V'Zot HaBracha (Deuteronomy 33-34 )
Great leaders create their own eras. Their actions deeply influence the manner in which we understand the world, such that the world looks different in their absence. The anti-monarchist Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, when explaining why Australia wouldn’t hold another independence referendum while Queen Elizabeth II is still alive, stated that while most definitely a republican, ‘I am also a very strong Elizabethan’ (Sydney Morning Herald, July 13, 2017.) Generations of Commonwealth subjects will associate the idea of a head of state specifically with ‘Her Majesty’, unable to contemplate a world without the Queen. In this manner, the contours of history are shaped by the personalities of notable leaders.
The final parasha of the Torah describes the circumstances of Moses’ death – the greatest leader of the Jewish people. As his days draw to a close one might expect his impact to begin to wane. However, Moses continues to impart crucial life lessons regarding leadership and humility, even in his final moments (Ibn Ezra on Deut. 34:5).
In a typical obituary of a modern national leader, we may expect to find a list of career achievements, of glittering prizes earned, and of ways in which their actions impacted the lives of their people. One might legitimately question their underlying motivation. Was it the pursuit of benevolence or of power and superiority over others? Perhaps both are at play. The Torah, however, defines its greatest leader as an eved Hashem, or ‘servant of God’ (Deut. 34:5). This is an extraordinary compliment to give a leader: that he spent his life in the service of something greater than himself, and that he was dedicated to a cause beyond that of his own advancement.
Not a moment of Moses’ life was dedicated to advancing his own agenda – a truth that Korach and his followers fatally misunderstood. This title of ‘servant of God’ may be seen as a culmination of all his efforts during the previous four decades. By the end of his life, Moses has truly served: he has successfully brought the Jewish nation to the cusp of the Holy Land, defended them against their enemies as well as from the wrath of God, taught them the Torah and ensured a smooth transition to the next generation of leaders. It is precisely this dedication to the ultimate good that brings him closer to God than any other mortal before or since. In a touching one-word commentary that testifies to the bond between this servant and his heavenly Master, Rashi describes the manner in which the soul of Moses was taken: ‘with a kiss’.
A second important lesson that the Torah imparts about Moses’ final moments concerns the statement that Moses is buried somewhere in the Moabite plains and that ‘No man knows his burial place until this day’ (34:6). The secrecy with regard to Moses’ tomb is highly appropriate considering his life’s work. Unique among all national leaders in the ancient world, Moses does not seek wealth or self-aggrandisement. The Torah highlights the contrast between Moses and his nemesis, Pharaoh. The Pharaohs built their empires on foundations of wealth and power, and were laid to rest in towering, breath-taking pyramids. Yet today, their civilisations lie in ruin. By contrast, Moses’ burial place is simple and anonymous, yet his words are studied by millions worldwide every day.
Through this contrast, the Torah is teaching us an invaluable lesson: invest wisely. Do not make your life’s work the acquisition of money, power, properties, honour, or anything that ceases to be relevant the moment you depart from this world. Instead, invest your time and energy in the things that truly matter – be kind, act morally, teach with humility, respect others and make sure that your life becomes a blessing and an example to those who follow you.
Moses’ days on this earth may have ended in our parasha. But his presence can still be felt all around us. In synagogue, we still hear him wisely instructing our people, and he still humbly guides our leaders. We still recall the manner in which he raises his arms up towards the heavens seeking inspiration and strength from the Almighty. In this way, ‘There was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moses’ (34:10) and his message is still very much alive today.