This week a woman was sharing her spiritual journey when she said, “I don’t want to die. There is more for me to do.” She had lived a long life and has a loving and devoted family. She was not sure exactly what she had to do, but she knew there was more. She then explored what was important to her as she tried to figure out what she wanted and needed to “do.” Ever since a recent movie, seemingly more and more people are making lists of things that they want to accomplish before they die.
We might imagine that when Moses hears God’s words in the opening lines of chapter 31 in the book of Numbers that he is in a similar situation. Perhaps he is working with God on a list of what he needs to accomplish before his journey is over. The text affirms, “God spoke to Moses, saying: Avenge the People of Israel of the Midianites; afterward, you will be gathered unto your people.” The Midianites are Moses’ unfinished business. He knows that he is not going to lead the people into the Promised Land. This is the first time when God tells him his earthly mission with God is almost done. In Midrash Ylamdeinu, a ninth-century commentary, Moses shares his struggle with hearing this news.
Moses began to engage God regarding his impending death, but God was not swayed. Moses said to God, “Am I deserving of death for I have seen your ways, your deeds, and your paths? As it says, ‘I will not die, but live and tell of God’s deeds.'” (Psalms 118:17) God responds to Moses and says to him, “Moses, if long life was good for humanity, I would never have caused your ancestors to have had the experience of death. Rather, return to the earth is better for you than anything else, as it says, ‘Dear in the eyes of God is the death of the righteous.'” (Psalms 116:15) And Moses was not satisfied and accepting of God’s answer until God shared with him two things. God said to Moses, “If you want to live many years or a thousand years, Israel will not confront its enemies and Midian will not be defeated.” Immediately Moses was convinced and he said, “Whether today or tomorrow we will all die someday. As it says, ‘A worker’s sleep is sweet, whether he has much or little to eat.'” And Moses says, “Better Israel confronts its enemies and Midian be appropriately addressed.”
According to this Midrash, like many of us, Moses is wrestling with the end of his life and does not want to die. We can view his taking on the Midianites figuratively as a way of confronting and resolving the larger unresolved issues that exist in our lives before it is too late. The message from God, via Moses, to us then is that we must find a way to address our emotional and spiritual needs so that we can create peace within ourselves, our families, and our communities. It is essential that we engage in this important work in a peaceful and constructive fashion.
There are many ways to begin the effort of bringing harmony at the end of life. The counsel of a chaplain, rabbi, or social worker may be helpful. Outside assistance is important since there seem to be two noteworthy and challenging trends that we have noticed when people make these “bucket lists.” Many of the items on the list are activities to do and are not connected to the significant relationships in the person’s life. They might not even plan to include their loved ones in the activities on their list. They tend not to include repairing broken relationships or sharing learned wisdom and lessons with loved ones, things that will also directly touch other people’s lives. Additionally, a large number of the items on the list are left unfulfilled. These observations are not meant as judgments, rather they are meant to enrich other people’s experiences. If we are making a list, we start with what is important to us and move to what we would enjoy as we consider whom we would like to include in these activities. We need to explore the many facets and relationships in our lives. We can find things that would bring meaning and joy and things that could help a fellow human being. We could work for others and God by adding more mitzvot to our lives. It is never too late to try to reconcile with loved ones and friends or to seek to live in a different way. We might wish to compose an ethical will as a way of leaving a special gift to our loved ones. An ethical will is a way to share our love, blessings, and wisdom. We all have special gifts and wisdom to share.
There was a person who, before we met him, had made a “bucket list” of 10 things to do. He had not done any of the items on the list when he came onto his hospice program and by that time, he could potentially do only two. Despite the hospice team’s best efforts, he had never done anything on his list. Yet, what he was able to accomplish in that short time was amazing. Like Moses, he seemed to have one more thing he had to do before he died. He had been estranged from his children and he reached out to reconcile with them. This act of courage helped him and his family to have a chance at forgiveness and closure
The more we can reconcile, restore, renew, and create peace of mind when we come toward the end of our lives, if we have the gift of time at the end, we can truly be like the ancestors of our people’s past whose lives did not simply end. Instead, they were “gathered unto the people” and continue to live in our memories today.