At an earlier time in my life, before becoming an observant Jew, I read a remarkable French novel called Les Miserables, a masterful and hugely inspiring story of repentance.

Written by Victor Hugo in the 19th century, and regarded by many as one of the great works of Western literature, Les Miserables traces the life of Jean Valjean, who as a young man is apprehended while stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, and is subsequently imprisoned in a brutally repressive jail for some 19 years.

I was profoundly affected by this book.

Over the period of his captivity, Valjean is transformed from a gentle, compassionate individual into a brooding, malevolent criminal who burns inside with a deep hatred for a society and a criminal-justice system that have caused him so much hardship and misfortune. Emerging from prison a very dangerous individual, a man with a blackened reputation that foreshadows a life of antisocial activity, Valjean encounters an enlightened spirit, who through an act of great self-sacrifice and love helps Valjean rekindle his essential spark of decency, setting him on a new humanitarian path to rectify the misery and suffering of the unfortunate victims of French provincial society.

I was profoundly affected by this book. For some reason unknown to me at the time, I identified strongly with the character of Jean Valjean, and his dramatic transformation sparked something of a spiritual awakening within me. As I read on, my spirits soared with every new selfless deed, with every act of self-sacrifice and with every random expression of kindness Valjean bestowed upon the people in his world. However, those of you who are familiar with the story will recall that, true to its name, the book concludes in a most miserable fashion. Profoundly ashamed of his earlier misdeeds, Valjean elects to separate himself from his adopted daughter, Cosette, and her husband, Marius, lest they be contaminated somehow by the horrors of his criminal past. Filled with remorse, he lives his last few years in isolation and ignominy, and in so doing chooses to deny the passage to his children of his rich spiritual legacy. For Valjean, death is indeed final. Cold, empty, the concluding chapter of an at times glorious life, now utterly forgotten.

I identified strongly with the character of Jean Valjean, and his dramatic transformation sparked something of a spiritual awakening within me.

This astonishingly cold and miserable end for Valjean left me with the unresolved questions: Is repentance (teshuvah) a sustainable phenomenon? How can one maintain one’s commitment to the fulfillment of a higher purpose in the face of smothering mundanity? And if yes, can my own experience of personal transformation be transmitted to others?

Jewish people will soon be celebrating the festival of Purim. The story of Esther, which chronicles the Purim drama, is well known to most of us. The weak-minded king of Persia, under the influence of the evil Haman, issues a kingdom-wide decree that on the 13th day of the Hebrew month of Adar in the year that follows, all the people of his kingdom have unbridled license to kill Jews, men, women and children. Through this decree, Haman hoped that the entire Jewish people would be wiped out in a single day. Haman chose this particular day by casting a lot, and he was overjoyed when the lot fell out in Adar, because he knew that this was the month in which the Jews’ great leader, Moses, had passed away. This, reasoned Haman, was an excellent sign that his plan would be successful. Unbeknownst to Haman, however, Moses was born on the same day that he died, the 7th day of Adar, and according to our sages, “the act of his birth canceled out the act of his death.”

Through this decree, Haman hoped that the entire Jewish people would be wiped out in a single day.

How can we understand this aphorism of the sages?

Perhaps the answer lies in recognizing that Moses’ life can be understood in two dimensions. First, there was Moses the man, who traversed our material plane. The individual, born into slavery, who was miraculously saved by the daughter of Pharaoh, and who was raised in the home of the same tyrant who was hell-bent on exploiting and crushing Moses’ people. The individual who escaped from Egypt, married, had children, and ultimately returned to lead his people to freedom. The individual who then tended to the needs of the children of Israel for 40 tumultuous years, and who was ultimately denied passage into the land of Israel, confined to an unknown burial place on the eastern side of the Jordan River. This Moses, the individual, lived for 120 years—great and glorious years though they were—and then he died and disappeared, seemingly forever.

Within the same being, entwined with this human dimension, however, there is Moses, the servant of G‑d. When we encounter this facet of Moses, we no longer see an individual, but rather G‑d’s consummate representative on earth. In this dimension, Moses the individual, is totally nullified to his G‑dly mission, and in this capacity he executes what was previously thought to be impossible and unthinkable. He breaks the seemingly inexorable boundary between the spiritual and physical realms, and in the unparalleled revelation at Sinai he literally escorts the infinite divine presence into the confined limitations of time and space. As the quintessential servant of G‑d, Moses is privileged to be the purveyor to all of humanity of G‑d’s blueprint for the world, Torah, a wisdom which is at once clothed in the language and experiences of this finite physical world and concomitantly embodies an existential truth which is limitless and eternal.

Moses is privileged to be the purveyor to all of humanity . . .

Here lies the answer to the question that I was wrestling with, and the reason why Les Miserables was merely a stepping stone to an incomparably higher truth.

Valjean, the mythical hero, lived life solely as a vulnerable human, who embraced personal transformation with nothing more than well-intentioned aspirations and personal experience. His life reflected the human, individual dimension only, and while his repentance was poignant, his legacy was ultimately non-transferable. Remorse alone is not a sustainable spiritual compass, and his death ultimately extinguished his birth.

Moses, by way of distinction—the great and very real hero of the Scriptures—was in the final analysis, a conduit for a state of existence which transcends death. His mission outlives his life, and he thereby lives on with it: the clear and pure intermediary whose job is to bring G‑d and the Jewish people into communion, forever. And the fact that over three thousand years later, we continue to dedicate ourselves to the timeless principles which Moses conveyed, underscores the ultimate truth of Moses’ continuing existence.

His death was extinguished by his birth!