Commentary for Simchat Torah

21 Nov

On Simchat Torah we read the end of the Torah, which coincides with the end of Moses’ life. The final chapter functions as a eulogy of sorts for Moses. We are told that his life’s work lives on in the form of Joshua being prepared to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land, and then that he died, that he was greatly missed by all of Israel, and finally we are given a few verses praising his greatness and his special place on our history.


The final three verses of the Torah read, “Never again has there arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord had known face to face. As evidenced by all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh and all his courtiers and all his land. And by all the great might and awesome power that Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel (Deut. 34:10-12).”


At first glance, the final verse is a little troubling. Moses dies now, outside of the Promised Land because not being allowed to the Promised Land is his punishment for not following God’s instructions in Numbers 20:7-13, creating a situation where an observer could have come to the conclusion that it was Moses, not God, who had the power to bring forth water from a rock. While Deut 34:11 makes it clear that it is referring to wondrous acts that “the Lord sent him to perform,” 34:12 simply refers to other amazing displays of power that “Moses performed” without explicitly making clear that it was from God, not Moses, that the power truly came. How could it be that in God’s own eulogy of Moses, God makes the very same mistake Moses was punished for making?


God does not make mistakes, so therefore a new interpretation is needed. Rashi provides this interpretation, saying that we should take the verses at their face value. 34:12 is, indeed talking about actions that Moses took, but the statement is not blasphemous because it is referring to regular human things that Moses did without any help from God. Rashi equates “great might,” which in the Hebrew literally translates to “strong hand” as carrying the Two Tablets down Mount Sinai. They were made of stone, so they were very heavy, and yet Moses willed himself to carrying them down the mountain, showing his strength of will and his determination not to disrespect this holy gift from God by putting it down on the dirty ground for even a moment. This amount of respect for God and God’s gifts to us is an example we should all follow.


Rashi identifies the “awesome power that Moses performed before the eyes of all Israeli” as throwing those same onto the ground, shattering them, when he came down the mountain only to be greeted by the sight of the Israelites abandoning God and worshipping the golden calf instead. By throwing the tablets down, Moses showed the Israelites that this was an extremely grave matter and they all needed to immediately stop and listen to him. This is the final lesson we learn from Moses in the Torah: It does not matter how often a leader talks with God or how many great deeds a leader is credited with; a leader who cannot effectively communicate with and influence the actions of the people is no leader at all.

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