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D'varim/Deuteronomy 31:2 I am one hundred and twenty years old today: I am no longer able to go out and to come in
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In this parasha, Moshe makes his formal announcement of departure. He is obeyingHaShem's instructions to appoint Joshua as his successor and to go up the mountain to die after being allowed to cast his eyes over the land that the people are about to enter and inherit under Joshua's leadership. The words in our text start his announcement; on the surface they seem to say that he is so old that he is no longer capable of leading the nation, but the Torah goes out of its way in its last chapter to tell us that this is not so: "Moshe was a hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated" (D'varim 34:7, NJPS). The ancient sages discussed what Moshe might have meant and conclude that the word is significant. "Why does the text state 'this day?'" they ask, answering that the meaning is: "This day are my days and years completed. Its purpose is to teach you that the Holy One, blessed be He, completes the years of the righteous from day to day, and from month to month; for it is written: 'I will let you enjoy the full count of your days' (Shemot 23:26, NJPS)". They then add a little anecdote to support Moshe's unabated vigour: "It is also written: 'Moshe went up from the steppes of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the summit of Pisgah' (D'varim 34:1. NJPS)" - no mean feat at any age - "and it has been taught: Twelve steps were there, but Moshe mounted them in one stride!" (b. Sotah 13b).
RabbiHirsch isn't too sure about this and qualifies the position: "Although it says of Moshe that in spite of his one hundred and twenty years his physical forces had not waned, this was a special gift from G-d for the time of his effectiveness. Now that this was to concluded, he could henceforth expect only the natural state consonant to his age. So that he was perfectly justified in saying that he could not complain if he, at one hundred and twenty years of age, could not reckon on having the strength to continue his public activity." Now that he is relinquishing his role of leadership, the miracle that kept him in full vigour will be withdrawn and he will be like any other one hundred and twenty year old. The Sforno too seems struck with this idea, having Moshe say, "Do not grieve over my death, for according to nature I should no longer be able to live." Gunther Plaut, a modern commentator, is impressed with the number itself: "He spanned three generations of 40 years each. The number 120, as the multiple of the first five whole numbers (1x2x3x4x5), came to represent in the Torah the ideal of longevity. It also combines the decimal and duodecimal systems (10x12). A popular Jewish wish is, 'May you live to 120 years!'"
Ibn Ezra says that the last phrase in the text , to go out and to come in, is "referring to leadership in battle. He is saying, 'Even if I were not going to die now, I no longer have the ability to fight.'" Pointing to Moshe's words in the next couple of verses, he puts these words in Moshe's mouth: "In any case, you have no need of anyone's help since the L-rd will destroy those nations along with Joshua."
Rashi takes a different approach based on the first words of the second phrase, , "I am no longer able." The root often means "to be able" to do something, but can also mean "to be permitted/allowed" to do something (Davidson). Suggesting that the command phrase usually translated "You may not partake" (D'varim 12:17, NJPS) from the Hebrew , actually means "you are not allowed to eat", and that the narrative phrase "[he] could not build a house" (1 Kings 5:17, NJPS) from the Hebrew , actually means "he was not allowed to build a house", Rashi proposes that instead of "I am no longer able", our text should be translated, "I am no longer allowed" to go out and to come in. Why? He would have Moshe imply that "the authority has been taken away from me and given to Joshua."
The Sforno, however, comes up with another reason why Moshe is telling the people that he is about to die: "G-d has said that I am not to go over the Jordan, therefore it is better for you that I die, so that you will be able to go over into the Land." In other words, Moshe is saying that if he were to remain alive, since HaShem had told him he was not to cross the Jordan, he would hold all Israel up in their progress. They would be stuck there on the Plains of Moab, just waiting for him to die so that they could be released to go forward. This situation occurred in the closing years of Elizabeth I, Queen of England. Government continued, carried out in a holding pattern by her top civil servants, but there were no new initiatives, no new peerages or honours. The whole country was almost in suspense until she died in March 1603, then within days her successor, James VI of Scotland was proclaimed James I of England.
Yeshua too reached the point in His ministry when He had to go. Admittedly, at the time He said it, He still had a few important things to finish, but He was going nonetheless. After correctly diagnosing that the disciples were not happy about his departure, he told them, "But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper shall not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you" (John 16:7, NASB). If the disciples were to receive the Ruach, then Yeshua needed to be back with the Father and send Him to them. The disciples needed to stand on their own feet, not so much overshadowed by the Master as taking His message to the world empowered and enabled by the Spirit living within them. This couldn't happen while Yeshua was still with them.
Writing from prison and the imminent threat of death, Rav Sha'ul debates whether it would be better to die or to stay in this life and continue his ministry: "My desire is to depart and be with Messiah, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account" (Philippians 1:23-24, ESV). From his own point of view, he would prefer to be with Yeshua, but for Philippians' sake, he recognises the need to stay where he is for now: "Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith" (v. 25, Bibie(ESV)). Not yet time for moving on, but a real question to decide whether it would be right or not.
So here's the question for us today. Do we stand in the way of G-d? Should we relinquish our roles and positions to allow others to lead and the people of G-d to move on? When we have been in a position for some time, there maybe a good case for stepping back in order to let others grow by taking over your role, or allowing change in an organisation to being fresh blood and new life. If we hold on that position wrongly, then not only do we block others doing the things that they need and have been called to do, but we are also standing in God's way, so that He may be forced to step up His methods of persuasion - perhaps a challenge in health, finance or relationship - so that we relinquish that position. Even more, or perhaps more selfishly, if we refuse to move, as well as blocking G-d and others, we may be stopping ourselves from moving into the blessing that G-d has lined up for us in our next role or situation. Life is for a season and that season, of anywhere between birth and Moshe's one hundred and twenty years, is divided into smaller seasons: childhood, adolescence, young adult, parent, grandparent and so on. We may have seasons as an engineer, a senior engineer, a principal engineer and even engineering director. There is also a time, even in mid-stream for laying things down in order to find peace and rest before moving on to something else as yet unseen. Where are you called to next and what will you have to put down to get there?
Further Study: Joshua 14:10-12; Psalm 90:10-12; 2 Peter 1:12-15
Application: What might G-d be calling you to put down in order to find your next position - in ministry, life, work or vocation? Why not ask the Chief Vocations Adviser for some help today? Oh, and ask Him to go slowly and repeat His proposal to make sure you have heard aright.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2018
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