Every year in the fall, Jews celebrate the festival of Simchat Torah, the joy of Torah. It comes on the last day of the festival of Succot (Boots), and it is the day in which the yearly cycle of weekly Torah readings both ends and begins, showing that God’s word is eternal. It is a day of rejoicing, and I mean serious rejoicing, complete with singing, dancing, drinking (lots of drinking), and exaltations to God Almighty. It is raucous as much as it is solemn, and it was probably my favorite time in the Jewish calendar. It was also the saddest, for this was the time when Moses died.
For the better part of the year, Moses is the “protagonist” of the first five books of the Bible, so as I’d read through the weekly portion, it wasn’t hard to develop an attachment to Moses. He was, after all, beloved of God, the only person of which God declares that “With him I speak mouth to mouth, Even openly, and not in dark sayings (Numbers 12:8, NASB).” Moses is known as Rabbeinu, our teacher, so by the time fall rolls around, and we’re at the end of Deuteronomy, Moses has left an indelible mark. And then we read Deuteronomy 34 (NASB):
1 Now Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho. And the Lord showed him all the land, Gilead as far as Dan, 2 and all Naphtali and the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, and all the land of Judah as far as the I.e. Mediterranean Seawestern sea, 3 and the Negev and the plain in the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar. 4 Then the Lord said to him, “This is the land which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.” 5 So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord. 6 And He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor; but no man knows his burial place to this day. 7 Although Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died, his eye was not dim, nor his vigor abated. 8 So the sons of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the days of weeping and mourning for Moses came to an end.
9 Now Joshua the son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him; and the sons of Israel listened to him and did as the Lord had commanded Moses. 10 Since that time no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, 11 for all the signs and wonders which the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh, all his servants, and all his land, 12 and for all the mighty power and for all the great terror which Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.
For about fourteen years I read that chapter on Simchat Torah, many times standing right by the bimah (podium), as close to the Word as physically possible, and every single time I read verse 5, I cried. And when I said I cried, I mean cried like I had lost a loved one. I would have to hide my face in my prayer shawl because the tears would streak down my cheeks and fall on the book from which I was reading; because I would ugly cry and I didn’t want others to see me; because I was heartbroken, even if I knew that in a few months I would be back to reading the book of Exodus and Moses would come back into my life. This wasn’t rehearsed, this wasn’t planned, it simply happened. Every year I would wonder if I’d cry again, and every year I would.
And then I left Judaism.
I haven’t been to a Simchat Torah celebration in two years, so I haven’t read through the death of Moses in that long. Until this last week, that is, when my yearly Bible reading plan took me to the end of Deuteronomy. I was at work the day that the last couple chapters were scheduled, so I was a little distracted as I had breakfast and read the chapters leading to the end. As I got ready to read chapter 34, I wondered if I would cry again. It’s one thing to do it in the synagogue, where everyone is on the same wavelength and the atmosphere is crackling with the power of the day, but for this reading, I was at the cafeteria at work, surrounded by noise, cognizant that I was needed back at the floor. Would I be affected as in the past? Would the solemnity of the words be enough to penetrate my heart?
I hit the Next Chapter button on my tablet, Chapter 34 loaded immediately, and I read through it. And I cried. It wasn’t the all-out ugly cry of years before, but my eyes welled up almost instantly, and a couple tears did streak down my face. Something had changed a little, but my connection to Moses was still there. It felt good to know that.
Whereas every other time in the past I headed back to Genesis without losing a breath, this time around I’m not moving back, but forward, continuing the yearly Bible reading with the book of Joshua. If going from Deuteronomy to Genesis taught me that God’s Word is eternal, a cycle that repeats over and over, always relevant to our lives even if we had read it before, going from Deuteronomy to Joshua is showing me that God’s Word is progressive, moving His plan for humanity along, always giving us His wisdom and comfort as we move through life.
As I read the first chapter of Joshua it dawned on me that I wouldn’t be going back to the beginning like before, that Moses would not be showing up again like had happened all those other years in the past, and it made me a little sad. That’s part of moving forward, after all: we leave behind those that passed away, taking with us their memory and lessons. So in that way, Moses is still with me, and I treasure that. Then I realized that in moving on with the story of God’s plan, centuries in the future, thirty-two books later, I will meet the only one greater than Moses, the one who is Immanuel, God with us, and my sadness was turned to joy.