Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelech / When Moses Tells Off Satan

The Torah is not prepared to stand with man and angrily rebukes him. For his part, though, God is unwilling to accept such a situation: He bestowed the Torah upon man and therefore sends man out a second time to seek it.

In this week’s double Torah portion, Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelech (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20 and 31:1-31:30), God informs Moses: “Behold, thy days approach that thou must die” (Deut. 31:14). The death of Moses, the most dominant figure in the Pentateuch, is the most dramatic event with respect to the literal reading of the Torah text – but for the homilists, it is also an event with immense mythological potential.

“At that moment, God commanded the Angel of Death: Bring me Moses’ soul. The Angel of Death stood before Moses and said to him: Moses, surrender me your soul. Moses replied: In the place where I am standing, you have no authority to stand. Yet you have the audacity to say to me, ‘Surrender me your soul’?!

“After Moses angrily rebuked him, the Angel of Death departed and appeared before God to report what had happened. Once more God commanded him: Bring me Moses’ soul. The Angel of Death returned to the place where he had previously spoken to Moses but could not find him. He went to the sea and asked the sea: Have you seen Moses? From the day he led Israel through my waters until now, I have not seen him, the sea replied. The Angel of Death went to the mountains and hills and asked them: Have you seen Moses?

“From the day Israel received the Torah on Mount Sinai until now, we have not seen him, replied the mountains and hills. The Angel of Death went to the underworld, the abode of the spirits of the dead, and asked: Have you seen Moses? I have heard of him but I have never seen him, replied the underworld. The Angel of Death went to the ministering angels and asked them: Have you seen Moses?

“God understood his way, they replied: God has concealed him and has designated him to be in the next world. No creature in heaven or on earth knows where he is, as it is written, ‘And he was buried [or, he, that is, God, buried him] in the valley’ (Deut. 34:6)” (Sifre Deuteronomy: 305).

The chief protagonist of the above midrash is the Angel of Death, Satan, who is sent by God to search for Moses and to bring the great leader’s soul to the Creator. From the opening words of the midrash, it is clear that, in the hierarchy of the universe, God stands at the apex, while Satan and Moses – the object of the search – occupy second and third place, respectively. But when Satan appears before Moses and is angrily rebuked by him, it becomes apparent that Moses’ status is actually much higher than Satan’s.

This reversal of standing thwarts the plan for the delivery of Moses’ soul to God, who therefore dispatches Satan a second time. Now, however, the latter cannot find Moses. Satan sets out on a journey that takes him to the four corners of the earth, but he is able to locate only historical traces, allusions and rumors pertaining to Moses. The object of his search, the great prophet and leader, eludes Satan. Over the course of the search, however, Satan grasps Moses’ immense impact on the world.

Only when Satan meets the ministering angels does he learn of Moses’ whereabouts. God himself, who has sent Satan out on this mission, has hidden Moses, designating him for the next world. In speaking to Satan, the ministering angels cite words from one of the final verses of the last reading in the Pentateuch, Parashat Vezot Habracha: “And he was buried in the valley in the land of Moab over against Beth-peor; and no man knoweth of his sepulcher unto this day” (Deut. 34:6).

God’s change in plans reflects the dialectics in the relationship between himself and Moses. Although the Almighty could himself have taken Moses’ soul without any assistance from Satan, he decides to send out the latter – as if Moses were just another ordinary human being. And yet, when God dispatches Satan on his first mission to bring back Moses’ soul, Moses makes it crystal clear that his fate is not that of an ordinary mortal. Thus, when God dispatches Satan a second time, it is God himself who shows that Moses is no ordinary mortal. Moses’ ambiguous status as a mortal who has also been chosen by God creates a heavy burden for Satan, who fails in his mission to bring the great leader’s soul to his Creator.

Satan, the protagonist of this midrash, does not function as a force of opposition to God, as in medieval myths, or even as God’s loyal emissary, who nonetheless has independent malicious thoughts, as is seen in the Book of Job. Rather, in the midrash, Satan is an obedient emissary who seeks to carry out his mission faithfully. He is, however, thwarted in this effort and appears as a ridiculous figure when God changes his mind. Moreover, since God does not inform Satan of the change in the divine plan, Satan becomes a tormented protagonist.

The midrash’s unusual choice of Satan as its dominant figure – but one who is nevertheless cast in the role of a mere functionary, lacking both personality and motivation, and whose reaction to all the events in this narrative is silenced – raises the possibility that perhaps it is not really referring to Satan at all. That it is actually a parable.

One clue that supports that perception is the parable that is found in the ministering angels’ unusual declaration, “God understood his way,” which can be regarded as an allusion to a passage in Job: “But wisdom, where shall it be found? And where is the place of understanding? Man knoweth not the price thereof; neither is it found in the land of the living” (Job 28:12-13).

Although man does not know where wisdom is, “God understandeth the way thereof, and he knoweth the place thereof. For he looketh to the ends of the earth, and seeth under the whole heaven” (Job 28:23-24). Since the sages invariably interpret the word “wisdom” as a reference to the Torah, the midrash can be explained as a parable for man’s search for the Torah.

If the midrash is understood as a parable about man and the Torah, Satan represents man, who is sent by God to find the Torah and to “take” – in the sense of attain – its soul. However, the Torah, which rejects and scoffs at man, is not prepared to stand with him in the same place, and instead angrily rebukes him. For his part, though, God is unwilling to accept such a situation: He bestowed the Torah upon man and therefore sends man out a second time to seek it.

As man discovers when God dispatches him again, however, the Torah is no longer in the same place where it was encountered on man’s previous mission. Man searches the world over for the Torah but is able to uncover only traces and rumors of it; he is unable to discover its exact whereabouts. Finally, he ascends heavenward to question the ministering angels, who inform him that God has taken back the Torah. Man wants to obey God’s commandments but, in man’s eyes, the Almighty prevents him from doing so.

From the standpoint of God, Moses and the Torah, man plays only a marginal role in this narrative, and God does not even bother to inform him that he – God – has found a more expedient way to attain his goal, without any assistance on man’s part.

Man has only one option: to tell his own story and, in his role as one searching for the Torah, to enable God’s rejected messenger – Satan – to once again stand on his own two feet.