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  • James Kennard

Vezot Habracha: Moshe and Idolatry - why put them together?

Vezot Habracha. The final Parasha. The last moment of Moshe’s life. 


יָּמׇת שָׁם מֹשֶׁה עֶבֶד ה׳ בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב עַל פִּי ה׳. וַיִּקְבֹּר אֹתוֹ בַגַּי בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב מוּל בֵּית פְּעוֹר וְלֹא יָדַע אִישׁ אֶת קְבֻרָתוֹ עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה. (דברים לד:ה-ו)


So Moshe the servant of Hashem died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of Hashem. He buried him in the valley in the land of Moav opposite Bet Peor: but no man knows of his tomb to this day. (Devarim 34:5-6)

וַ

Thus, although the Torah makes clear that Moshe’s final resting place is unknown and always will be, the text does provide one solitary piece of geographical information. It is opposite the site of the catastrophic seduction into idolatry that saw thousands of Jews worshipping Baal Peor (see Bemidbar Chapter 25).


It is astonishing that the burial place of our greatest leader is defined in relation to a place of idolatry. To imagine saying that “the grave of  [insert name of great rabbi] can be found next to the drug den” does not come close to this incongruity. And one’s bewilderment increases exponentially when we learn that Ba’al Peor was not just a regular false deity, but one whose service required utter debasement and the most extreme abandonment of human dignity (see the Gemara, Sanhedrin 64a).


Rashi (11th century France) comments as follows:


מול בית פעור - קברו היה מוכן שם מששת ימי בראשית לכפר על מעשה פעור וזה אחד מן הדברים שנבראו בין השמשות בערב שבת:


Opposite Bet Peor – His grave was prepared there ever since the six days of Creation, to atone for the incident regarding Peor. This (Moshe's grave) was one of the things that were created at twilight on the eve of Shabbat [in the week of the Creation] (see Pirkei Avot 5:6).


The Maskil LeDavid (18th century Italy) questions why Rashi chose to specify that the spot was designated as a grave since the time of creation. By way of answer, he quotes the incident in the Gemara (Avodah Zara 44b) in which Rabban Gamliel was asked how he could patronise a bathhouse named in honour of the Greeg deity Aphrodite. Rabban Gamliel’s answer was that it was a bathhouse before it was dedicated to Aphrodite and hence “I did not come into its domain; it (the idol) came into my domain.”


For this reason, suggests the Maskil LeDavid, Rashi stresses that the site of “opposite Bet Peor” had been designated as Moshe’s grave at the dawn of creation itself, before it became defiled by idolatry. Hence there was no stigma attached to being buried there.


The Emek Dvar (19th century Lithuania) quotes the Gemara (Sotah 14a) which states that Moshe was buried in that spot to atone for the sin of those who succumbed to worshipping Baal Peor (also quoted by Rashi). The Emek Dvar explains that this was an expression of Moshe’s great love for his people; he was prepared to forgo the deserved honour of a more noble resting place in order to use his merit for the benefit of the Jews. And there was no place where the Jews needed his merit more than here. 


The Maharsha (16th century Poland) explains that the Gemara’s question of “why was Moshe buried next to Bet Peor?” is really asking why, given that Moshe was not allowed to enter into the Land of Israel while he was alive, why was he not able to be carried there after his death, as was Yosef? The Maharsha says that the Gemara’s answer  - “in order to atone for the incident of Baal Peor” is itself an elucidation of the verses in Devarim Chapters 3 and 4:


(ג:כג) וָאֶתְחַנַּן אֶל ה׳ בָּעֵת הַהִוא לֵאמֹר. (ג:כה) אֶעְבְּרָה נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַטּוֹבָה אֲשֶׁר בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן הָהָר הַטּוֹב הַזֶּה וְהַלְּבָנֹן. (ג:כו) וַיִּתְעַבֵּר ה׳ בִּי לְמַעַנְכֶם וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֵלָי וַיֹּאמֶר ה׳ אֵלַי רַב לָךְ אַל תּוֹסֶף דַּבֵּר אֵלַי עוֹד בַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה. (ג:כט) וַנֵּשֶׁב בַּגָּיְא מוּל בֵּית פְּעוֹר (ד:ג) עֵינֵיכֶם הָרֹאוֹת אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה ה׳ בְּבַעַל פְּעוֹר כִּי כׇל הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הָלַךְ אַחֲרֵי בַעַל פְּעוֹר הִשְׁמִידוֹ ה׳ אֱלֹהֶיךָ מִקִּרְבֶּךָ. (ד:ד) וְאַתֶּם הַדְּבֵקִים ה׳ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם חַיִּים כֻּלְּכֶם הַיּוֹם.


(3:23) I begged Hashem at that time, saying, (3:25) Please let me go over and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that goodly mountain, and Lebanon.” (3:26) But Hashem was angry with me for your sakes, and didn’t listen to me; and Hashem said to me, “Let it suffice you; speak no more to Me of this matter. (3:29) So we stayed in the valley opposite Bet Peor. (4:3) Your eyes have seen what Hashem did because of Baal Peor; for all the men who followed Baal Peor, Hashem your God has destroyed them from the midst of you. (4:4) But you who were faithful to Hashem your God are all alive this day.


These verses reveal a remarkable series of events. Moshe asks to enter the land of Israel; Hashem refuses and therefore Moshe stays put - opposite Bet Peor. A couple of verses later, Baal Peor is referenced again, as the cause of great destruction. 


The Mahrasha concludes that the sin at Baal Peor - and the need for Moshe to seek atonement for this catastrophe - is precisely the reason that Moshe cannot enter Israel, even after his death. 


Devarim 3:29 - “So we stayed in the valley opposite Bet Peor.” - has a further significance. It is the last recording camping place of the Jewish people in the desert. (also called “the plains of Moav”in Bemidbar 33:49 and elsewhere). This means that Moshe’s great farewell speech, which is the book of Devarim, was given by Moshe over the course of his final month, with Bet Peor serving as his backdrop throughout that period.


I heard in the name of Rav Isaac Berstein ז״ל that the significance of the sin of Baal Peor in Moshe’s life and even in his death can be explained as follows. 


The worship of Baal Peor required the crossing of all boundaries of decency and self-respect. It required its adherents to debase their humanity and sink to the level of their innate animalistic nature. 


The Torah is the antithesis of Baal Peor. Baal Peor pulls us down; the Torah raises us up. Baal Peor destroys boundaries; the Torah establishes them. Baal Peor turns us into animals and lets our physicality snuff out the vestiges of spirituality; the Torah enables our spirituality to sanctify our physicality and thereby elevates humanity itself.


Moshe, the giver of the Torah, represents at all times “opposite Betl Peor”. As he reminds the Jews of their divine mission he stands in front of Baal Peor in order to emphasise the great contrast between the two. And even in his death, he continues to bear this message.


On Simchat Torah, we read of Moshe’s death and yet this day is one of celebration rather than mourning. This is because as we celebrate our love for the Torah, as we dance with it but, more importantly, dedicate ourselves to learning it and fulfilling its commandments, we ensure that Moshe lives on. He remains, “opposite Bet Peor”, teaching us for eternity to oppose the deification of gratification and instead to let the Torah make us the very best we can be.



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