• Light of Torah


As the Book of Deuteronomy moves towards its conclusion, Moses prepares for his death and bids his people farewell. His leadership has brought the Israelites this far, to the plains of Moab. Now it is Joshua who will lead the people forward, across the Jordan, into the land promised by God.

Read chapter 31 of Deuteronomy, with particular attention to the first nine verses, then let's engage with some insights from Jewish tradition, as well as your own. Were you touched by the human sensitivities of these final scenes of the Torah? The time has come for Moses—the great prophet, leader, intimate of God, father-mother to Israel—to let go of everything: his authority, his ‘job’, his Israelite family, his dream of entering the promised land, and even his life. Was there something in this chapter that particularly resonated in you? How does this sacred text speak to you?

I am now one hundred and twenty years old. I am no longer able to get about, and the Lord has told me, ‘You shall not cross over this Jordan.’ (Deuteronomy 31:2).

A more literal translation of the Hebrew reads: 'I am no longer able to go-out and to come-in’. According to Rashi,[1] Moses is referring to his diminished prophetic powers. Whereas once his face shone in the radiance of the divine presence as he received the Lord’s teachings in full clarity, now his ability to interpret the Torah is weakened. Say the Jewish sages, the light of the sun is dimmed. And as it dims, Joshua’s face shines like the moon. Joshua is not Moses, whose prophetic role was unique. Yet his time for leadership has come, and now it is the Lord himself, not Moses, who instructs Joshua (see v.14).

What is Moses’ reaction to all this? Where the Torah hints, the Midrash [2] elaborates. The Torah tells us (v.7) that Moses declares his unreserved support for Joshua. Yet the imaginative stories of the midrash describe how Moses’ willingness to relinquish leadership, like his willingness to accept death, is not instantaneous - it is a gradual letting go. In one midrashic passage he bargains with the Lord:

“Master of the universe, if I must die [to vacate my post] for Joshua, let me be his disciple [in my remaining hours].”

The Lord agrees, so Moses goes to where Joshua is teaching Torah and becomes his student. Continues the midrash,