In this week’s parsha, Ha’azinu, we see Moshe’s last words, and we also reach the moment of his death. God reminds him that he is not going to cross over into the Promised Land, but God also tells Moshe that he will allow him a look into that land. In fact, it’s pretty much the last lines of the parsha: “You may view the land from a distance, but you shall not enter it—the Land that I am giving to the Israelite people.”
I don’t know if that’s a blessing or a punishment—to see something that you’ve yearned for your whole life but can’t have. So, I’ll leave it to all of you to decide if God is being compassionate or being just a little bit more spiteful. And God also reminds Moshe of WHY he is not allowed to enter Eretz Israel—along with Aaron, God says, you “both broke faith with me among the Israelite people; at the waters of Meribath-Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin, by failing to uphold My sanctity among the Israelite people.”
I know many of us are bothered by what might seem like an extreme punishment. God is taking from Moshe what had been his very purpose for existence---to reach the Promised Land. How awful for Moshe that must have been! And it’s even more complicated—we know that the Israelites are hardly a perfect people. Yet they are allowed to enter, and Moshe—the awnav, the teacher, the leader—is not. Somehow it just doesn’t seem fair. And all over banging a rock!
I felt that way as well, and struggled with this part of the narrative. I mean, think about it: Cain KILLS HIS BROTHER, and he’s only sent into exile. Why would Moshe not be able to see the fruits of all of his labors? Of more than 40 years of sacrifices for those stiff-necked people? But then, I started to think about this in a different way. I kept thinking about a metaphor of the circle, of the idea that we are commanded to draw big circles, big circles that become the stories of our lives. Not little scribbles but circles so large that we can’t see the entire circle. Circles so large that we just see an arc.
That’s what Moshe did. He is, to use some of the words applied at times to Shimon Peres, a “magnificent failure.” On some level, it makes sense that he doesn’t enter the Land of Milk and Honey because life doesn’t work that way. Life is always—God willing—full of incomplete projects and unfinished tasks. Books not read, trips not taken, plans not completed, great great great grandchildren we’ll never meet. But that doesn’t mean that we have not accomplished great things in our lives. In fact, if we stop, if we are “complete,” then we have nothing to look forward to. If we stop moving, then we stop yearning, we stop striving for more.
Moshe DID accomplish his life’s mission—he led the Jewish people back to their homeland. He sees it from a distance, so he knows what they will likely experience. He has blessed Joshua, and given him responsibility for this next stage in Jewish history. So, in part, this is a narrative about passing on the baton to new leadership and to new generations. Every good leader needs a succession plan, and Moshe—with God’s help—has found one. But Ha’azinu, like everything else in the Torah, is also a more universal story, a story that speaks to all of us, not just leaders. Ha’azinu tells us that we can take pride in our accomplishments, take pride in living our life passionately and with principle, even if we pass from this earth with our missions incomplete. Let us pray that we can all be “magnificent failures.”
Rabbi David Grossman
Rabbi Joshua Grossman