At the end of Parashat Devarim, Moshe commands his replacement, Yehoshua, in preparation for the conquest of the land of Canaan:
“I also instructed Joshua at that time, saying, ‘You have seen with your own eyes all that the LORD your God has done to these two kings; so shall the LORD do to all the kingdoms into which you shall cross over. Do not fear them, for it is the LORD your God who will battle for you.’” (Devarim 3:21-22)
However, just a few verses later, in the beginning of Parashat Vaetchanan, God tells Moshe to command Yehoshua, in what appears to be comparable language, and with a similar goal:
“Give Joshua his instructions, and imbue him with strength and courage, for he will be the one to lead these people across, and he shall allot to them the land that you may only see.” (Devarim 3:28)
God’s message to Moshe was also “at that time” (Devarim 3:23), so why did God need to order Moshe to do something he had just done?
I think the answer can be found in what we find in the few verses in between. In these opening verses of Parashat Vaetchanan, Moshe begs God to let him enter the land of Canaan. A number of commentaries, including Shadal and Malbim, point out that Moshe’s petition was predicated on the appointment of Yehoshua in the preceding verses. Moshe was requesting that since he would no longer be the leader, he would be allowed to enter the land as a private citizen.
But God did not consent to Moshe’s request. God does not explain His rationale for this refusal, but Moshe adds a curious preface to the denial:
“But God made himself angry with me on your account and would not listen to me…” (Devarim 3:26).
The Hebrew word translated here as “on your account” is “lemaanchem.” Other translations render the word as “because of you” or “through your fault.” However, as commentators such as Hirsch and Hoffman note, that is not the meaning of the word “lemaan.” Therefore a better translation would be “for your sakes” or even as Hertz suggests, “for your good.”
Why would denying Moshe the right to enter the land be for the people’s benefit?
As many have written, Moshe’s leadership was appropriate for the generation that had been slaves in Egypt. They were accustomed to being subservient, and went from being dependent on one master to another. They relied on the miracles of the Exodus and the wilderness to survive.
But this second generation was different. They were more independent, and were prepared to take their fate in their own hands (for good and for bad). This was the generation that was ready to enter the land and carry out the conquest.
Moshe was not the right leader for them. They needed a military general like Yehoshua, more than a “man of God” like Moshe. And Moshe’s stature was so great, that had he continued to enter the land, he would have overshadowed Yehoshua, and endangered his mission. The people needed to know that Yehoshua was their only leader, if they were to truly follow his authority and guidance.
And that was the difference between Moshe’s own instruction to Yehoshua, and what God commanded Moshe to say. Moshe told Yehoshua not to fear the kingdoms of the Caananites in the land he was about to enter. But God told Moshe to instruct Yehoshua to have courage for “he will be the one to lead these people across.” Yehoshua needed strength in dealing with his own people, not just his military opponents.
Leading these people would not be easy, and it would come with its own set of challenges. Yehoshua would go on to be one of Israel’s most effective leaders, and to a large degree this was due to a successful transition between him and Moshe.