Chaim Ingram

Hindsight is 20/20!

The Greatest Vision

Atop Mount Sinai, pleading for forgiveness for Am Yisrael following the sin of the golden calf, Moses requests to see G-D’s glory. G-D replies that no human can see His “face” and live. However, G-D hides Moses in a cleft of a rock and affords Moses a vision of the Divine greater than any other mortal has experienced or will ever experience. The Torah (Ex. 33:22-23) describes it in the following words: I shall place you in the cleft a rock; I shall shield you with my hand until I have passed. Then I shall remove My hand and you will see My back, but My face will not be seen.

G-D has neither a hand, a face or a back. What is this enigmatic passage telling us?

We may glean some insight into its meaning when we examine the opening words of this week’s sidra. 

“I Besought G-D At That Time” – Why Not Before?

Rashi, doyen of commentators, is always careful to remind us that the beginning of a new sidra has a context. The phrase ba’eit ha-hee, “at that time”, used in the opening verse of the Sidra (Deut 3:23), is also utilized two verses earlier.  “I commanded Joshua at that time saying: ‘Your eyes have seen everything …so G-D will do to all the kings – you shall not fear them …’”

Evidently the two passages are contextually connected. Joshua has been appointed as the new leader. It is this fact that prompts Moses to daven that he might be permitted to enter the land. Not by right, as the leader. But as a ‘freebie’ or, in tennis tournament terms, as a ‘wild card entry’ (ein chinun … ela leshon matanat chinam as Rashi expresses it).

This appears to us at first sight as counter-intuitive. Didn’t Moses long to lead the people into the Promised Land? Why only now, after Joshua was confirmed as the new leader does Moses pray to enter, as an ‘also-ran’?

In the Aftermath of the Failing – Silence!

When we examine the immediate aftermath of the passage relating the watershed occurrence at Mei Meriva where Moses deviates from his mission to speak to a rock to extract water and nothing more, and G-D advises Moses of the consequences of his failure – “you will not bring this congregation into the Land (Num 20:12) – we are confounded by Moses’ silence. There is no attempt at self-justification and no plea for a reversal. We wonder if this chief of all prophets is in denial. He immediately sets about the next leadership task ahead – negotiating with the king of Edom for permission to pass through his land (20:14-21) – as though nothing has changed!

When told a little while later (27:12-14), that he is to ascend Mount Avarim to see the land from afar, following which he will die because of his failing at Mei Meriva, Moses does at last respond. But it is not to plead his own case. We are awestruck at the selflessness of this man Moses, as he pleads to G-D only that He “appoint a [new] leader … that the congregation of G-D be not like a sheep without a shepherd”.  It would appear that Moses has resigned himself to his deposition. How come?

Rabbi Immanuel Bernstein, a contemporary scholar, offers a fascinating insight.  Citing the view of Rabenu Chanan’el (to which Ramban concurs) that Moses’ chief sin lay in his incorrect choice of words to the people – “shall we [be expected to] bring forth water (motsi) from this rock?” (Num 20:10) – when he should have said “He (G-D) will bring water” (yotsi) – Rabbi Bernstein suggests that since Moses was the unique prophet through whom G-D communicated the Torah word for word, this inaccuracy could not be tolerated.

If I may take this one step further: it may be assumed that G-D explained to Moses the severity of his lapse and that Moses understood. To strike instead of speaking is one thing. But to articulate erroneous sentiments cannot be tolerated from a prophet whose every word, particularly while performing a task given to him by G-d, had to be a faithful transmission of what he had heard from his Master.

Moses now, with hindsight, understands this only too well. For this reason he was resigned to not entering Erets Yisrael as leader. He knew his one lapse was consequential. And for that reason, he deemed it inappropriate to plead on his own behalf at that time. His chief concern was for the future welfare of his nation.

Please Allow Me To Enter – Just to Fulfill the Mitzvot of the Land!

