Ben Greenberg
Rabbi & Coder. Solving one function at a time.

Parshat Va’etchanan: Leaving the Wilderness and Entering the Promised Land – A Model for Jewish Life

The end of the journey is in sight. The horizon ahead beholds the vision of the land that promises redemption realized. The land that the people have heard about throughout their long sojourn through the desert. The land that they were promised awaited them as they participated in the grand overthrow of their slave masters. It is in this moment; this moment of hope and yearning, that Moshe pauses and reminds the people that he will not be joining them for the next stage of their journey.

וָאֶתְחַנַּ֖ן אֶל־יְ-ה-וָ֑-ה בָּעֵ֥ת הַהִ֖וא לֵאמֹֽר׃

“And I beseeched God at that time saying:”

אֶעְבְּרָה־נָּ֗א וְאֶרְאֶה֙ אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַטּוֹבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּעֵ֣בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן הָהָ֥ר הַטּ֛וֹב הַזֶּ֖ה וְהַלְּבָנֽוֹן׃

“Let me cross over and behold the Good land that is on the other side of the Jordan, that land of good hills and the Lebanon.”

When did this moment of prayer occur? When did Moshe utter these words that he now recalls in front of the people at the cusp of the land? According to the Sifre, this happened after bnei Yisrael conquered Eretz Sihon v’Og. Moshe reasoned that this act of conquest really marked the beginning of the greater entrance into Eretz Yisrael and, if so, then perhaps God would release him from the vow He took not to let him enter the land, since he just led the people in this battle. Perhaps, the neder, the vow, cutting short his leadership, would be reversed after this moment?

God does not fulfill this request though as we know. Moshe knowing the near hopelessness of the request beseeches God. The language of “וָאֶתְחַנַּ֖ן” of pleading, is, according to Rashi, indicative of a type of petition where the petitioner knows they have no merit to their request. They are asking simply on the prospect of pure and sheer hope.

Even though Moshe does not receive the answer he so wants to hear, he is given a glimpse of the breadth of the land. He is granted the breathtaking view from the top of the heights of Pisgah and shown the panoramic beauty of Eretz Yisrael. In so doing God powerfully assures Moshe that even without him, his people, the people he has guided and shepherded throughout all their wanderings, will make it over. He may not be able to join them but they will arrive.

A transition of leadership is required.

וְצַ֥ו אֶת־יְהוֹשֻׁ֖עַ וְחַזְּקֵ֣הוּ וְאַמְּצֵ֑הוּ כִּי־ה֣וּא יַעֲבֹ֗ר לִפְנֵי֙ הָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה וְהוּא֙ יַנְחִ֣יל אוֹתָ֔ם אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר תִּרְאֶֽה

“And charge Yehoshua, encourage him and strengthen him, because he will cross over with this people and he will enable them to inherit the land that you see.”

Why do we need a transition in leadership? What is it about the leadership of Moshe that proves unequipped to lead the people into their new existence in their own land?

To complicate matters, it is only in the next chapter that Moshe not only warns but prophetically reveals that their experience of sovereignty and redemption will eventually find its end:

כִּֽי־תוֹלִ֤יד בָּנִים֙ וּבְנֵ֣י בָנִ֔ים וְנוֹשַׁנְתֶּ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וְהִשְׁחַתֶּ֗ם וַעֲשִׂ֤יתֶם פֶּ֙סֶל֙ תְּמ֣וּנַת כֹּ֔ל…׃

“And when you shall have children and children’s children and you will have been long accustomed to the land, you will deal corruptly, and make a graven image, of anything…”

הַעִידֹתִי֩ בָכֶ֨ם הַיּ֜וֹם אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָ֗רֶץ כִּֽי־אָבֹ֣ד תֹּאבֵדוּן֮ מַהֵר֒ מֵעַ֣ל הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר אַתֶּ֜ם עֹבְרִ֧ים אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּ֛ן שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּ֑הּ לֹֽא־תַאֲרִיכֻ֤ן יָמִים֙ עָלֶ֔יהָ כִּ֥י הִשָּׁמֵ֖ד תִּשָּׁמֵדֽוּן׃ (כז) וְהֵפִ֧יץ יְ-ה-וָ֛-ה אֶתְכֶ֖ם בָּעַמִּ֑ים וְנִשְׁאַרְתֶּם֙ מְתֵ֣י מִסְפָּ֔ר בַּגּוֹיִ֕ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְנַהֵ֧ג יְ-ה-וָ֛-ה אֶתְכֶ֖ם שָֽׁמָּה׃ (כח) וַעֲבַדְתֶּם־שָׁ֣ם אֱלֹהִ֔ים מַעֲשֵׂ֖ה יְדֵ֣י אָדָ֑ם עֵ֣ץ וָאֶ֔בֶן…

