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31.07.2017 11:17    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parasha  vaetchanan  

Moses’ Request to Enter the Land of Israel

When the Israelites reached Kadesh in the Wilderness of Zin, in the month of Nisan in the fortieth year after the exodus from Egypt, only a few of those who had left Egypt, over age 60, remained alive, among them the three leaders—Moses, Aaron and Miriam.  In that year, on the 15th of Nisan, Miriam died and the people were left without water.  The people complained and the Lord instructed Moses and Aaron to take a staff and, before the entire community, to speak to the rock to get water out of it for all the people.

According to the midrash, a discussion took place between Moses and the people, at the end of which Moses in his anger called the people rebels and struck the rock in order to get water out of it.  The Lord was angry at the two leaders who had not carried out his instructions verbatim, thus failing to sanctify Him as would have been done had they merely spoken to the rock.

The punishment decreed on the two leaders was:  “therefore [Heb. lakhen] you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them” (Num. 20:12).  Hizkuni interprets the word lakhen as indicating an oath, as the Torah says explicitly in Deuteronomy (1:38):  “Now the Lord was angry with me on your account and swore that I should not cross the Jordan” (Deut. 4:21).  Joshua son of Nun was delegated as the leader chosen who would bring them to the Land of Israel west of the Jordan River (Deut. 3:28).

In the fortieth year after the exodus from Egypt, on the first of Ab, Aaron died on Mount Hor.  He, like Miriam, did not get to enter the Land of Israel (Num. 33:38).

Moses dearly wished to enter the Promised Land and therefore asked the Lord to bestow on him the gift of letting him cross the Jordan River.  He did not ask to be forgiven by virtue of the commandments he had observed throughout his life, for two reasons:  1)  It is unbefitting to serve one’s Rabbi in order to get a reward; 2) as Rabbi Johanan says in the midrash:  “Hence you learn no creature has any claim on his Creator, because Moses, the teacher of all the prophets, made use only of tahanunim [i.e., praying as one who asks for grace]” (Deuteronomy Rabbah, Va-Etchanan 1).  In other words, the Lord supplies every person’s needs, and therefore He does not “owe” anything to anyone.

Moses also did not ask to be forgiven on account of the good deeds he would perform in the land of Israel, such as the commandments associated with the land.  Therefore Moses was asking a gift of the Lord, gratis.  Below we present several of the arguments that appear in various commentaries, supporting compliance with Moses’ request:

Rabbi Simlai expounded:  Why did Moses our teacher yearn to enter the land of Israel?  Did he want to eat of its fruits or satisfy himself from its bounty?  But thus spake Moses, “Many precepts were commanded to Israel which can only be fulfilled in the land of Israel.  I wish to enter the land so that they may all be fulfilled by me.” (Sotah 14a)[1]

Tractate Makot presents a different view:

If someone was convicted by a court in the Land of Israel and he flees abroad, his sentence is not set aside; but if he flees from abroad to the Land of Israel, his sentence is set aside, on account of the prerogative of the Land of Israel.

Rashi explains that the virtues and qualities of the land of Israel might stand Moses in good stead to cancel the decree even if he entered the land as one of the people and not as its leader, for it had been decreed that Joshua be the leader.[2]

When it says, “I pleaded with the Lord at that time, saying,” what is signified by emphasizing “at that time”?  Moses thought that when the Lord said to him and Aaron, “therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land” (Num. 20:12), He meant:  You will not be the leaders of the people when they enter the Land of Israel.  Since Aaron had already died and Joshua had been designated as the one who would bring them into the land, it was conceivable that the Lord would cancel his sentence and let him come into the land as a private individual.  One might also presume that since the Lord had said “You shall not lead” in the plural, these words meant that Moses and Aaron together would not lead them in.  Since Aaron had died by then, it might be possible for the Lord to comply with Moses’ request, “Let me, I pray, cross over.”

