When the time came for Moses to end his earthly sojourn, the Torah set out his final instructions:

“The L‑rd spoke to Moses on that very day, saying: Ascend Mount Avarim [to] Mount Nebo and die on the mountain…”1

What do the words “on that very day” imply?

Rashi compares this verse with two previous cases where the same phrase is used.

The first is when the Torah says that Noah entered the ark “on that very day.”2 In that case, the people around Noah had vowed to forcibly stop him from entering the ark, and even hack it to pieces, so as to prevent the flood from occurring. Therefore, G‑d instructed Noah to enter the ark “in the glare of full daylight,” as if to challenge anyone to try to intervene.

The second occasion when the phrase “on that very day” is used is when the Israelites left Egypt.3 Here too, many Egyptians swore they would prevent the Israelites from leaving through the use of weapons. In response, G‑d had them leave “in the middle of the day,” daring anyone to try and stand in their way.

Similarly, in our case, Rashi interprets “on that very day” to mean “the middle of the day.” He explains that it intends to convey that Moses was to end his life that day, whether the people liked it or not, for when the Israelites heard of Moses’ impending death, many of them declared that they would not let it happen.

They protested: “The man who brought us out of Egypt, divided the Red Sea for us, brought the manna down for us, made flocks of quails fly over to us, brought up the well for us, and gave us the Torah – we will not let him (go to his final resting place)!”4

Thus, G‑d instructed Moses to ascend the mountain “in the middle of the day,” making it clear that they had no power over what would happen.

What Were They Thinking?

While Rashi’s explanation provides a reason for the words “on that very day,” it also creates several difficulties. Most significantly, how could the Israelites imagine that they could prevent Moses’ death? G‑d is the ultimate Giver of Life, and there is no way a human being can prevent another from passing away! While Noah’s peers or the Egyptians opposed to the Exodus could have attempted to use force to achieve their goal, there was really nothing anyone could have done to prevent Moses from dying if G‑d were to take back his soul.

It is also difficult to understand what Rashi gains by telling us about the other two situations where the phrase “on this very day” is used. When he gives his explanation about Noah entering the ark, he does not delineate the other two occasions where this phrase is used. Why now, on its third appearance, does Rashi decide to elaborate so extensively?5

Righteous Indignation

The Rebbe explained that the reason for the more detailed and complex commentary from Rashi is because Rashi is actually aware of the inherent problem posed by the text. While the words “on that very day” are clearly superfluous and suggest that G‑d specifically intended that Moses’ passing would happen in the middle of the day – this explanation is highly problematic. In the two other cases – opponents of Noah and of the Exodus – we can assume that those trying to intervene were wicked people who had no problem opposing the will of G‑d. By contrast, the Israelites at the time of Moses’ passing could be assumed to be righteous. Why would we think that they would so overtly seek to contravene the Almighty’s plan?

Given that it is counterintuitive that the Israelites would have sought to oppose a clear Divine instruction, Rashi felt compelled to begin by sharing precedent for his understanding.

But how would the Israelites have thought it possible to prevent Moses’ death? Rashi doesn’t spell it out, as a closer look at the Biblical text makes it obvious. Moses is told to ascend the mountain and he was to breathe his last breath once he reached the place of his eventual burial. Moses could not die until he arrived at the designated spot. So, all the Israelites would have had to do to prevent (or at least delay) Moses’ death was to block his ascent up the mountain.

Nevertheless, this still begs the question: Why would the righteous Israelites even contemplate defying G‑d?

A Targeted Instruction

Rashi explains that the Israelites felt great loyalty to Moses for all he had done for them. They felt it was their duty not to abandon “The man who brought us out of Egypt, divided the Red Sea for us, brought the manna down for us, made flocks of quails fly over to us, brought up the well for us, and gave us the Torah.” Judaism attaches great importance to the virtue of gratitude, so the Israelites felt justified in displaying their gratitude towards Moses.

While gratitude is indeed an important virtue, it still seems hard to accept that any Israelite would imagine that this gives them the right to act in direct conflict with the expressed will of G‑d. After all, had G‑d not explicitly instructed Moses that he was to ascend the mountain?

But that is precisely the point! Moses alone was instructed to go up the mountain. By objecting, they were not going against any instruction that they had been given by G‑d. Rashi hints at this when he cites, “G‑d spoke to Moses.” It was Moses who was told it was time for him to die; as far as the Israelites were concerned that was none of their business.

We have here an important lesson about the importance of gratitude, one of Judaism’s core values. When people help us or show us kindness, showing appreciation should be our top priority. We should look around at all the people who continue to make important contributions to our lives, and ask ourselves: When was the last time I told them how much I appreciate all they do for me?

Adapted from Likutei Sichot, vol. 19, Parshat Ha’azinu II.