So Moses went and spoke these words to all Israel. And he said to them, “I am a hundred and twenty years old today.” (Deuteronomy 31:1-2)
At the outset of this Torah portion, Moses announced to Israel that he was about to die. He told the people that God had forbidden him to cross over the Jordan with them.
According to a long-standing tradition, the LORD announced to Moses, “Behold, the time for you to die is near” (Deuteronomy 31:14), on the seventh day of the month of Adar in the biblical year 2488. It happened to be Moses’ birthday. He was one hundred and twenty years old to the day, which is why he said, “I am a hundred and twenty years old today” (Deuteronomy 31:2). Therefore, Jewish tradition honors the seventh day of Adar as the anniversary of the birthday of Moses and the anniversary (yahrzeit) of his death.
Before that day was over, Moses ascended Mount Nebo and willingly surrendered his soul to his maker.
In the legends and midrashim about the death of Moses, however, he does not go passively or willingly to his death. Instead, he argues vociferously for life. In anguish of soul, he implores God to spare him the indignity of death. He beseeches God for mercy, and attempts to counter the heavenly decree.
It seems strange that the traditional stories would paint Moses—the hero of heroes—as reluctant to accept death. Why would Moses resist striding boldly into that dark night?
The example of Moses teaches us that we are not to accept death passively. Moses tells us, “Choose life in order that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19).
Some religious circles foster an unhealthy and morbid fascination with death. Since “to be absent from the body is to be home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8), it might seem natural to look forward to death and embrace it when it comes. On the contrary, death is the enemy—the last enemy. Though death comes with inevitable certainty, it should never be our hope. Our hope is in life. We find comfort in death only because we have seen life overcome it.
Death feels offensive to the human soul, for God has set eternity in the heart of man. God made man for immortality; death is a sacrilege to our inner-being. This explains why Moses resisted death, even though his hope was certain.
In a similar way, the second Moses struggled against death in Gethsemane. He said, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me!” (Matthew 26:39). How is it, when so many martyrs have gone bravely to their deaths, that the Master flinched in the face of His own—especially when He knew that His death would purchase the redemption of Israel? Yeshua followed in the example of Moses who strove against death to the end.
Death is abhorrent, and one has an obligation to strive against it. Just as Moses beseeched God for reprieve, so too, Yeshua struggled for life. Ultimately, both Moses and the Master surrendered to the will of the Father: “Not as I will, but as You will” (Matthew 26:39). They found life in submission to the Father. They chose life, even in death:
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. (Matthew 16:25)