I used to believe that Moses' first taste of death was when God swore an oath that, "You will not bring this congregation to the Land that I have given them (Numbers 20:12)." He again tasted death when God said to him, "Go up this mountain...You shall see it and you shall be gathered unto your people, you, too, as Aaron your brother was gathered in (27:12-13)." I thought that he suffered his third taste of death when God instructed him, "Take vengeance for the Children of Israel against the Midianites; afterward you will be gathered unto your people (31:2)." Rashi wisely pointed out that I was mistaken, and this was not a taste of death, but of life: "Although God told him that he would die after this war, Moses did not delay; he proceeded with alacrity to carry out God's Will." Moses tasted life as long as he could function.
Moses did more than live every one of his final moments; he chose to be the metteur en scene: "So there were delivered (31:5)," the warriors, knowing that Moses would die after this war, had to be coerced into preparing for battle (Rashi). They knew that Moses would die because he told them. Why tell them and force them to confront their fear of life after Moses just before a major battle?
Primo Levi describes hiding in a subterranean basement in Auschwitz Work Camp X with his friend Valerio as air-raid sirens warned of an Allied attack. Valerio, one of the walking dead, kept Levi awake by sharing his bad luck stories. Then, Rappoport made his entrance. "Shrewd, violent, and happy as the adventurers of earlier days, it had been easy for him to leave behind at one fell swoop, whatever civilian education he found superfluous. He lived in the Camp like a tiger in the jungle." Rappoport, fully alive in a camp of death, was unaffected by the whistle of a bomb about to fall or by the final explosion. "He was the defiant image of Capaneus, challenging Jove from the depths of Hell and laughing at his thunderbolts."
"It's not a matter of nerves,' said Rappoport, "but of theory. Of accounting. It's my secret weapon."
"When I could I drank, I ate, I studied, learned, traveled and looked at things. I kept my eyes wide open; I didn't waste a crumb. I've been diligent; I don't think I could have done more or better. I accumulated a large quantity of good things, and all that good has not disappeared. It's inside me, safe and sound. Nobody can take it from me."
"I've been in this place for twenty months, and for twenty months I've been keeping accounts. They balance; in fact I still have a substantial credit. Tell the world that Leon Rappoport got what was due him. Hitler didn't get the better of me (Primo Levi; "Moments of Reprieve: Rappoport's Testament)."
Even as bombs were falling around the camp of death, Rappoport was busy refocusing two bedraggled and broken Pisano on finding life, collecting and treasuring what can never be taken away. He restored their balance by changing the scene from a filthy basement to the scales of life.
There were no missiles whistling, nor any explosions, but it was war. Moses created a different scene in which the most significant battle is the one to fight for life each moment, collect life credits that can never be taken away. He taught his soldiers how to change the scene, no matter how desperate the circumstances. He insisted that this was another act of life; not the first act of his death. He changed the death scene into one of life, accumulating the moments deep inside from where even death could not take them.
We are a few days into the "Three Weeks," and already I hear people speak of this as a time of bad luck, depression, destruction, and mourning. Perhaps we should take the Moses approach and accept the challenge to change the scene; to transform this into a time of accomplishments, hope and joy. We have Three Weeks to accumulate moments of life, piling joy on the scales of life, claiming credit for our commitment to transform the dark scenery into scenes of light. We can begin with Shabbat, the greatest scene changer, when the laws of mourning never apply.
Rabbi Simcha L. Weinberg
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