Thursday, October 08, 2009

Were Moshe's eyes not dim before or after his death?

In veZos Habracha:

ז וּמֹשֶׁה, בֶּן-מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה--בְּמֹתוֹ; לֹא-כָהֲתָה עֵינוֹ, וְלֹא-נָס לֵחֹה. 7 And Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died: his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated.

Pashut peshat
is certainly that until the end, at the advanced age of 120, Moshe's natural force had not abated and his eye was not dim. But of course not that after death these things did not happen.

But Rashi says otherwise:
His eye had not dimmed: Even after he died. — [see Sifrei 33:36] לא כהתה עינו: אף משמת:
nor had he lost his [natural] freshness: [The word לֵחֹה refers to his [body’s] moisture. [Thus, the phrase means:] “[Even after his death,] decomposition did not take over his body, nor did the appearance of his face change.” ולא נס לחה: לחלוחית שבו לא שלט בו רקבון ולא נהפך תואר פניו:

Thus, after his death, his eyes did not dim and, as לחה refers to his moisture, decomposition did not set in. See Sifrei here.

I would suggest that this midrash comes out of the pasuk. Either by simple reparse of בְּמֹתוֹ לֹא-כָהֲתָה עֵינוֹ, וְלֹא-נָס לֵחֹה, such that in his death these things did not happen; or else by reinterpretation of the pasuk, that he was this old when he died, and at that point, in his death, this did not happen subsequently. I prefer the former.

Does Rashi really intend this as peshat?! The "problem" with this is that Rashi says something very different in an earlier parsha, in parshat Vayeilech. On the pasuk,

ב וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, בֶּן-מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה אָנֹכִי הַיּוֹם--לֹא-אוּכַל עוֹד, לָצֵאת וְלָבוֹא; וַיהוָה אָמַר אֵלַי, לֹא תַעֲבֹר אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּה.2 And he said unto them: 'I am a hundred and twenty years old this day; I can no more go out and come in; and the LORD hath said unto me: Thou shalt not go over this Jordan.

he writes:

Moses went…I can no longer go or come: One might think [this means] that Moses’ strength had ebbed [and that is why he could no longer go or come]. Scripture [however] states [regarding Moses], “His eye had not dimmed, nor had he lost his [natural] moisture” (Deut. 34:7) [which teaches us that his powers were intact even on the day of his passing]. So what then is [the meaning of] “I can no longer”? [Here it means:] “I am not permitted,” because authority was taken from him and granted to Joshua. וילך משה וגו', לא אוכל עוד לצאת ולבא : יכול שתשש כחו, תלמוד לומר (דברים לד, ז) לא כהתה עינו ולא נס לחה. אלא מהו לא אוכל, איני רשאי שנטלה ממני הרשות ונתנה ליהושע. דבר אחר, לצאת ולבא בדברי תורה, מלמד שנסתמו ממנו מסורות ומעינות החכמה:

Thus, that pasuk in Vayelech cannot mean that he did not possess physical strength, for we see later in vezos habrachah that he possessed it.

But how could Rashi say this? Doesn't the pasuk not refer to physical strength, but to moisture and lack of decomposition? And doesn't it mean that his eye did not dim after death, and not that while in life his eye dimmed a bit?

I think there are a few plausible answers.

First, the statement of Rashi in Vayelech is drawn from Sotah 13b:
I can no more go out and come in — what means 'go out and come in'? If it is to be understood literally, behold it is written: And Moses was an hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated; it is also written: And Moses went up from the plains of Moab unto mount Nebo; and it has been taught: Twelve steps were there, but Moses mounted them in one stride! — R. Samuel b. Nahmani said in the name of R. Jonathan: [It means] to 'go out and come in' with words of Torah, thus indicating that the gates of wisdom were closed against him.
And there, the pasuk in Vezos HaBrachah was but one prooftext out of two. Rashi was summarizing, but subscribes to the conclusion.

A related idea: Rashi is interested in the conclusion, but does not pay too much attention to how he gets there. Thus, that a prooftext from one midrash he uses conflicts with another midrash he uses does not really concern him.

Alternatively, Rashi's interest is not solely peshat, even though people take his statement לא באתי אלא לפשוטו של מקרא ולאגדה המישבת דברי המקרא דבר דבור על אופניו too far, well past how he intended it. Of course he knows that on a peshat level, it refers to physical strength. But Rashi knows (or wrongly assumed) that his readers would know that meaning without his needing to explicitly tell them. He is coming to tell them an additional traditional explanation, and one that fits in well with the theme of the specialness of Moshe's death and burial.

Alternatively, perhaps both are true. As a kal vachomer: if after his death this didn't happen, then surely before his death! Of course, this kal vachomer has a pircha, in that the terms mean different things in life and in death. Or as multiple levels to the text: either as peshat and derash, or multiple meanings within peshat.

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