Various commentators have attempted to answer the question why Moses’ petition was not granted.  Sforno explains (on Deut. 3:26):

Let me, I pray, cross over—in order to wipe out all the inhabitants of Canaan, so that the Israelites not be exiled from there.  And see the good land—let me set my eyes on it to confer on it good with my blessing, that it be good to Israel forever.  But the Lord was wrathful with me on your account—because I longed to assure your continued existence there, that you never be exiled from it, but He had already sworn to scatter your seed among the nations.

Ha`amek Davar interprets “But the Lord was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me” as follows:[3]On your account—not because of you, but so as to benefit you, for the good of the people.”  Complying with Moses’ request might harm the good of the entire people, and the good of the people was paramount over Moses’ good, even though it may have been unclear at the moment what “the good of the people” meant here.  In time, however everyone would understand.  Moses, who all his life had fought for the good of the people, sometimes even by arguing with the Lord, accepted his sentence with understanding.

Yalkut Meir `al ha-Torah[4] contains a list of explanations answering the question we have raised.  Here we present several of them:  1) The Lord splits hairs with the righteous, punishing them even for trifling sins and for inadvertent trespasses, which for them are considered deliberate because they recognize the greatness of the Lord and hence their punishment is more severe;  2) To teach the people that whoever talks disparagingly of the people of Israel is roundly punished.  If Moses was punished so severely, all the more so will leaders or other people be severely punished; 3) Had Moses entered the land and built the Temple, the hand of the enemy would not have gained supremacy there (in the Temple), and thus the people of Israel would have met their end in their sinfulness, for the Lord would not pour out his wrath on trees and stones, rather, on the people.

A different and unique approach explaining the refusal of the Holy One, blessed be He, to grant Moses’ request, is presented by Rabbi Avigdor Ha-Levi Nebenzahl.[5] The Sages say that Moses said 515 prayers,[6] equal to the value of the word va-etchanan in gematria, in the hope that the decree against him would be commuted.  He began his petition with the words, “At that time”—explained by Rashi:  after he had conquered Sihon and Og, on the 15thof Ab, because that was the day on which the Israelites ceased dying in the wilderness.  It was then, as well, that Moses found out he would not enter the land, and therefore he began to pray.  It was not until his last prayer that the Lord said to Moses:  “Enough!  Never speak to Me of this matter again!” (Deut. 3:26).  Why just then?  Further, why did the Lord object to Moses continuing to pray, and why had Moses prefaced his prayer, saying, “You, who let Your servant see the first works of Your greatness”?

Rabbi Nebenzahl says the key to understanding the matter lies in what Moses himself said.  Moses used the root `-b-r, saying e`ebra na ve-er’eh, “let me cross over and see,” not k-n-s (= to enter), as in “let me enter and see.”  Why did he choose this word?  Moses understood that after so many petitions that had not been answered, another regular prayer would not succeed, because tefillah, prayer, in gematria also has the value 515, and he had already exhausted the maximum number of prayers.  Moses said to himself, “I shall use a special prayer—the thirteen attributes—one which the Holy One, blessed be He, must accept,” as the gemara says:[7] “a covenant has been made with the thirteen attributes that they will not be turned away empty-handed.”

In line with this, Rabbi Nebenzahl explains, when Moses said, “let me cross over,” he was referring to the verse, “The Lord passed (va-ya`avor—same Hebrew root as e`ebra) before him and proclaimed” (Ex. 34:6, introducing the thirteen attributes), because on that occasion the Lord had made a covenant with him that whoever petitions by the thirteen attributes does not come back empty-handed.  Surely this use of the verb `-b-r is related to the same root appearing in Micah 7:18:  “Who is a G‑d like You, forgiving iniquity and remitting (`over) transgression?”  Thus, if Moses prayed by the thirteen attributes, a conflict would arise between the covenant that such prayers are favorably answered and the Lord’s vow that Moses would not enter the land.  Hence the Lord said to him, “Enough.  Never speak to Me of this matter again!”

Moses, as the faithful shepherd, obeyed the Lord’s command, did not pray the thirteen attributes and accepted the judgment against him; but his request, “Let me…see the good land,” was accepted, and the Lord let him gaze upon the entire land.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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