With this sidra, Moses’s life is entering its final chapter, and he says,
“Lo uchal od latzet v’lavo” – “I am no longer able to go out and come in” (Deut. 31:2).
This is one of the two main Biblical descriptions of the aging process. The other is the 12th chapter of Kohelet, which is quite amusing though sad in its description of the way in which first one, then another part of the body begins to pack up and cease functioning (“Your arms become shaky and your legs become bent, your few teeth don’t grind and your eyes become dim…”).
The major difference between the onset of old age in Kohelet and in D’varim is that here in D’varim we see the sadness of Moses’ once mighty mind beginning to decline. The rabbis say,
“His fountains of wisdom were closed up”.
The Gerer Rebbe, however, reads the story differently. He finds the narrative triumphant, not tragic. The way he understands it, Moses as chief of the prophets has come almost to the end of his earthly striving. Stage by stage he has elevated himself and now he is within sight of the Divine presence.
He is not and could never become Divine, but he is now “little lower than the angels” (Psalm 8:6).
THE HAKHEL ASSEMBLY.
Every seven years the whole populace gathered for the “Hakhel” (“Assemble!”) convocation, in order to hear the king read the Torah (Deut. 31:12).
Everyone had to attend: “men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities“. Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah says that the men came to learn, the women to listen and the children to secure a reward for those who brought them (Hag. 3a).
According to Maimonides (Hil. Chagigah 3:4), the assembly was in the “ezrat nashim”, the women’s court of the Temple, which was apparently used for general meetings. It is not clear whether the text means that the men and women stood together or were separated on gender lines. The latter seems more likely because social mores kept the sexes apart on public occasions in order to prevent inappropriate behavior.
We are not certain what the situation was with the children – did the boys stay with their father and the girls with their mothers? There was probably a regulation that said that up to a certain age the mother had the children with her, boys as well as girl, but thereafter the boys stood with the men.
We are not told how family members found each other again afterwards in view of the massive numbers of the Children of Israel.
WHERE DID MOSES GO?
The beginning of this week’s sidra almost insists that we ask a question. The verse reads “Vayelech Moshe” – “And Moses went” (Deut. 31:1). “Moses went” – but where did he go?
Here are some of the views that we find in the commentaries. He was old but still able to walk. He went through the camp from tribe to tribe to show that their well-being still mattered to him. He went to bid farewell to every Israelite and to receive their farewell blessing. He aroused himself to carry out his task. The people knew his days were numbered and didn’t want to worry him with anything extra but he insisted that he was still in office until the very last minute.
Or perhaps “he went” does not necessarily mean that he actually went anywhere on his own two feet but it is an idiomatic expression meaning that he – metaphorically – proceeded to what comes next in the verse, in this case to address the people. An analogy is Ex. 2:1 where a member of the tribe of Levi went and married a Levite woman.
However, whichever explanation we adopt, the result is more or less the same – Moses was active and alert until his very last moment.
It’s good to think of this as we approach the Day of Judgment. If only we could all be similarly blessed! We say in the prayers, “Cast us not off in time of old age” (Psalm 71:0). What a blessing it is to retain one’s energies to the end…
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com