Academic journal article Hebrew Studies Journal

Hasidic Myth on the Death of Moses and Its Metamorphosis

Academic journal article Hebrew Studies Journal

Hasidic Myth on the Death of Moses and Its Metamorphosis

Article excerpt

A number of passages in classical Hasidic homilies expand upon the biblical motif of the divine decree that Moses must die and that he will not be allowed to enter the land of Israel. Commenting upon God's refusal to grant Moses' request to remain alive to be able to enter the land (Deut 3:2-13), these passages build upon certain themes and comments from earlier texts but make no reference, for example, to Moses striking the rock as found in the biblical narrative (Num 20:2-13). They understand Moses' request as motivated by his intention to perform in the land an act or actions that would bring about complete and ultimate redemption of his people and a complete repair and unification of all existence. One would look in vain for any reference to this interpretation in anthologies or reference works on Jewish legendary literature.

In different versions, Moses sought to accomplish his goal by personally fulfilling the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (commandments that can only be fulfilled in the land of Israel), by pronouncing, at the pre-designated site of the temple, the divine name according to its written form or by gathering together all the unredeemed divine sparks, which were scattered with the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (shattering), the primordial cosmic cataclysm according to kabbalistic teaching. It is presumed that Moses would have had the potential to completely annul the existence of evil. Moses, however, is not allowed to fulfill that role, because he had once wasted what was a real opportunity, because he could do so only together with the generation which he brought out from Egypt but which perished in the wilderness, or because that would run counter to the divine will or wisdom. For any of these reasons or a combination thereof, the door to redemption through Moses during his lifetime was closed.

The kernel from which the theme of God barring Moses from his intended redemptive actions eventually evolved might be located in a classical midrash on Lamentations (Lam. Rab. 12a-14b). In its fantastic scenario, with the beginning of the Babylonian exile, Moses and other biblical figures are raised from their graves, and he informs Jeremiah that he will go and bring back the deported Israelites. Countering all difficulties, Moses, followed by Jeremiah, makes his way as far as the rivers of Babylon. The exiles realize that Moses has actually left his grave to redeem them, but at this moment, a heavenly voice proclaims that their predicament had been decreed by God. Moses then explains that for this reason he cannot restore the exiles to their land but consoles them with the promise that God will soon do it. If the Hasidic tradition mentioned above developed from that midrashic passage, Hasidic homilies transferred the time of Moses' intended redemptive action from the period long after his death to the concluding phase of his life.

In earlier, more complete Hasidic renditions of the myth, following his death Moses is granted a continuous presence in this world through the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (holy people) of all the generations--a concept found already in some earlier kabbalistic texts. His death prior to crossing the Jordan and entering the promised land with his people was necessary to make this possible. In different versions, Moses' return in this sense occurs through either metempsychosis ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) or indwelling ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). (1) Early Hasidic renditions read his alleged post-mortem destiny into the biblical narrative by interpreting the words [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (because of you; Deut 1:37) and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (and [Yhwh] became angry; Deut. 3:26) as allusions respectively to [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII].


1.1. The Death of Moses According to Elimelekh of Lyzhansk

A passage from Elimelekh's Delight by Elimelekh of Lyzhansk (d. …

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