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that you will soon utterly perish off the land… you shall not prolong your days upon it, but shall utterly be destroyed. (27) And God shall scatter you among the peoples, and you will be left few in number among the nations… And there you shall serve gods, the work of human hands, wood and stone…”

All will not be completely lost however. The people, from amidst the darkness of their exile, will call out to God. They will return to God and God will return to them and they will be restored to their land.

The Three Paradigms of Jewish life

Thus, in these few short verses we are introduced to the overarching narrative arc that the Torah sets up as the cycle of the Jewish people: — revelatory wilderness, leading to — to redemptive living, followed by — exile and returning back to a revelatory-like experience, a wilderness experience, of finding God once again and returning to Eretz Yisrael, to redemptive living. A God pervasive Wilderness, The Land of Israel, Exile, A God pervasive Wilderness, The Land of Israel, Exile, etc.

I believe we can understand this cycle of redemption and exile by more closely looking at Moshe’s request to enter the land. A closer examination of that request will not only help us understand this Biblical phenomenon but shed light on what I understand to be three paradigms of Jewish religious life: The life of the wilderness, the life of Eretz Yisrael and the life of exile. These paradigms have tremendous ramifications for how we approach innovation and agility in the spirit of halakha.

The 20th-century philosopher Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz taught that a faith built on miracles is not much of a faith at all. The test of the durability of the ethos of the Torah imparted to the recently freed Jewish people would not be accomplished in the wilderness. That could only be determined absent the daily God suffused surrounding they found themselves in. A miraculous cloud led them during the day and a miraculous pillar of fire led them at night. They were fed food from the heavens. They heard the voice of God at Har Sinai, experiencing a collective theophany. Their every moment was drenched in sheer God consciousness. There was no escaping it.

This reality naturally leads to definitive and clear answers. A world of no ambiguity. A time when God is right in front of you does not allow for nuance and complexity. Either it is time to perform the service in the Mishkan or it is not. If it is not time and you go ahead there is no rationalization, no explanation, no conversation about intentions or changing realities. There is simply punishment for committing a wrong. A harsh and severe punishment. Even in the most cited example of Bnot Tzelafchad and their request to inherit their father’s land, they did not enter a Beit Midrash and engage in an exhaustive halakhic research project to ascertain what to do. They approached the prophet of all prophets, Moshe, who in turn approached God.

This reality, as comforting and reassuring as it is, is not meant to last. The people must leave the wilderness eventually. They must enter their own land and it is in that land that they will build houses and grow gardens. It is in that land that they will reap the harvest and engage in commerce. It is in that land that they will grapple with not always having a ready answer, with needing to confront new situations and unforeseen circumstances. They won’t be able to hit a rock and produce water. God’s voice will retreat to a smaller inner voice, that will not be easily discernible and certainly open to multiple interpretations.

In the midbar, they are led by a shepherd to their pasture. In the land, they are governed by systems they advocate for and create. This then was ultimately the underpinning of Moshe’s request to God to let him enter the land. Moshe says, “בָּעֵ֥ת הַהִ֖וא” I made the request at “that time,” the time we conquered the land of Sihon and Og.

Diplomacy First

If we recall from that incident of conquest in Sefer Bamidbar, Chapter 21 Moshe chose to take them off the charted course. They did not just simply wage a war, first they engaged in diplomacy:

“And Israel sent messengers unto Sihon king of the Amorites, saying: ’Let me pass through your land; we will not turn aside into field, or into vineyard; we will not drink of the water of the wells; we will go by the king’s highway, until we have passed your border.’”

The Midrash Tanchuma remarks that this was a novel approach. Moshe was not commanded to seek peace, “אף על פי שלא נצטוו לפתח להם בשלום בקשו מהם שלום.” Moshe alters the directions. He begins by utilizing soft power before resorting to the hard power of war.

