We read in the final verses of the Torah that Moshe’s burial site has remained unknown ever since his death (34:6). The Gemara in Masekhet Sota (13b-14a) relates in reference to this verse that there was a time when the Roman government dispatched a delegation of officials to the region where Moshe is buried to search for the gravesite. The mission was unsuccessful, the Gemara tells, because “when they stood above, it appeared to them down below; [when they stood] below, it appeared to them above.” When they climbed high on Mount Nevo, the mountain where Moshe was buried, the grave appeared to be lower, but when they descended, the grave suddenly appeared higher. No matter how hard they tried, they could not reach the elusive site.
Numerous writers understood this description as referring to the inability to find the “burial” of Judaism, the way to eliminate Torah observance. Enemies of the Jewish religion have tried different methods over the course of history to put an end to Jewish observance, to locate Moshe’s “grave,” Torah’s Achilles’ heel which they could exploit to defeat it, but have been unsuccessful.
To explain the description of the officials searching from higher and lower positions, some have suggested that this refers to their mistaken assumption that Torah could be observed only under certain conditions. First, the officials thought they could locate Moshe’s “grave” up high, that Torah could not survive under conditions of wealth and power. Torah, they thought, served as a source of solace and succor for the downtrodden Jews, a place where they could seek refuge and find comfort when they suffer poverty and persecution. But once they enjoy prosperity and prestige, they would no longer need to resort to Torah as a source of comfort and encouragement, and so Torah would then be “buried” and turned into an ancient relic. In truth, however, it was discovered that even in times of prosperity, Torah remains alive, as Jews consider the Torah relevant and binding even when they enjoy success. The other possibility, then, was that the Torah’s demise could be found “down below,” in periods of persecution and hardship. If the Jews remain committed to the Torah in times of success and prosperity, the official figured, then this must mean that it can be practiced only amid conditions of safety and comfort, but not when hard times strike. To their astonishment, however, the Jews displayed steadfast devotion to Torah even under conditions of destitution and oppression, despite the hardships entailed. When they saw the Jews’ commitment from “below,” in the harshest circumstances, it appeared that Moshe’s “gravesite” is high up, that Judaism is a religion only for people under duress, and not for those enjoying prosperity.
The Gemara’s comment thus teaches us of the everlasting and unconditional relevance and binding nature of the Torah, that it applies to us under all circumstances, in every time and place, both in times of good fortune and in periods of hardship.