INSIGHT

5769 - #04

THE GRAVE OF MOSHE

            

            

Devarim 34:6 informs us that Moshe Rabbeinu’s grave was not known at the time of his passing and implies, bluntly, that it will never be known.1 Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, in explaining why this is so, expresses a thought that is shared by many: “When one considers how often a cult of worship verging on idolatry has grown round the places of the graves of great men who have deserved honour amongst mankind, one can understand the greatness of this last phase in the picture of the life of our Moses.” We don’t know Moshe’s final resting place because even in regard to Moshe – and, perhaps, especially in regard to Moshe – God did not want a cult to develop around a human personality, even a most holy human personality. The verse seems to be saying to us that it is solely God Who we are to worship and no human figure should veer us away from this focus – and so Moshe Rabbeinu’s gravesite could not be known so that we do not stumble and enshrine him. The further implication would seem to be that we should not give this type of special value to the grave of any human being. Yet, other gravesites of great tzaddikim, righteous individuals, including the avot and imahot, the fathers and mothers of the Jewish people, are known and are visited every day by throngs of Jews who place great religious value on these visits? Is the lesson that we are to learn from God hiding Moshe’s grave from us not a lesson to be applied in regard to the final resting places of all the righteous of history?

            Ein Yaakov, Sotah 14a2 presents a Talmudic episode which conveys what would seem to be a different perspective on the hiding of Moshe’s gravesite. According to this reading, God, knowing that in the future the Temples would be destroyed, did not wish the Jewish people to know of Moshe’s final resting place for if they did, they would go to this site, crying, and request of Moshe to pray on their behalf.3 The result would be that Moshe would arise before God and, effectively, the edicts against the Temples would be rescinded. It was, thus, to ensure that these edicts against the Temples not be overturned through the prayers at the gravesite of Moshe, that God decreed that Moshe’s gravesite not be known. While Rabbi Hirsch’s words would seem to imply that the gravesites of the righteous do not have special mystical powers, this presentation would seem to indicate just the opposite. Moshe’s gravesite was not made known, not because God did not want a cult to develop around the grave of a human being but rather because, it would seem, God did not want to deal with the power of the prayers at such a site.

            Of course, one could still potentially argue that it was precisely because the gravesite of a tzaddik has these mystical powers -- which would, in fact, support the development of a cult -- that God did not wish Moshe’s gravesite to be known. This Talmudic statement, though, does not say this; God, simply, did not want Moshe’s prayers to cause Him to change His edict in regard to the Temples. The implication is that the gravesites of tzaddikim do have powers. The further implication, though, is that it is also totally reasonable, and even praiseworthy, for one to visit the burial places of tzaddikim, requesting of them to pray on one’s behalf. Yet, Torah Temima, Devarim 34:6, note 18 asks the obvious question: if all the gravesites of tzaddikim have this power, why did God allow for any of the graves of our forefathers and the greats of klal Yisrael to be known? If we state that the gravesites of tzaddikim do not have special spiritual significance, we can understand that by singling out and not informing us of Moshe’s burial place, God is also informing us that we should not add too much mystical value to any burial place of a tzaddik,4 and that we should be wary of giving cult status to any human being. Yet, if we state that the gravesites of tzaddikim do have special status, why only hide Moshe’s final resting place?5 Furthermore, if we contend that the kivrei tzaddikim, the burial places of the righteous, do have special powers, with the fact that most of these places are known, isn’t the potential for the development of the cult of worship that concerned Rabbi Hirsch a real possibility?

            The Torah Temima answers his question by contending that prayer at Moshe’s gravesite would have had a unique power in overriding a Divine edict because already in his life Moshe had a unique attribute which caused God to annul His negative edicts against the Jewish nation.6 In other words, Moshe’s gravesite would be different than the gravesite of any other tzaddik in its effective power; as such, it was specifically Moshe’s burial place which had to be hidden. In that the burial places of other tzaddikim would not be as effective, they do not have to be hidden.7 But why, still, would God wish to limit the effectiveness of prayer?

            Iyun Yaakov, Sotah 14a8 explains that the destruction of the Temples actually quelled God’s anger against the Jewish people and, as such, if the people would have prayed at Moshe’s gravesite, the end result would have been worse. This world has a purpose and the cause-and-effect we face and experience in this world assists us in facing and achieving this purpose. Sometimes the challenge is still most difficult and so God gives us the opportunity to pray and to thereby circumvent, at times and to some extent, the difficulty of this cause-and-effect. God, though, cannot always respond to our prayers for thereby we may also ultimately fail in achieving our purpose. Moshe totally protected us as our leader in our formative years in the desert. That complete protection could not exist into the future and so his grave, the physical mark of his being as the unparalleled protector of our nation, could not be allowed to be known to us. The protection of the righteousness of others still, though, has value precisely because it is not absolute, thereby a cult of worship of another person cannot develop and we will not forego our own challenges and duties thereby.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail

Footnotes

1 See, further, in T.B. Sotah 14a, the story of an evil kingdom who wished to find Moshe’s grave but were prevented in accomplishing this through miracles.

2 This statement is not found in our editions of the Talmud; however, Hagahot HaBach does insert it.

3 This account, in specifically stating that the people will request from Moshe to pray to God to overturn the decrees against the Temple, raises the entire issue of what people are really suppose to do when they visit a grave and whether any form of attempting to communicate with one who has passed on, even to ask a soul to pray on one’s behalf, is permitted. See, further, Gesher Hachaim,

Book 1, 29:9.   

4 The burial place of a tzaddik, as is the case in regard to the grave of any Jew, of course, is still a makom kadosh, a holy place.

5 It should be noted that the reason given for why God would listen to the prayers of Moshe Rabbeinu actually would seem to be equally applicable generically to all tzaddikim.

6 As the Torah Temima himself points out, the further language of the Talmudic statement would actually seem to support this contention of Moshe’s uniqueness.

7 See, also, Ben Yehoyada, Sotah 14a.

8 Also see ibid.

 (c) Nishma, 2008


 


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