Kiss of Death

Midrash explains how Moses could be happy with dying.

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Another D'rash

A Yiddish proverb states that "even in dying, you need mazel (luck)."

One man dies at the ripe old age of 91; a teenager is killed in a car crash at 17.

A woman lies down in bed at night and peacefully passes away in her sleep; another woman suffers for years through cancer, heart disease, and kidney failure before finally succumbing in agony.

One man's funeral takes place during a ferocious blizzard, and no one but a few immediate family members attend the service; a woman's funeral is held on a glorious Sunday in the fall and hundreds pack the chapel.

A saintly nun in India who has tended to the poor passes away five days after the sudden death of a glamorous British princess, and a lifetime of good work is almost for­gotten in the media frenzy.

Even in dying, you need mazel.

As Moses approaches the end of his life, he thinks back on his brother Aaron and remarks, "Happy is one who dies that kind of death. How lucky he was: his family by his side, his people there to show their love, and the final moment coming painlessly, with a kiss from God. I wish I had the mazel of such a death."

The irony is that throughout their lives, it was probably Aaron who was envious of Moses. "I wish I had the mazel of his life," Aaron may have said to himself on a hun­dred occasions. Aaron was the older brother--yet Moses became the more famous of the two, the one whose name would go down in history: Moses the Liberator, Moses the Law-Giver. People would even question Aaron's supporting role: "The only reason that he became Kohen Gadol, High Priest, is nepotism! He got the job because of who his brother was!"

Aaron was brought up in slavery; Moses was raised as the son of privi­lege in the house of Pharaoh's daughter. Aaron was supposed to be the religious author­ity, yet God chose to speak only to Moses. Moses abandoned the people for 40 days, leaving Aaron to deal with the panic and a riot, and then when he returned, Moses blamed Aaron for allowing the construction of the Golden Calf. Moses got to see the Promised Land; Aaron did not. Moses' children outlived him; Aaron had to bury two of his children, who died tragically.

An individual has very little control over death. It is not in our hands how we die, or when. As the Yiddish proverb reminds us, dying is a matter of luck--or perhaps more correctly, a matter for God. What we do have some control over is how we live. Moses should have learned a lesson from his older brother. Instead of envying Aaron for his death, Moses should have realized, at the end of his life, how fortunate, how lucky, how blessed he had been. The proverb that he should have spoken, that all of us need to keep on our lips, is: "Happy is the one who lived this kind of life!"

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Gershon Schwartz was the rabbi of Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, Penn., from 2000-2003. He co-authored Swimming in the Sea of Talmud: Lessons for Everyday Living.

Rabbi Michael Katz

Michael Katz is the rabbi of Temple Beth Torah in Westbury, N.Y. He is the author of The Rabbi's Wife.