In this week’s Torah Portion, Moses, the aged leader of the Israelite people, is told his death is near. He sings a song, a farewell to the world, full of love and gratitude for God and all of God’s creations, and chastisement and warning to the People Israel, who is continually ungrateful for God’s miracles. Moses is allowed to have a glimpse into the Holy Land that the people will enter soon, though he is not allowed to enter it himself.
Moses does not get to enter the land of Israel because God says, “you betrayed Me in the midst of the children of Israel at the waters of Merivat Kadesh, in the desert of Zin; because you did not sanctify Me in the midst of the children of Israel.” This is in reference to chapter 20 of Numbers, when God told Moses to speak to a rock and water would flow out to give to the thirsty Israelites. Instead, Moses struck the rock twice and water flowed out. It may seem like a small matter, but God was very angry that Moses did not do exactly as God commanded, and says on the spot that for this transgression, Moses will not be allowed to be the one to bring the people into the Promised Land. Now in our parasha of the week, after some time has passed and God has had time to cool the Divine Temper, Moses’s fate remains the same, and his punishment still stands. He may not enter the land, but instead die upon a mountain overlooking the border, and Joshua will be the one to conquer Israel and settle the people.
We have just concluded our Ten Days of Awe, a time for repentance, prayer, and righteousness: asking for and granting forgiveness, understanding that humans are inherently flawed, praying for the strength to better ourselves, and increased awareness for tzedakah. To come from that perspective, this Torah portion is a bit scary. How many times have we said that the Hebrew word “het” – most often translated as “sin” – really means “missing the mark”? How often do we declare that we are never too far gone to still atone? How much do we remind ourselves that God wants us to learn from our mistakes and try harder? How frequently do we say that the gates of prayer are never closed to us? And yet, for a seemingly small mistake, Moses is punished to not enter the land of Israel.
But to see it from God’s perspective, how disappointing it must have been to see Moses make that mistake. God and Moses had a very special relationship, such that none after would have. It is even unique in comparison to the relationship God had with the other Patriarchs. Moses alone got to speak with God face to face, was God’s partner in leading the Israelite people through the wilderness, and sometimes they even squabble over who is responsible for the iniquities of the people, throwing back and forth assertions of “Your People,” the way a tired parent might inform his or her spouse, “Your child misbehaved at school today.” Midrashim depicts them further as true partners, lengthening conversations we see in Torah to show how deep and extraordinary the relationship between God and Moses really is. Imagine how God felt when this one person who seemed to really appreciate all of God’s wonders, who really seemed to understand God’s mysteries, didn’t follow God’s instructions. Of all the times the People of Israel are really ungrateful or unbelieving or afraid in spite of all the things they’ve seen God do for them, Moses is always able to mediate and keep the peace. Then it was him to make this mistake, and there was no one to mediate on his behalf for God. So God rules that he will not see the land of Israel. Further, to be fair, Moses was 120-years-old, and it was probably an appropriate time for him to be laid to rest anyway. When Joshua conquers the land of Israel, there’s a lot of fighting involved, and maybe Moses was just too old to handle that. The Midrash of Devarim Rabbah insists that God never really planned for Moses to enter the land of Israel. His destiny was always to prophesy in the land of Egypt and in the wilderness, and that is all.
The ending of Moses’s story is sometimes confusing. He worked so hard to get the people through the Wilderness, and now he is told in this week’s portion that he can look at the Holy Land, but not enter it, because of some small mistake. But sometimes even little mistakes have big consequences, and sometimes without meaning to we can hurt people’s feelings by not trying harder to understand them and do what they need us to do, and I think that’s exactly what happened between Moses and God. As we draw near to the end of our Torah cycle, and start a fresh year with a clean slate, having done all that self-reflecting on Rosh Hashanah and that repenting on Yom Kippur, let us take special care to acknowledge the wrongs we do by accident. It is too easy to claim ignorance or get defensive over something that was an honest mistake. Let this year be one of responsibility and accountability. That way we can better learn from our mistakes and move forward more informed, with better understanding, and stronger relationships. May we all find the strength to admit our shortcomings and our ignorances, and the wisdom and humility to acknowledge there’s always more to learn. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.