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Dead Man Talking

A Torah portion of selfless acts and last words

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Pancho Villa (Library of Congress)

It was Friday afternoon, and Pancho Villa had to go to the bank. He climbed into his 1919 Dodge roadster with his men and his gold, and made his way to the nearby town of Parral. En route, the assassins lay waiting, seven of them. As they saw the black car huffing its way around the bend, they rose to their feet and opened fire. Two minutes and 150 bullets later, Mexico’s most famous revolutionary was dead.

He did, however, manage to kill one of his assailants, and with his flesh shredded by the fusillade turned to one of his lieutenants. “Don’t let it end like this,” Villa is believed to have said. “Tell them I said something.”

Possessing the wherewithal to realize famous last words were in order but not the wit to craft the appropriate parting statement, Villa is a perfect guide into a territory too often scorched by its dangerous proximity to death. It’s the territory of legacy.

Legacy, as the hapless Pancho learned all too well, is as much an urge as it is a rational contemplation. Staring at the masked gunmen, Villa could think of nothing else but his appointment with posterity. He ached for Trumpeldor’s thundering “Never mind, it is good to die for one’s country,” or even Vespasian’s maniacal “Me thinks I’m turning into a god.” Anything but dying wordless.

His last words, if indeed he ever spoke them, may not inspire generations of men to take up arms and the cause, but they do shed light on an essential human truth: faced with death, we strive for a neat summary, one more act of asserting our agency before we cease to be what we’ve always been, our selves.

To hear Heidegger tell it, such last-ditch efforts are missing the point. Man, he would say, is unique among all other beings because he is the only creature acutely aware of the inevitability of his own demise. In other words, what sets us apart from the beasts is that we know we’re going to die, a realization that, in turn, informs each hour of our lives. The moment of death, to further simplify Heidegger somewhat cavalierly, is our moment of ripening, the fruition of our human quest. But as death knocks gently, we’re never there; death is the one thing we can never experience simply because we no longer are.

How to solve this conundrum? What to do when we face the darkness? How to die gracefully? Just ask Moses.

This week’s parasha is a melancholy one for the aged leader. It takes place on the last day of his life. Knowing that he is a few hours away from the yawning forever, Moses refuses to pull a Pancho and scramble for some final sermon by which to be remembered. Instead, he sings a song.

It’s solemn and gorgeous and, with locutions like “My lesson will drip like rain,” reverberates with an elegant and confident flow that would make even Kanye blush. But the point is not so much what’s being said—Moses again warns the Israelites to observe the Torah lest God abandon them—as what’s missing. What’s missing is Moses.

After the bit with the Pharaoh, the spell of plagues, the parting sea, the golden calf, the ten commandments and the four decades in the desert—after all that one would think that the fading father would feel a slight urge to say something personal, something, perhaps, along the lines of “you won’t have Moses to kick around anymore.” But Moses, to borrow a phrase from contemporary political parlance, stays on message; he warns the people once more, and then gets ready for his final curtain.

It wouldn’t have been such a heartbreaking moment—the death of a 120-year-old man seldom is—if we didn’t know it had no happy ending. But as soon as Moses concludes his song, God commands him to climb atop Mount Nebo and peer at Jericho shining in the distance. For his sins, God reminds his beleaguered servant, Moses will die without entering the Promised Land he had sought for so long.

But even allowing for this punitive explanation, a deeper meaning suggests itself: Moses is forbidden from entering Canaan not only for his infractions, but also because permitting him this final act of grace might portray life as life seldom is, as a coherent narrative slouching toward a unified clear goal. But life thrashes and collapses, jerks and jibes. It suddenly begins and just as suddenly ends. We grasp on to notions like legacy or to elegant epitaphs, thinking those may give us a leg up on death’s crushing abruptness, but they never do. Instead, we’re just yanked out of the story one fine morning or one balmy afternoon, and our Jerichos are always shining in the distance, never entered.

No despair, Moses tells us in his subtle way. Such is life. To prepare for death, he suggests, forget about yourself, the self that soon will be no more. Speak instead to those who’ll stay behind. Tell the people once more of fate and faith. Make them listen, then say goodbye. That, the departing leader knows, is as close as a human being can come to a legacy, to agency, to immortality.

As this weekly column comes to a close—we’ve now worked our way through the entire Torah—I wish I had a clever last line, something witty and piercing you, dear readers, would remember for a long time. I don’t. But don’t let it end like this: if anybody asks, tell them I said something.

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Dead Man Talking

A Torah portion of selfless acts and last words

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