This week we begin the last book of the Torah, Devarim, where we read Moshe’s speech to the Jewish people. That speech will take up pretty much the rest of the Torah. It’s rather ironic, considering that Moshe has always claimed to be a man of few words. But he feels a sense of urgency—he knows that he will not be there to instruct the Israelites about how they should conduct themselves, once they’re in Eretz Israel. Moshe knows that God will not allow him to enter the Promised Land. I think we all understand that Moshe has good reason for this urgency. The Israelites have repeatedly demonstrated a lack of faith, even when they have had Moshe’s instructions and one miracle after another. How can Moshe have any confidence that they will live a Torah-based life when he is no longer around to lead them, and God no longer provides them with everything they need to survive? Miracles will cease, and hard reality will set in. How will they meet that challenge?
I think we know the usual explanations for God’s refusal to allow Moses to enter Eretz Israel. Most scholars cite the fact that Moshe struck the rock when he was supposed to speak to it. So, his sin was disobedience. And others cite Moshe’s WORDS just before he struck the rock as the reason. Just before striking it, he exclaims: “Listen now, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” Commentators note that that little word “WE” seems to imply that Moshe, along with Aaron, is taking credit for the water and not giving it to God, who is the TRUE source of the miracle.
There are even some who argue that Moshe’s failure to reach the Promised Land is NOT a punishment. For example, many commentators (including Lord Rabbi Jonathon Sacks, z’l) offer a very practical reason for Moshe’s remaining behind: they say that Moshe’s style of leadership was wrong for the new generation of Jews, and that it was important for him to step aside so that Joshua could lead without being in the shadow of Moshe. I also found another argument about why Moshe doesn’t make it to Eretz Israel. A website called “Reconstructionist Judaism” maintains that Moshe’s failure was NOT a punishment but rather a life lesson for all of us. Here’s a short passage from that site:
Moses is a perfect representation of the regrets we all have at things we have not completed. Moses alone speaks to us as we envision him in his last moments, gazing at the never-to-be-attained. The image is poignant and understandable. Moses didn't fail to reach the Promised Land because of a punishment inflicted on him. He failed—if can be called a failure—because he was human. We are all Moses at our best, striving, going forward, hoping for but never attaining perfection.
I’m not sure which—if any—of these reasons might help to account for Moshe’s failure. Perhaps we don’t even have to choose among these alternative explanations. Each has merit. But—bottom line—there is no question that our ancestors were imperfect—we don’t have Jewish saints—and we are imperfect as well. Moshe behaves as we would probably behave, were we in the same situation. He is disappointed. He even asks God to change His mind and allow him to enter the Promised Land. Like us, Moshe doesn’t have control over when his projects end, when we can no longer achieve our aspirations. We know that Moshe does see the future—from a vantage point that God allows him, Moshe DOES see Eretz Israel. Is that enough? Is that enough for any of us? We just can’t know.
Even without that knowledge, though, I think we can all agree on the importance of dreams. Moshe was a man of dreams and aspirations. Without dreams, we have no hope. With dreams, we can always imagine something better, both for ourselves and for B’nai Israel. And perhaps, like Moses, our dreams are powerful enough to inspire another generation.