Let us now return to the opening of our Sidra where Moses informs the people of his eventual impassioned series of pleas – 515 in all, say our Rabbis – to be allowed to enter the Land, following the appointment of Joshua.

The Talmudic sage R’ Simlai (Sota 14a) asks rhetorically: Why did Moses desire so  much to enter the Land? Was he so desperate, then, to gorge upon its fruits? Rather did he say: There are so many mitsvot …that cannot be fulfilled except in Erets Yisrael. I wish to enter the land so that all the mitsvot can be fulfilled through me!

But G-D does not relent. Indeed after 515 pleas, he silences Moses. “Do not speak to me any further on this matter!” (Deut 3:26)

“Not One Jealousy!”

It is not until we encounter the extraordinary Midrash near the Torah’s conclusion (Midrash Raba Devarim 9:9) that our eyes are opened as Moses finally grasps, with hindsight, why his request is unrelentingly denied. The Midrash is worth quoting in full:-

“Call Joshua” (Deut 31:14) Moses said to G-D: “Master of the Universe, let Joshua take over my position now while I am still alive.” G-D replied: “Relate to him as he has hitherto related to you!” [Reverse the positions of master  and disciple]. Immediately, Moses arose early and went to Joshua’s home. Joshua became apprehensive. Moses said to Joshua: “My teacher, accompany me!” They set out to go, Moses walking on the left of Joshua [as though he were Joshua’s disciple] When they entered the tent of meeting, the pillar of cloud came down and separated them. When the pillar of cloud departed, Moses approached Joshua and asked him: “What was revealed to you?” Joshua replied “When the word was revealed to you, did I know what G-D spoke with you?” At that moment, Moses bitterly exclaimed: “Better to die a hundred deaths than to experience even one jealousy!”

To understand what is meant that Moses was “jealous” of Joshua – as our Sages declare that a teacher is never jealous of his student – we must perhaps understand the concept here in the same way that G-D is “jealous” when Am Yisrael worship idols, namely that He refuses to relinquish that which is rightfully His, i.e. the allegiance of Am Yisrael. Similarly Moses cannot be anything other than Joshua’s teacher and Joshua cannot be anything other than Moses’ disciple. The charade that G-D devised was to bring home to Moses this truth. If Moses cannot go into Erets Yisrael as leader – a fact with which Moses, with hindsight, had already come to terms as we explained earlier – he certainly cannot go in as a “wild card entry” or, worse, feigning to be a disciple of his disciple. Moshe Rabenu is not an aging tennis champion past his prime. Even at death “his eye was not dimmed, not his vigor diminished (Deut 34:7). For him to enter the Land as a Joe Blow is untenable and unaskable on every level. And, with a perfect vision acquired through hindsight, Moses finally rests content in the realization that G-D is not being ‘hard-hearted’ at all. Far better to die with the Divine kiss and the epitaph (34:10) that “never again has there arisen a prophet like unto Moses to whom G-D revealed Himself panim el panim, with a directness unequalled by any other mortal!”   

Hindsight Is 20/20!

So, to return to the question with which we began: what is the Torah telling us when it relates that Moses saw G-D’s “back” even if he could not see His “face”?

We may venture to suggest that the meaning is: while Moses could no more understand than can we why G-D does what He does at the time He does it (His face), yet with hindsight, after the fact (His back), he is granted a pellucid vision, a crystalline comprehension – more than once – of why it had to be that way.

Moses understood and ultimately accepted that he could not enter Erets Yisrael as leader because it was untenable for him to serve as Moshe Rabenu at even 99% spiritual capacity. And he could not go in as an also-ran because he was and always would be Moshe Rabenu!.

It is often asked why, on Simchat Torah, the happiest day of the year, we read about the ‘tragedy’ of Moses’ passing on an obscure mountain, denied his life’s wish.

Maybe now we have our answer. Moses actually dies absolutely content, with all his questions resolved.

That is no tragedy in anyone’s book!

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of five books on Judaism. He is a senior tutor for the Sydney Beth Din and the non-resident rabbi of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation. He can be reached at