On the Shabbat after Tisha Be’av, we seek comfort and inspiration. The Torah portion that we read this week serves up heaping portions of inspirational tidbits on generous platters. But it begins with a morbid moment: G-d refusing Moses’ plea to enter Israel.
On Tisha Be’av our people were exiled from Israel. It would have been nice for the Torah portion chanted this Shabbat, to begin with a theme of returning to our beloved land. How is it that this reading begins with the demoralizing message that the greatest Jew of all time was denied entry?
Moses pled his case many times, but G-d turned him down each time. The saga is heartbreaking. The Midrash gives us the details:
G-d: “The day of your passing is near.” Moses: “Did my feet tread on the clouds in vain, did I run before your children like a horse so that I would lie with worms”?
G-d: “But Moses, I have decreed death since the days of Adam.” Moses: “Adam deserved to die. He failed to keep the only commandment you gave him.” G-d” “But Abraham, who sanctified my name to the multitudes, also died.” Moses: Abraham gave birth to Ishmael, whose descendants anger you.” G-: “Isaac extended his throat upon my altar, and he died.” Moses: “Isaac gave birth to Esau, whose descendants will destroy the Temple.” G-d: “And what of Jacob, whose children are all pure?” Moses: “Jacob did not ascend to the heavens, nor did he tread upon clouds, he was not like the ministering angels, he did not see you face to face, and he did not receive the Torah from your hands.” G-d: “That is quite enough, Moses. Speak no more.”
Moses gathered his courage and said: “Future generations will assume that I died for my sins.” G-d: “But, I wrote in the Torah that there was never another prophet like you.” Moses: “They will say that I sinned in my elder years.” G-: “I explained in the Torah that your death is due to your failure to sanctify my name when you struck the rock.”
Moses: “May I at least enter Israel for two or three years and die there?” G-d: “That is not possible.” Moses: “May I enter Israel posthumously to be buried there?” G-d: “Not in your lifetime and not after your passing.” Moses” “What did I do to deserve Your wrath?” G-d: “You failed to sanctify my name when you hit the rock.”
Moses: “Master of the universe, for others, You are often tolerant until people commit two or three sins, I only committed one. Can You not be tolerant?” G-d: “Moses, in truth, you stumbled six times, but I did not disclose them. (A) When I dispatched to Egypt at the burning bush, you asked me to send someone else. (B) After your first audience with Pharaoh, you complained that I failed to save my people. (C) When the people craved meat, you wondered if I could provide enough meat for them. (D) When Korach rebelled, you said if the earth fails to open up, G-d did not send me. (E) When you struck the rock, you accused my children of being rebels. (F) When the tribes of Gad and Reuben asked to settle outside of Israel, you told them they were continuing the sins of their forefathers. What did Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob do that you call them sinners?
Moses: “You are right, but many times, when all 600 000 Jews sinned, I begged You to forgive them, and You did. You were compassionate toward them, have You no compassion for me?” G-d: “Moses, you can’t compare a decree against multitudes to a decree against a single person.”
Moses: “Master of all the worlds, arise from your seat of judgment and sit upon your seat of compassion. Spare me death and allow me to atone for my sins through suffering. Don’t make me die.” G-d: “From time immemorial, death has been the destiny of all creatures, righteous or not.”
Moses begged heaven and earth, the stars and planets, the mountains and hills, to pray for him, but they all declined. He begged the great ocean to pray for him, and the ocean replied, “Son of Amram, when you struck me with your staff and instructed me to split into twelve channels, I had to obey, for G-d walked with you. What has changed?” Moses began to cry, “Indeed, back then, I was the king of the world; today, I stand alone and ignored.”
Moss begged the angel in charge of the heavens to pray for him. The angel replied, “I heard it decreed that your prayer will be denied.” Moses broke down and cried, “Whom can I beg for assistance?” Moses turned back to G-d: “Future generations will say, if Moses, who has climbed to the heavens, was like the angels, talked to G-d, and received the Torah from His hand, had no recourse on the day of death, why should we bother keeping the Torah?”
G-d: “Moses, why are you afraid?” Moses: “I fear the angel of death.” G-d: “Then [I will take you myself and], I won’t place you in His hands. “This is the way of the world. Every generation makes way for the next. You had your time, not it is Joshua’s turn.”
Moses: “If it is about Joshua, I will gladly be his student.” G-d consented. Moses snuck into Joshua’s tent and tried to hide. But the people noticed him and interrupted Joshua’s lecture saying, how can you sit and lecture while Moses cowers in the back? Joshua leaped to his feet, rent his garments, and wailed, “My teacher, father, and master, come teach us Torah.” “But I have no permission,” cried Moses.
A voice echoed down from above, enjoining them to learn from Joshua. Joshua lectured, and Moses sat beside him. After the lecture, the people asked Moses to explain, but Moses admitted that he, too, did not understand. At this point, Moses recognized it was time to depart this world.
Having read this entire heartbreaking exchange, the question is only reinforced. Why is this the opening passage of a Torah reading that is meant to comfort us? The answer will be revealed in one detail that I have yet to share.
G-d: “I took two oaths, (a) that the people would not enter Israel (b) that you will not enter Israel. I can’t break both oaths. Tell me which to keep and which to break.” Moses: “You conspire against me by holding the rope from both ends. May Moses and a thousand like me die, and may no harm come to a single Jew.”
This answer provides us comfort. Moses remains behind so we could enter Israel. The fact that Moses, the greatest Jew ever, has yet to enter Israel is our assurance that Mashiach will come and that we will all return to Israel. As Moses said, “You will be forgiven though I was not privileged to be forgiven.”
G-d was not being heartless when He denied Moses again and again. He was orchestrating a conversation for Moses to utter these fateful words. A thousand Moses could fail to be forgiven and even die so long as no harm comes to a single Jew. After mourning the loss of our country, our Temple, and so many Jews on Tisha Be’av, these words offer soothing comfort to our parched and tortured souls.
Moses spent his last moments blessing the Jewish people, seeking their forgiveness, and granting his forgiveness. When G-d kissed his soul back to Him, G-d cried. “Who will defend my children now?”
With Moses unable to defend us, we must defend ourselves by demonstrating our fidelity to G-d. Indeed, the day will come when Moses leads the way, and every Jew, those who have passed and those who are alive, will return to Israel with Mashiach, our righteous redeemer. Amen.