Nitzavim-Vayelech: Moses’s Death is Hard
By Rabbi David Hartley Mark
Ha’ we lost the goodliest fere of all
To the Cloud of Divinity?
Aye lover he was of the Holy Law,
And he made God’s People free.
--After Ezra Pound, “Ballad of the Goodly Fere”
Following the skirmish with Amorite manna-raiders, General Joshua entered the Command Tent, and laid his battered wooden shield, hooped round with a bronze circlet, in a corner. On it, he carefully placed his brazen sword, whose blade’s nicks and scuffs testified to having been used in many a skirmish and battle. Caleb ben Yefunneh, his aide-de-camp and Colonel of the Israelite citizen-army—such as it was—did the same. A small fire burned in the center of the tent, and they squatted near it.
“You saved my life, General,” said Caleb.
“No more than you would have done for me. I’m glad we were able to repulse those Amorites, when they came to seize our food and abduct our young women,” replied Joshua, “But something of greater import concerns me—our Rabbi Moses is fighting for his life. How much time do you think the Old Man has, Caleb?” asked Joshua.
“Could be a couple of days—or hours, even,” replied the grizzled Judahite, spitting into the fire, “he is dying hard.”
“Aye,” replied Joshua of Ephraim, “he is giving the Angel of Death a tussle—as he belabored our people, in his prime.”
“D’you remember, General, that time he faced down Korach and his hordes, single-handed?” asked Caleb.
“How could I forget?” said Joshua, smiling grimly at the memory, “I offered to stand alongside him then, but our Rabbi just scowled at me, that way he had—has—and said, ‘Some battles we must fight alone, Young Joshua. And the Lord stands beside me, here. I shall not trust in mortal men, from whom there is no help. No: my help is the LORD, Who made heaven and earth.’”
“And what about—this goes ‘way back—the Night of the Slaying of the Firstborn, in Egypt?” recalled Caleb.
“What a tumult—a bedlam!” said the Ephraimite, “with Egyptian mothers—those gloating beldames—screaming to Ra, Thutmose, Osiris, and all their filthy heathen gods! It was not safe to be an Israelite among them, I tell you—the men feared us, but the Egyptian women would have torn us to shreds, had the Lord not been our protection!”
“Yet, after all that,” said Caleb, “he is dying hard.”
“I am sorry, sorry to death that Moses is suffering,” agreed Joshua, “and, the Lord knows, I have served him since I was a boy.”
“No one knows his every thought as do you, my General,” said Caleb, wiping his sword with a rag.
“But, the Lord bless him,” said Joshua, smiling grimly, “he is giving the old Angel of Death a run for the money.”
“That he is,” said Caleb.
The two old warriors settled back against the walls of the Command Tent, each lost in his own reverie. The flaps of the tent parted, and a young boy came in—an apprentice Levite, by his garb, a white robe and singlet.
Joshua smiled: “It is young Ori, the littlest great-grandson of Kohen-Priest Elazar. What ails ye, Ori my boy?”
The boy bowed—a bit snobbishly, Caleb thought.
“If it please you, my lords,” said Ori, flourishing a long shepherd’s crook, half again as tall as he, “Nurse Yaffa sends her compliments, and asks if General Joshua ben Nun will from this time forward carry the holy and enchanted staff of Moses.”
Joshua rose, and directed that the boy hand him the wooden stick, made of stoutest blackthorn and polished to a darkened shine, mostly by the large, horny hands of Rabbi Moses. It seemed to vibrate in his hands.
“I will not—cannot—wield this magical staff,” he said, “for it was meant by God to be carried only by our rabbi. Let it be buried alongside him.”
“How, then, will we cross the mighty Jordan River, when the time comes to enter the Land and begin our conquest?” asked Caleb, “Will you not need this staff to smite the river?”
“I know from our spies that there are places where a man might stand with either foot, astride the ‘mighty flood’ of the legendary Jordan,” answered Joshua, “and besides, I believe that our God-Who-Makes-Miracles will ease our way across, as He did at the Sea of Reeds, staff or no.”
Caleb nodded: he could sense that Joshua, even prior to the Great Rabbi Moses’s passing, was already showing signs of Godly insight and prophecy.
The young Levite, not knowing what to do, made as if to lean Moses’s Staff against a corner of the tent wall. Joshua shook his head vigorously.
“Return the staff to Nurse Yaffa,” ordered Joshua, “and bid her lay it over our rabbi’s winding-sheet, when the time comes.”
Ori bowed once more, and quietly left the tent, bearing the staff.
“Will’t please you to have a sip of mead, my General?” asked Caleb, when all was quiet once more.
“No, thank’ee, Colonel Caleb,” replied Joshua, “for I wish to have my wits about me, when the time comes.”
The two old soldiers closed their eyes and tried to rest while seated. Both sweated profusely; the day was very hot, and they wore leathern back-and-breast armor. The Amorites were still a danger to be faced, and they could sweep down in a moment from their fortress on Mount Seir.
Minutes passed—an hour, perhaps? Who could tell the time in the desert? The two dozed.
Suddenly, the flap parted again. This time, it was an older priest, Rafu ben Mahlah, of the priestly healing class.
“My lords, quickly!” he cried, “I fear that our rabbi’s end is near.”
Joshua and Caleb shot a glance at each other, gritted their teeth, rose, seized their weapons, and raced out of the tent after Rafu….