The Torah in Parashat Ve-zot Ha-berakha tells of the passing of Moshe Rabbenu, and the Midrash, commenting on this event (Devarim Rabba 11:5), describes a conversation that took place when the Angel of Death came to take Moshe’s life. The angel informed Moshe that the time had come for him to leave this world, whereupon Moshe protested, saying, “Go away from here…for I wish to give praise to the Almighty.”
The angel then replied, “Moshe, why are you boasting? He [God] already has those who give Him praise – the heavens and the earth praise Him at every moment, as it says, ‘The heavens tell the glory of God’ (Tehillim 19:2).”
Moshe, however, persisted, telling the angel, “I will silence them and give Him praise…”
This unusual exchange has been interpreted by a number of writers as an allegorical depiction of an argument made by some against the need for “Moshe” – for the laws of the Torah which Moshe brought us. They argue that those who accept and practice religion are “boastful” in thinking that religious observance is a necessary means of “praising God,” of maintaining awareness of a Creator, of a higher meaning and purpose of life. In their view, the “heavens and earth,” the natural world, suffices to achieve this objective. They reject the need for a lifestyle governed by a strict set of laws, feeling that the natural framework of the world and human instincts are enough. The Angel of Death’s retort to Moshe in this Midrashic account expresses the view that the wonder of nature, and the human being’s innate sense of goodness, suffice to lend meaning and significance to life, and there is therefore no need to keep “Moshe” alive, to preserve the Torah which he brought us.
This insight brings to mind Rashi’s comment regarding Moshe’s burial site, which the Torah (34:6) says is situated “opposite Pe’or.” Based on the Gemara (Sota 14a), Rashi writes that Moshe was buried at that site to atone for the sin of Ba’al Pe’or, when Benei Yisrael engaged in relations with the women of Moav and worshipped that nation’s deity, Pe’or (Bamidbar 25). Rav Yehuda Amital explained this to mean that the Torah brought to us by Moshe stands in eternal opposition to the culture and ideology of Pe’or, a deity which, Chazal teach, was worshipped by defecating on the idol (see Rashi, Bamidbar 25:3). This mode of worship, Rav Amital explained, reflected the belief that nature needs no refining, that people should be allowed to follow their rawest instincts without any interference or restraint. The sin of Ba’al Pe’or involved public defecation and rampant, unrestrained promiscuity because this is precisely what the adherents of this belief advocated – the worship of natural instinct, and a rejection of the need for refinement and discipline. Moshe was buried opposite the site of Pe’or as an eternal reminder of our firm opposition to this ideology, of our belief in the Torah which seeks to elevate us by regulating our behavior and channeling our instincts and drives towards the service of the Creator.
In response to the angel’s insistence that it suffices for “heaven and earth” – the natural order – to bring glory to God, Moshe argued, “I will silence them and give Him praise…” This has been explained to mean that human beings are capable of “silencing” the “praise” of the natural order, of abusing the natural order to disgrace, rather than glorify, the Almighty. We therefore need the Torah of Moshe, the religious lifestyle which it demands, to govern our conduct and thereby elevate our lives so that we live in a manner which brings glory to God at every moment.