instructed to ascend the mountain so that no one would worship him at his grave, so that no one would know where his grave was.
Aaron was gathered unto his living people, in their presence, while Moses was taken from this world utterly alone.
How may his death be compared to Aaron’s? Moses did not pass on his vestment to his son or even to his disciple Joshua. Moses could not limit his legacy to a given person or to his family.
Moses lived for the entire Jewish people, devoted the totality of his being to the entire people. He was gathered unto that people, that living people — as we, the living Jewish people today, still testify. Ispashtusah de-Moshe be-chol dara, “the extension of Moses is in every generation” (Zohar).
Paradoxically, it is the man who died alone on the mountaintop, who in death as in life came closer to G-d than any other human being, it is he who could be gathered until the entire people.
As G-d reached from out of His aloneness, so to speak, to create the Jewish people, the one person who came closest to the one G-d reached from out of his aloneness to extend to that people in every generation.
Rabbi Goldberg may be reached at email@example.com.
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