Finishing up the book of Numbers (Bamidmar…in the wilderness) we have a double portion this week: Matot/Masei. Most of the two sections are taken up with verses that don’t resonate easily with us; first, what happens when women make vows and oaths, and then a lengthy, detailed description of a war with the Midianites, including what to do with survivors, taking spoils of war, and cleansing the warriors after their contact with death.
None of those verses caught my eyes this time around. (I do tend to read these texts a lot over the years!) Instead, I kept re-reading this one: “And God spoke to Moses saying, avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites, and then you shall be gathered to your kin.” (Num 31:2) “Gathered to your kin” is a fancy Biblical way of saying, you’re going to die, and Moses knew which mountain he was going to be going up, and not coming down.
This is to be Moses’ last war, his last campaign. Not quite his last tussle with the troublesome people (the tribe of Gad starts to cause a fuss), but his last big event.
And then, after making his last statements to the people (spoiler alert: this takes the entire book of Deuteronomy), he was going to die.
Years ago, I did a bibliographic treatment of this part of the Moses story with some 7th graders at a Jewish day school. I had the kids push the desks and chairs to the sides of the room, creating a big empty space in the middle. Then I took one chair and put it in the middle of the room. I asked them to be Moses for a moment, and answer this question: That chair is the place you will die. You know you will be going up that mountain as soon as this last battle is over. Knowing all this, go stand where you’d be, close to the chair, far away from the chair….Go. Then tell me why you’re standing there.
Some Moses/students went straight to the chair and sat right on it. Why? They said they wanted to be as close to God as possible, as soon as possible, after all this time, they were tired, they were ready. Some went to the classroom door, getting as far away as they could, postponing their “death.” I will never forget one student; he started walking very slowly toward the chair. I asked him why, and he said he wanted to spend his last time on earth, talking to God, learning from God, not in any hurry to die but wanting his last moments to be in true communion with God.
If it were you as Moses, would you have drawn out the battle, drawn out your own time of death, knowing you’d be dying at the end of it, even if it meant people who would die in battle who may not have otherwise? What would it be like to have one more battle, and know it was your last one. What have you chosen as your life’s work? Would you work differently on that quest if you knew it were your last?
We are not Moses. We don’t know the date and time of our last breath. But we can decide where we stand until that point. This is 4th of July weekend. The people who risked everything to create this country knew what their last great battle was for. They went right up to the chair and said, “Here’s where I stand.” I am eternally and profoundly grateful for their chair in the room. What’s yours?