It’s the last weeks of his life and Moses addresses the Children of Israel. His 120th birthday is approaching, and yet he has little to celebrate. Yes, he had led the successful war against Sihon and Og. He had taken the millions of Jews to the edge of the Jordan River.
But Moses would not enter the Land of Israel. He would die and be buried in the desert overlooking the Jericho valley.
It is eleven days’ journey from Horeb by way of Mount Seir to Kadesh Barnea.
In this week’s Torah portion, called Devorim, Moses reduces the last 40 years to one sentence. The Jewish people did not have to wander through the “great and fearful” desert. G-d wanted the sojourn to take no more than a few days. Why would He want his children to be stranded in an uninhabitable environment? The plan was that the Jews would first receive the Torah on Mount Sinai and then make the rapid advance toward the Land of Canaan. There would be no detours, no fuss, no waiting.
So, what happened? At Kadesh Barnea, literally the gateway to the Land, the Jews suffered from amnesia: They forgot the miracles in Egypt, their liberation, the parting of the Red Sea, the manna, the water, their ultimate protection. They forget the divine promise to their forefathers. Instead, the people acted as if G-d didn’t exist or care. They became mired in detail and complaint: The food wasn’t good. Rather enter the Land, they demanded a halt to inspect their inheritance.
Some of the Jews asked meekly, “Shouldn’t we trust G-d on the basis of his perfect track record?” The resounding answer was no. This might be all a trick.
And so, weeks turned into months and then years. The generation of the desert refused the holy land. And G-d said, “Stay in the desert. I’ll try again with your children.” And that was the tragedy.
Moses did not make one false move. He stayed loyal to G-d while rebuking the nation to stop their stupidity, infighting, provocations and get serious. He told them to quit acting like children, particularly in front of their families. Set an example and behave like adults.
The Lord was also angry with me because of you, saying, “Neither will you go there.”
By Year 40, the generation of the desert was dead. Every year in the Jewish month of Av, those between the ages of 20 and 60 were commanded to dig their own graves and lie in them. About 15,000 did not get up. The rest carried on for another year of dread.
The children of the doomed would require new leadership — one not haunted by Egypt and servitude. They would need a clear vision — the Land of Israel.
That’s where Joshua came in. He had proven his mettle when he disputed the conclusions of the 10 princes sent to spy the Land. He had supported Moses despite the hysteria of the masses.
Joshua would bring the Jews into their land. Moses would stay behind, his tomb just close enough to see the crossing of the Jordan River.
But Joshua the son of Nun, who stands before you he will go there; strengthen him, for he will cause Israel to inherit it.
On one hand, it seemed so unfair. The righteous of the generation shared the same fate as the evil ones. The Zohar says Moses would scream from his unmarked tomb: “I am trapped with evil and ignorant people who will not let me leave the desert. Help me!”
But Moses was more than a saint and a prophet. He was the leader of Israel, and a captain goes down with his ship. The notion that the people would suffer while the leadership skips away with a grin was never part of the divine plan. A leader stays with his flock until the end.
G-d would never forget Moses or his brother Aaron. There would come a time when He would return to the desert and take them home. G-d would take all those who died with their leader — regardless of their sins. In other words, Moses and Aaron, even in death, would save the people.
During his final 37 days, Moses would rebuke the people. He made sure to speak to all of them. He invited them to challenge him. But he went far beyond rebuke. Throughout, he repeated the laws of the Torah and the need for faith. In his own words, he provided the ultimate lesson in national survival. Yes, fear of G-d would always be paramount. But that might not be enough in a crisis. And Jewish history would be replete with crises and failures.
Fear of G-d, Moses said, demands that the Jews not fear anybody else. It demands vision, in Hebrew Chazon, the name of the portion after Devarim. It demands sole trust in G-d and belief in his kindness.
Today’s friends could turn into tomorrow’s enemies. The weak of yesterday might be become the empires of today. They might conquer you, destroy your holy places and throw you out of your land. All the while, there will be plenty of naysayers who will warn of tragedy, war, economic collapse, diplomatic isolation, sanctions, if you don’t bow down.
Don’t submit, Moses said. The nations don’t rule the world and will not determine the fate of Israel. Believe in that and your path to redemption will be short.
Do not fear them, for it is the Lord, your God, Who is fighting for you.