“Moses Blames the People for His Fate”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

As this week’s parasha, parashat Va’etchanan, opens, Moses pleads with G-d to allow him to enter the land of Israel. In fact, the word “va’etchanan” literally means, “I [Moses] pleaded” with G-d.

At this point, Moses recalls G-d’s rejection, as recorded in Deuteronomy 3:26, saying: “Vah’yit’ah’bayehr Hashem bee l’mah’ahn’chem, v’loh shah’mah ay’lai,” But G-d became angry with me because of you, and He did not listen to me. So angry is G-d with Moses that He insists that Moses stop speaking to Him further about this matter. Instead, G-d instructs Moses to go to the top of the mountain and look with his eyes westward, northward, southward and eastward, because he will not cross the Jordan.

However, the pain that Moses feels is so great, that even after he is told to refrain from speaking about the matter, Moses seems unable to control himself, and again, in Deuteronomy 4:21, lashes out at the people: “Va’Hashem hit’anaf be ahl div’raychem,” and the L-rd became angry with me because of you, and He swore that I would not cross the Jordan and not come to the good Land that the L-rd your G-d gives you as a heritage. For I will die in this land; I am not crossing the Jordan–but you are crossing and you shall possess this good Land!

This is not the first time that Moses holds the Jewish people accountable for his fate. In the opening chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses recalls the sin of the scouts, as well as G-d’s decree that none of the men of that generation would enter the land of Canaan. Moses says (Deuteronomy 1:37): “Gahm bee hit’ah’nahf Hashem big’lal’chem lay’mor: Gahm ah’tah loh tah’voh shahm,” G-d became angry with me as well, because of you, saying: You too shall not come there [to the land of Canaan].

The fact that Moses blames Israel for causing him to be ineligible to enter the land of Canaan is rather strange. After all, when G-d told Moses to bring forth water from the rock at May M’reeva, we are told, in Numbers 20:1-13, that G-d punished Moses for hitting the rock rather than speaking to it. In Numbers 20:12, G-d specifically says to Moses and Aaron: “Yah’ahn loh heh’eh’mahn’tehm bee, l’hahk’dee’shay’nee l’ay’nay B’nei Yisrael, lah’chayn, loh tah’vee’ooh eht hah’kah’hal hah’zeh ehl ha’ah’retz ah’sher nah’tah’tee lah’hem,” Because you did not believe Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore, you will not bring this congregation to the land that I have given them. Furthermore, Moses’ inability to enter Canaan because of his sin at May M’reeva is reiterated toward the end of the Torah (Deuteronomy 32:51), immediately prior to Moses’ passing. These references clearly contradict placing the blame for Moses’ fate on the people of Israel.

The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Yehudah Leibish Malbim, 1809-1879, leading Torah scholar in Germany, Romania and Russia) explains that when G-d proclaimed to the generation of the scouts that they could not enter the land of Israel, He decreed at that time that Moses, as well, would not enter the land. Since the people were no longer worthy of having Moses bring them into the land, Moses himself could not enter.

In a fascinating parenthetical note, the Malbim states that had Moses entered the land, he would have immediately built an everlasting Temple, the Canaanite nations would have all surrendered, and the Messianic period would have been ushered in.

All this, of course, was dependent upon the behavior of the people of Israel, their loyalty to G-d, and their acting as a kingdom of priests and a holy people. But after they sinned with the scouts, their fate was sealed, and Moses could no longer bring them to the Promised Land. Instead, there would be a period of enslavement and exile, followed by the eventual destruction of the Temple.

That is why Moses says to the people that G-d was angry at him because of them, and he could not enter the land. Nevertheless, explains the Malbim, the decree forbidding Moses to enter the land was not irreversible. The punishment could have been rescinded had it not been for Moses’ own sin of hitting the rock. Had Moses sanctified the name of G-d publicly by speaking to the rock, the faith of the people of Israel would have been restored, resulting in Moses being granted permission to bring the people into the land.

My good friend, Hilly Gross, suggests a rather intriguing alternate explanation. He asks, Why is Moses laying such a heavy “guilt trip” on the people of Israel, blaming them for his fate? After all, Moses had never lost an argument with the Al-mighty and on several previous occasions had successfully persuaded the Al-mighty to forgive the people. Mr. Gross suggests that Moses blamed the people in the hope that they would now pray for him and ask that the decree against Moses be rescinded. After all, the power of public prayer is far greater than individual prayer. If Moses’ personal prayers could not persuade G-d, perhaps the people’s collective prayers could convince Him to annul the decree against Moses, enabling him to enter the land of Israel.

Unfortunately, at this point in his relationship with the people, Moses, the talented leader, Shepherd of Israel, was unable to persuade them to pray for him. Perhaps the people were too caught up with their own concerns to care about Moses. Perhaps they felt that now that most of the older generation had already perished in the wilderness, Moses had utterly failed them.

Perhaps the real reason why Moses does not enter the land of Israel was because he had lost the people’s support and could no longer rally them to his side. A new leader was necessary for a new generation of Jews, who would regain the people’s confidence, lead them to the Promised Land and vanquish their enemies.

Moses, the Egyptian prince, whose charisma was always able to win over his followers, and whose powerful personality was able to bring even the mighty Pharaoh to his knees, no longer possessed that special spirit. He was now ready to pass the scepter of leadership onto the next generation, to Joshua.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The observance of the fast of Tisha b’Av, marking the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples, starts on Monday night, July 19th and continues through Tuesday night, July 20th, 2010. Have a meaningful fast.