The final parsha of the Torah recounts Moshe’s death, and the loss of the greatest leader the Jewish people has ever known. Moshe ascended Har Nevo — where he was shown the Land of Israel by God — never to descend again. Josephus paints the emotional scene:
Amidst the tears of the people, the women beating their breasts and the children giving way to uncontrolled wailing, Moses withdrew. At a certain point in the ascent he made a sign to the weeping multitude to advance no further, taking with him only the elders, the high priest Eleazer, and the general Joshua. At the top of the mountain he dismissed the elders, and then, as he was embracing Eleazer and Joshua, and still speaking to them, a cloud suddenly stood over him, and he vanished in a deep valley.
Inevitably, the time for Moshe to leave this world arrived:
וַיָּמָת שָׁם מֹשֶׁה עֶבֶד־יְה-ה בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב עַל־פִּי יְה-ה׃
So Moses the servant of the LORD died there, in the land of Moab, at the command of the LORD.
This seemingly simple posuk describing the death of the great Moshe Rabbeinu is actually teeming with meaning and poetry. While the phrase “‘עַל־פִּי ה” can certainly mean “at the command of the LORD,” it literally means something more along the lines of “by the mouth of the LORD.” Rashi picks up on this subtle nuance and comments beautifully:
על פי ה'. בנשיקה:
BY THE MOUTH OF THE LORD: With a kiss.
Of course, everyone dies only “at the command of the LORD.” Moshe’s death, however, was unusual in that it was also with “a kiss from God.” Moshe was spared the usual bitterness of death and instead left this earth peacefully and in God’s embrace, so to speak. So it is for the truly righteous, and so it was for Moshe Rabbeinu.
While Rashi’s comment is certainly a moving homiletical reading of the posuk, there is still more going on here. The straightforward reading of the verse is undoubtedly that Moshe died “at the command of the LORD.” In two earlier posukim in Deuteronomy Moshe was told by God about his impending demise:
עֲלֵה אֶל־הַר הָעֲבָרִים הַזֶּה הַר־נְבוֹ אֲשֶׁר בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב אֲשֶׁר עַל־פְּנֵי יְרֵחוֹ וּרְאֵה אֶת־אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לַאֲחֻזָּה׃ וּמֻת בָּהָר אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עֹלֶה שָׁמָּה וְהֵאָסֵף אֶל־עַמֶּיךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר־מֵת אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ בְּהֹר הָהָר וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל־עַמָּיו׃
Ascend these heights of Abarim to Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab facing Jericho, and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving the Israelites as their holding. You shall die on the mountain that you are about to ascend, and shall be gathered to your kin, as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his kin;
It is well known just how strongly Moshe desired to enter into the Land of Israel, but God instructed him against doing so. He was rather to ascend Har Nevo and die there, never entering into the land he spent forty years leading the nation towards. Moshe could have easily — and, indeed, understandably — given in to his burning desire and disobeyed God’s command, rebelled, and attempted to enter the Land of Israel along with the rest of the people. Moshe, of course, did no such thing. The “servant of the Lord,” the posuk emphasizes, “died there, in the land of Moab,” and never did get to enter the Land of Israel as he so hoped and dreamed. As Ibn Ezra (34:5) points out, Moshe was God’s faithful servant until the very end, in that even in his very act of dying he was fulfilling the will of the Master of the Universe. It is for this reason that the posuk emphasizes that Moshe died “at the command of the LORD,” and it is for this reason — Moshe’s blissful acceptance of the Divine will — that he also merited to leave this world “with a kiss.” In the end, one’s attitude, perspective, and resignation to the will of God can turn even death itself into a warm expression of affection from above.