Mountains are an element that essentially weave Moses' life into a single narrative.
Toward the end of this week's portion, God commands Moses: "'Get thee up into this mountain of Abarim, and behold the land which I have given unto the children of Israel. And when thou hast seen it, thou also shalt be gathered unto thy people, as Aaron thy brother was gathered'" (Numbers 27:12-13 ). Moses will perform this commandment in the last chapter of the Torah, in Deuteronomy, when he ascends Mount Nebo to view the Promised Land from afar before dying. In effect, Moses is being asked here to end his wanderings.
Moses received his instructions as God's future emissary when he went "to the mountain of God, unto Horeb" (Exodus 3:1 ). There he saw the burning bush and was ordered to take Israel out of Egypt. At the end of his days on earth, he will reach Mount Nebo - the Mountain of Abarim he is commanded to climb in this week's reading.
During his life, Moses actually ascends to a mountain twice more. The first is Mount Sinai, where he receives the two tablets from God; the second takes place immediately following the shattering of the tablets when he is positioned inside a "cleft of the rock" (Exod. 33:22 ) and is privileged to see God's back. Mountains are an element that essentially weave Moses' life into a single narrative. He stands on the mountain, looking down upon reality, like Archimedes. Located outside the world, as it were, he is able to move it with the wave of his hand.
Moses' viewpoint as a figure who observes things from the outside is established when he is an infant. Like Noah, he is placed in an ark ("of bulrushes," Exod. 2:3 ) which, in turn, is placed on the water - the Nile. His ark floats along the river and thanks to the materials from which it is made, it is impermeable to water.
Throughout his life Moses frequently experiences situations of movement back and forth between internal and external realms. He grows up in Pharaoh's palace and then goes outside to see the suffering of his brothers and sisters; he escapes to Midian and then returns to Egypt. The act of leaving an inner space for an outer one does not have to be an emergence from a domestic space - that is, from a structure with four walls; it can also be a movement between social, mental or geographic spaces. In Moses' case, it involves movement from his private life to the public life of a leader, from Egypt to Midian, from the Israelite camp to the ohel mo'ed, or tent of meeting.
Similarly, Moses ascends and then descends mountains. A mountain constitutes a geographic platform that enables Moses to be a part of reality while, at the same time, standing above it. It enables him to emerge from the human space and to distance himself from his role as leader. Furthermore, the ascent to the heights also facilitates his encounters with God. Whereas for Moses a mountain is a geographical phenomenon that is essentially external to the world, for God it is a meeting place with the world. It is as if God, like his prophet Moses, behaves in accordance with a pattern of entering and emerging. When he returns from those meetings, Moses is a different person: When he emerges from the meeting with God at the site of the burning bush, he brings the word, the message, of God as his envoy; when he descends Mount Sinai, Moses bears the tablets. The recurring ascension of mountains during his life is intended to raise him above human society and then to return him, fully re-equipped, to human society.
The exception to this rule is Moses' last ascent, which he is commanded to carry out in this week's Torah portion. This time he will climb the mountain but will not descend. The meeting place with God will turn the mountain to a point from which Moses prepares for his final destination. Aware of this fact, he says: "Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation, who may go out before them, and who may come in before them, and who may lead them out, and who may bring them in; that the congregation of the Lord be not as sheep which have no shepherd" (Num. 27:16-17 ). Joshua will take over from Moses and thus Moses will not have to descend from the mountain; he makes preparations for remaining there.
There are two aspects to this final encounter. Ostensibly, it is a sort of punishment: After Moses strikes the rock to extract water for his thirsty people, he is ordered to ascend the mountain by God - "'because ye rebelled against my commandment in the wilderness of Zin, in the strife of the congregation, to sanctify Me at the waters before their eyes.' These are the waters of Meribath-kadesh in the wilderness of Zin" (Num. 27:14 ).
However, the punitive aspect of this situation hides another, semi-erotic dimension. On the mountain a meeting takes place between two solitary beings who constantly leave the world and then return to it. Although this is not explained explicitly in the Torah's verses, it is revealed in Rashi's commentary.
"So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord" (Deut. 34:5 ). Rashi comes up with the alternative interpretation of the meeting from the words "al pi Hashem" - which is translated as "according to the word of the Lord," but which literally means "according to God's mouth" or "on God's mouth." On this, Rashi comments: "The phrase 'al pi Hashem,' on God's mouth, means 'with a kiss.'"