This week’s parsha ends with some of G-d’s final instructions to Moshe: he is told to ascend Har Nevo, where “you can see the land (of Israel) from a distance but you will not enter there, the land that I am giving to Bnei Yisrael” (Devarim, 32:52). Why was it that Moshe could not go into the land? Because he failed to sanctify the name of Hashem amongst the Jewish people when he hit a rock to draw out water after being commanded to speak to it (Devarim, 32:51. See Bamidbar 20).
Rashi here explains the problem with the way Moshe acted: he was instructed to speak to the rock for a specific reason, to show Bnei Yisrael that if even this rock – which does not gain reward for doing as G-d commands it, nor is punished for doing sins – obeys the word of G-d then how much more so should human beings – who will gain reward for doing as G-d commands us and who will be punished for doing sins – should obey the word of G-d (Rashi, Devarim, 32:51)?
This message, relevant to the Jewish people in the desert, is equally relevant to the Jewish people now, as we stand between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The whole of G-d’s creation obeys G-d. Except man. And this results in our need for Yom Kippur, a day on which we can acknowledge, confess and repent for all we have done wrong over the year. A day on which we can do teshuva – and return full heartedly to our Creator. But Yom Kippur is a day which often evokes negative feelings of guilt, as we focus on all the times over the past year when we have slipped up, made mistakes and done the wrong thing. It can be easy to feel small and inadequate in the face of the long lists of “al chets” which fill the machzor.
But this week’s parsha offers us some comfort. Even Moshe, the leader of the Jewish people, a prophet the likes of whom never rose in Israel again (Devarim, 34:10), who spoke face to face with G-d (Shemot, 33:11), sinned too. The parsha opens with Moshe addressing the natural world: “heavens – give ear and let me speak; earth – hear the words of my mouth” (Devarim, 32:1). Rashi explains that Moshe “asked” the heavens and earth to be his witnesses because he was aware of the fact that he was flesh and blood, that he was going to die. Therefore, he asked the eternal natural world to stand as witnesses for all generations, because he knew that he would be unable to (Rashi, Devarim 32:1). He acknowledges before all of Bnei Yisrael that he is a man, a man who sins. “In the end”, writes Rabbi Sacks, “the power of Moses’ story is precisely that is affirms our mortality” (Rabbi Sacks, ‘Moses the Man (Ha’azinu 5779)’). Moshe was mortal, fallible and imperfect. So too are we. But Moshe, teacher and leader of the Jewish people, still reached the most incredible spiritual heights. So too, says Yom Kippur as it shows us all that G-d thinks we can achieve, can we.