Tuesday, 27 Sep 2011

Written by Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein

כי מנגד תראה את הארץ ושמה לא תבוא אל הארץ אשר אני נתן לבני ישראל

“You may view the land from afar, but you shall not enter it—the land that I am giving to the Israelite people” (Deut. 32:52).

After a magnificent poem that is a template for Jewish historical experience, parashat Ha’azinu, which we read this year on Shabbat Shuvah between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, concludes with a set of final instructions from God to Moses concerning the arrangements for his death. The verse cited above contains the very last words spoken by God to Moses as recorded in the Torah.

Years before, he had heard the words that must have filled him with immeasurable sorrow. Because of a failing described by the Torah only as a vague sin of omission—that on one occasion he had not sanctified God in the presence of the Israelites—he was told that he would not be permitted to bring the Israelites into the Promised Land (Num. 20:12). Moses did not accept this decree passively. We are told that he prayed and implored God to change His mind and grant permission for him to fulfil his dream by leading the people into the land of their destiny. But this prayer received a firm and negative response: לא תעבור את הירדן הזה “You shall not cross this Jordan” (Deut. 3:27), echoed now in this final statement, “You may view the land from afar, but you shall not enter it”.

Even Moses was powerless to change his ultimate fate. Human as we are human, Moses was destined to die without seeing his ultimate goal fulfilled. Yet he still had decisions to make. He could have made one final plea: “Look God, I think you have given me a rotten deal. For 40 years I followed Your instructions and put up with this petulant people, and then because of one small slip You deny me the right to finish what I began. And when I appealed, You told me, in effect, to shut up. Well I still protest; Your decision is simply not fair.”

Or he could have said to himself, “It’s this people and their constant complaining that got me and Aaron into trouble in the wilderness of Zin. I’m not going to give them any final blessing; let them remember that they were unworthy of me.” Or he could have simply refused to obey God’s instruction to climb the mountain for a distant view, attempting to lead the people across the Jordan himself against God’s wish.

All of these options were possible, and all of them were rejected. Despite what must have seemed like an unfair decision, Moses continues to trust in God’s wisdom and love. He had already done everything possible to prepare his successor Joshua, to strengthen Joshua’s position in the sight of the people and to build up his morale with private encouragement and counsel. In the chapters leading up to this one, he urges the people to remain faithful to his ideals and God’s teachings after he is gone. In the following chapter, he speaks his final words to the people: words of blessing, with which he bids them farewell (Deut 33). And then he climbs alone to the mountaintop for his rendezvous with Eternity, accepting his end with the confidence that others will continue his work, facing death without any human companion, with quiet dignity and inner peace.

Each one of us, like Moses, will have to recognize some day that there are dreams we will not see fulfilled, goals we will not reach. We begin life all potential; as small children there appears to be no limit to what we might some day accomplish. Gradually the reality of our limitations is imposed. At some point in our childhood or adolescence, it may be the realization that we will never be a professional football player, or an Olympic Gold Medal swimmer. A bit later it might be that we will never write books that will revolutionize human thought, or rival JK Rowling or Dan Brown on the Best Seller’s List. As rabbis we realize that despite our best efforts we will not succeed in bringing about a great awakening of Jewish religious consciousness, transforming the lives of the masses of our people. The truth is that we are not always even the good, ethical, thoughtful, caring person we would like to be.

How do we respond to this recognition? Do we become angry at God because we were not as talented or as fortunate as others? Do we lash out in resentment at those who are now younger, more promising, more accomplished than we are? Do we abandon worthwhile causes because we have not been able to leave our personal imprint upon them, because others have taken our places and we are no longer needed the way we once may have been?

Or can we accept ourselves, take pride in what we have been able to accomplish, and temper the frustration at our shortcomings with the knowledge that we have done much of what we could, and that others will carry forward the values toward which we aspire.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur help us prepare for this final encounter with our limits, our mortality, if we observe them properly. The Days of Awe make us confront what is ultimately important; impel us to see how far we have fallen short of the person we could have been; inspire us to try to do better than we have done in the past.

But they tell us something else as well: that with all our failings and weaknesses, with all our unfulfilled dreams and our disappointed hopes, each one of us in our unique individuality is cherished by God, who wants us to be the very best we can be, but accepts our humble contrition over what we did not accomplish. In this sense, These days of Awe are indeed a rehearsal for the day when each one of us will meet our Maker and render account for our lives.

The last words Moses hears from God are that he will not enter the land of promise, but that it will be given to his people. He responds with his own final words of blessing for those who will achieve what he could not. That is a powerful model for us all.


Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein

September 2011

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.