Imitating God

Parashat Vezot ha'Brachah (Deuteronomy 33:1-34:12) 

A fundamental concept within Judaism is that we are to imitate God in certain ways. This concept is known as imitatio Dei, or imitation of the Divine. We can see this pattern in several places in the Scriptures, but one of the most explicit is Leviticus 19:2. It says, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” We imitate Hashem’s holiness, His uniqueness, when we imitate His deeds. 

For example, we read about God clothing Adam and Eve in their nakedness. Just as God clothes the naked, so should we give clothes to those who need them. We see the LORD sending three angels to visit Abraham immediately after his circumcision (Genesis 17–18). Just as God visits the sick, so should his children visit those who are ill. Just as Hashem watches over the orphan, the widow, and the sojourner, we are to do likewise (Deuteronomy 10:18–19).

Just as Hashem ceased from His own labors and rested on the Sabbath, we are to do likewise (Exodus 20:10–11). This week’s parashah gives us another insight into how we can imitate God.

When it was time for Moses to take his final retirement, God was compassionate toward Moses. When Moses died, Hashem took the responsibility to bury him:

So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD, and he buried him in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth-peor; but no one knows the place of his burial to this day. (Deuteronomy 34:5–6)

The Torah says that Moses died “according to the word of the LORD” (v. 5). However, the Hebrew literally says that he died “by the mouth of the LORD,” al pi Hashem. Our sages tell us that, because God had such a close relationship with Moses, He had compassion on Moses and granted him a gentle death. The soul of Moses passed from this world into the next with a gentle kiss from the Almighty. Once He had received the soul of Moses, God took the responsibility upon Himself to bury his body as one final act of kindness to His beloved servant.

The Hebrew phrase, gemilut chasidim, means the bestowal of lovingkindness. A person can participate in gemilut chasidim in many ways. Giving to charity is one way. An act of service is another. According to Jewish thought, however, the greatest act of lovingkindness a person can participate in is taking care of the dead. Why? Because it is a kindness that can never be repaid. All of the other acts of kindness have the potential to eventually be repaid by the one receiving the kindness. The dead, however, have no means by which they can repay the deed. Moses potentially could have attempted to repay all of the other acts of kindness that Hashem bestowed upon him during his lifetime. Even if Moses could never have successfully repayed the LORD, there was always a possibility of doing something for the LORD during his lifetime. Once Moses left this life, however, he had no capacity to repay anyone. 

When we take care of the deceased, we imitate God. While a person is living, they have the capacity to repay our kindness in some measure. However, when their soul departs and returns to its Creator, the body is left without any capacity for repayment. Whatever deeds that are done for him at this point are done purely out of love, without the thought of whether or not the deed will be repaid. Yeshua taught his disciples this principle in a different context:

When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just. (Luke 14:12–14)

Yeshua’s teachings are based on Proverbs 19:17, which says, “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed.” It is easy to bless our friends and those who are able to show their appreciation for our deeds. But when we do things for others who are unable to “return the favor,” not only are we taking to heart the words of our Master and imitating our Creator, but we are also bringing Heaven down to earth; we are building the Kingdom of Yeshua. May the Kingdom of our Messiah be established in our day through the selfless deeds of his disciples towards others.