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Dying a Good Death

Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1 )

by Yehuda Appel

Faced with the news of his imminent demise, Moses picks his successor.

Perhaps one of the greatest of human tragedies is when a person who has lived a fine and upright life turns to evil in the twilight of his days. The Talmud tells the story of a greatly respected High Priest, who ministered to the Jewish People for decades. Tragically, in the final years of his life, he came to deny the truth of God and Torah.

In light of this, the Talmud advises that "everyone should repent the day before he dies." Obviously, since no one knows when his day of death will be, the Talmud is recommending to set aside time every day to ponder one's actions. In fact, Jews recite a prayer three times a day asking God for help in repairing our misdeeds.

Many religious figures have stressed the importance of "dying a good death." A beautiful example is found in this week's Torah portion, Pinchas.

In the Parsha, Moses is told by God to prepare to die. Moses' life had been characterized, perhaps more than anything else, by his great dedication to the Jewish People. Time and time again, he went through great travail and turmoil to help them.

Faced with the news that his demise is imminent, Moses -surprisingly - does not ask for a longer life. Instead, his immediate response is to ask God to ensure that the Jewish People are blessed with a proper leader. He prays that the nation should not be like a "flock without a shepherd." Moses' dedication to the people is so great, that he is concerned only with their welfare -even when faced with the specter of his own death.

The commentaries point out the unusual way in which Moses addresses God. Moses refers to the "God of the Spirits," an appellation that is rarely used in Jewish tradition. Rashi explains that the "spirits" referred to here are the souls of the individual Israelites. Moses was alluding to the aspect of God that is sensitive to the needs of each individual. This is the Name of God that Moses invoked when praying that the new leader of Israel should take care of each and every Jew.

Both in life and death, Moses showed himself to be totally at one with his people.

This genuine concern for each individual has become the hallmark of Jewish leadership throughout the centuries. The Talmud in particular, stresses that a leader must understand how everyone has his or her own particular view of reality. The leader must be able to rise above all pettiness - and become the umbrella which both encompasses and protects everyone.

Moses was a master of this. In fact, the Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) drives home this point by declaring that "every Jew has a little piece of Moses in him."

The Shlah, a great mystic and Biblical commentator, explains that only the Messiah will equal Moses in his compassion for (and understanding of) each and every Jew. May we merit such leadership, soon in our days.

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