Va’etchanan is my favorite parashah in the Torah. The inclusion of both the Shema and the Ten Commandments in the same portion provides the basic text material for any study of the essentials of Judaism. For me, though, I remain stuck on the first paragraph. Moses pleads with God to allow him to enter the promised land, and his entreaty is denied. “Enough! Never speak to Me again of this matter!” God replies. By relaying this personal discussion with God to the people in the most public of ways, a major address before the whole people assembled, and preserved forever in the very text of the Torah, Moses has clearly not dropped the issue. And how could he have? Moses has devoted his life, at the cost of so much personal happiness, to the service of his people and his God, to bring the people to the promised land. Now, at the end of the journey, he asks only to cross over the river so that he may briefly enjoy the fruit of his labors before he dies. Why does God refuse to grant his wish?
The commentaries have addressed this question through the generations. The standard understanding is that Moses is not permitted to complete the journey because of an earlier incident where he failed to invoke God’s name before drawing water from a rock. The people were rebelling when there was no water, and Moses called upon the rock to bring forth water. God provided — if not Moses would have been stoned to death — but was not pleased with Moses’ action. Moses should have called upon God to bring water from the rock rather than directly commanding the rock, as if Moses himself were the source of power. While strongly rooted in textual tradition, this solution has never satisfied me. Although Moses was wrong in not invoking God’s name at that incident, why would God not be forgiving of Moses? Certainly we have all acted in certain ways in stressful situations that we later regret. And when have we been accosted by an angry mob? And what of all the merit that Moses had earned, why cannot all his good work counterbalance this one mistake? Why is God not more understanding? Is not God supposed to be a model for us in how to treat others? That is, if we were God in that situation, shouldn’t we forgive Moses?
There are other explanations for why Moses cannot enter the land, some pointing to other mistakes or sins he committed. He killed an Egyptian. He did not want to accept God’s mission. The midrash contains dozens of reasons for God’s refusal to Moses. The very existence of so many explanations reveals not a heavy indictment against Moses’ worthiness, but rather desperation on the part of the commentators to explain what is so inexplicable, why Moses could not enter the land.
In the Torah itself, God’s refusal of Moses is stark and abrupt, and is meant to be so. Any list of reasons misses the point. A way to understand God’s refusal to allow Moses to fulfill his life’s work is to see it as a demonstration of human nature, as pedagogic rather than vindictive. Rather than God punishing Moses, the story is a metaphor about the frustration of not fulfilling all our dreams. The Torah is teaching us here that we will generally fail to complete everything that we set out to do in life. This is the great frustration of mortality. There will always be more things to do than can be done. Our lives will end when they do, and there is nothing that we can do about that. I am reminded of the sage Rabbi Tarfon’s teaching in Pirkei Avot: “It is not upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to neglect it.” Even Moses could not complete the task that he set out to perform, to bring the Israelites from slavery to freedom in the promised land. If Moses had to die with unfinished business on the table, then so can we. There will always be unfinished business, as we know from all stages of life. The lesson for us is to fulfill mitzvot, to do what must be done, and take solace not always in the job completed but in the job well done to the best of our abilities. There are always unrealized dreams. What is important is that we dream our dreams and follow them in the right directions. Moses worked hard for God and the people. He should have felt good about his labors. That solace was his promised land. It is a land of milk and honey available to us all.