By Shlomo Riskin
“And no human knows of [Moses’] burial place even to this day.” (Deut. 34:6)
Amid the great joy of Shemini Atzeret-Simchat Torah, emanating from the biblical commandment “and you shall thoroughly rejoice” (Deut. 16:15), a curious dialectic between celebration and solemnity nevertheless exists. This is palpable especially in Israel, when the dancing and festive readings from the end of Deuteronomy and beginning of Genesis are followed shortly thereafter by the recitation of the Yizkor memorial prayers.
Perhaps the duality of the day stems from the fact that we conclude Deuteronomy with the death of Moses, about whom the Bible testifies: “And there has not arisen a prophet again in Israel similar to Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” (Deut. 34:10). From the perspective of Moses’ death, the fundamental joy of Simchat Torah appears somewhat of an anomaly. How can a day on which we read of this great loss also serve as one of the most festive days of the Jewish calendar year?
I believe the answer is to be found in the verse, “and no human knows of [Moses’] burial place even to this day” (Deut. 34:6). Many explain correctly that this has prevented the creation of a Mosaic shrine and a cult of Moses worship. I would like to add to this an additional understanding, based on the following vignette – which I heard from my mentor, Rabbi Moshe Besdin – that sheds profound light on the reason why the greatest of our prophets is denied a known gravesite.
A small town in Poland, with a limited number of Jewish families who were pious but ignorant of the holy texts, was in need of a rabbi. The parnass (community leader) was dispatched to the famous Volozhin Yeshiva to search for a candidate, but after being turned down by the most promising students, he became desperate. He finally approached a serious but other-worldly student with the bold request: “Come to be our town rabbi. We are a famous town: Rabbi Akiva, the Ramban and the Vilna Gaon are all buried in our community.” The student, adept at Talmud but ignorant of Jewish history, imagined a town of scholars and immediately left with the parnass.
After a few weeks it became clear that no one in town possessed even rudimentary Torah knowledge. The devastated young rabbi asked the parnass to take him to the cemetery. “At least I can contemplate your former glory at the gravesites of Rabbi Akiva, the Ramban, and Vilna Gaon!”
“You didn’t understand me,” responded the parnass. “In Volozhin, the students cited these great rabbis, and debated their legal arguments and discussions, as if they were walking among them. Rabbi Akiva argues, the Ramban decides, the Vilna Gaon rules. In your yeshiva, they are truly alive. In our town, no one has ever heard of what they wrote. In our town, they are dead and buried.”
When the Torah tells us that no one knows of the location of Moses’ gravesite, it is because for the Jewish people, Moses never died. We publicly read and privately contemplate his teachings on a daily basis. The greatest proof of his continuing presence in our lives is the fact that we conclude his Divine revelation only to immediately begin to read his words once again as we start the biblical cycle anew.
Therefore, on Simchat Torah, the day on which we read of Moses’ physical passing, we should wholeheartedly rejoice in the eternity of his teachings, emblemized by one of the signature songs of Simchat Torah: “Moshe emet, v’Torato emet!” – “Moses is truth, and his Torah is truth!”
We can similarly understand the seemingly incongruous tradition of reciting the memorial Yizkor prayers on festivals. In fact, the practice perfectly captures the essence of the day, as those precious moments quietly reflecting on our deceased loved ones offer us a unique opportunity to consider the ways in which their qualities and love continue to impact us. Indeed, there are few sources of more profound happiness than the realization that our loved ones live on through us, our children, and our descendants.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.