Jewish Life Torah Portion

Torah Portion – Vaetchanan

By Shlomo Riskin

Moses places two entreaties before the Lord at the end of his life concerning the leadership of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel: one is in this parsha, in which he asks that he be allowed “to cross over and see the good land beyond the Jordan River” and presumably continue to lead the Israelites. God’s response: “You must command Joshua, strengthen him and give him resolve, for he shall cross before this nation and shall bring them to inherit the land” (Deut. 3:28). The second request came earlier, in the parsha of Pinchas, and is not at all stated by Moses directly. It is merely inferred by the sages of the Midrash, since Moses requests of God to appoint his successor right after the Bible informs us that the daughters of Tzelafĥad can inherit their father (Num. 27:11). It is then that Moses requests, “Let the Lord God of the spirits of all flesh appoint a leader over the witness assembly” (27:15–16). Listen to the words of the Midrash:

What caused Moses to request his replacement after the inheritance of the daughters? Since these daughters inherited their father, Moses declared, “This is the right moment for me to claim my need. After all, if these women can inherit [their father] my sons should certainly inherit my glory.” The Holy One, blessed be He said to him: “The guardian of the fig tree shall eat of its fruit” [Prov. 27:18]. Your sons sat idly by themselves and were not occupied in the study of Torah. Joshua, on the other hand, served you well and extended to you much honor. He would arrive at your courthouse early in the morning and leave late at night…. Appoint Joshua the son of Nun as your successor, to fulfill the verse, “the guardian of the fig tree shall eat of its fruit.”

Both of Moses’ requests are denied. The request made in Parshat Pinchas, that his children be made his successors, is denied because his sons did not have the necessary Torah qualifications to be religious leaders in their father’s footsteps. 

The other request, that he be allowed to enter the Promised Land, opens our portion of Va’etĥanan. After all of his sacrifices and all of his difficulties with an unwilling and backsliding Israelite nation, does Moses not deserve to reach his life’s goal, enter the Land of Israel, and begin this new era of Jewish history with himself as their leader? But the request is denied: “And the Lord was angry at me because of you and He did not accept my plea…saying that I may not speak of this anymore” (Deut. 3:26). 

Perhaps the rejection of both requests emanates from the same source, and it is Moses who is really blaming himself. Remember that when God had originally asked Moses to assume the leadership of the Israelites and take them out, the great prophet demurred, claiming to be “heavy of speech” (Ex. 4:10). And then the Bible testifies that “the [Israelites] did not listen to Moses [about leaving Egypt] because of impatience and difficult work” (6:9). Most commentators explain that the the hard work of servitude sapped their inner strength and prevented them from even dreaming about freedom. But Ralbag (1288–1344) explains this to mean that it was because of Moses’ impatience with his people (the Hebrews), because of his (Moses’) difficult work in making himself intellectually and spiritually close to the Divine.

Moses was into communicating with God and receiving the divine words. He did not have the interest or patience to establish the personal ties needed to convince the Hebrew to rebel against Egypt and conquer the Land of Israel. He didn’t even have the patience to lovingly bring along his children and make them his deputies. He was a God-person, not a people-person. He is ultimately blaming himself. A leader must join in the destiny of his people. If they could not enter the land, even if it was because of their own backsliding, he may not enter the land, because he did not succeed in inspiring them.

Moses succeeded like no one else before or after him in communicating God’s word for all future generations; but he did not do as well with his own generation. Hence, his words are honest: “The Lord was angry at me because of you” – because I did not nurture and empower you until you were ready to accept God’s teachings and conquer the Promised Land.

In addition, perhaps Moses’ requests were denied in order to teach us that no mortal, not even Moses, leaves this world without at least half of his desires remaining unfulfilled. And perhaps he was refused merely to teach us that no matter how worthy our prayer, sometimes the Almighty answers “No” and we must accept a negative answer. Faith, first and foremost, implies our faithfulness to God even though at the end of the day, He may refuse our request.

Torah Portion – Shelach

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