Moshe demonstrated in that moment that he understood a new type of direction was needed as they began their entrance into the land. A new type of leadership, one that could be responsive to changing circumstances and new information, was necessary. It is no coincidence that Moshe recalls that very moment in his request to God but even so it is not enough.

Their entirely new and unprecedented reality of self-sustaining and self-governing freedom requires a new beginning. A beginning connected and with roots to the past but fully ready to challenge existing ways of doing things, to not hold up the status quo as a sacred and unalterable object of devotion and worship. It was the time of Yehoshua, no longer the time of Moshe.

The Sin of Absolute Certainty

This hardening of ways, of entombing Jewish life and practice into stone monuments befitting museums and not the dynamic nature of human existence is also deeply interwoven into the reason for exile that Moshe alludes to.

Moshe warns in his prophecy that after generations of living in the world of independent thought and leadership, after “כִּֽי־תוֹלִ֤יד בָּנִים֙ וּבְנֵ֣י בָנִ֔ים” we have raised children and grandchildren on the land, we will commit a grave wrong. That wrong will be so severe that it will warrant nothing short of exile. What is that wrong? “הִשְׁחַתֶּ֗ם וַעֲשִׂ֤יתֶם פֶּ֙סֶל֙ תְּמ֣וּנַת כֹּ֔ל” We will act corruptly on the land. We will make a graven image of physical life. And what will happen during our punishment of exile? “וַעֲבַדְתֶּם־שָׁ֣ם אֱלֹהִ֔ים מַעֲשֵׂ֖ה יְדֵ֣י אָדָ֑ם עֵ֣ץ וָאֶ֔בֶן” We will serve and worship the work of man as gods. We will consider stone and wood as gods.

What is the connection between our actions of corruption and the crafting of graven images with our punishment of serving the work of man, stone and wood, as gods?

The word for graven image, “pesel,” is bound up with the word “pasol,” inscribe, as in the commandment to inscribe the second tablets given to Moshe after the breaking of the first set. A tablet, like a graven image, is made to fit exact dimensions. It is created to suit a single unified need. When we are commanded to form the tablets, to inscribe on them, that is one of the few instances we are commanded to form such unambiguity. Otherwise, future acts of pesel, of graven images, are tremendous corruptions of our faith and our communal life.

It stems from a desire to impose conformity on diversity. To impose simplicity in a world of complexity. It is no coincidence that Moshe understood this would happen after generations of living in the paradigm of Eretz Yisrael, of living in the paradigm of creativity, nuance and human experience. This paradigm can be emotionally, intellectually and spiritually exhausting. The descendants of those who first entered the land would eventually seek a way to return to the wilderness model, where God tells us what to do with no ambiguity and we do it. This, though, is a corruption of our sacred trust and covenant.

Rav Avraham Yitzchak haKohen Kook understood this well. The spiritual giant who articulated a vision of Jewish renewal in the face of a dramatic change in reality, both globally and in the Jewish condition, wrote that:

“And how can man grow towards an appreciation of the greatness of the Divine…  Through the liberation of its imagination and of the expanse of its thought, through knowledge of the world and of life, through the wealth of the experience of all of existence. For this it is necessary to study all the wisdoms in the world, all ways of life, all different cultures, along with the ethical systems and religions of all nations and languages, so that, with greatness of soul, one will know how to purify them all. And clearly, the whole foundation of one’s understanding as a Jew will be built upon the foundation of the Torah in its complete and utter expansiveness, and one should always strive that his path will not be contracted and his mindset will not be limited and fragmented…”
(Arpalei Tohar, 33)

The paradigm of Eretz Yisrael is one of expansiveness. The paradigm of the wilderness and of exile is one of limitations and confinement. It is in living with agency and embracing our human intellect, reason and moral sense that we can come closer to experiencing the God who is limitless and infinite. The God who created the universe is not the God who is confined to “עֵ֣ץ וָאֶ֔בֶן” stone and wood, or of any graven image. That desire to impose absolute certainty and severe limitations is itself a form of avodah zarah, of idolatry.

Changing Realities and Different Responses

These different models of Jewish life and of approach to Jewish practice and law manifest throughout Jewish history up until the present day. Whenever there are changes in human reality, in our socio-political existence, there are those who seek the comfort of the definite, the embrace of the God suffused wilderness. In doing so the status quo is itself made into a sacred cow and behaviors of previous generations tied very much to their historical condition are lifted up as inseparable parts of Torah itself. The Torah becomes stone and wood.

This happened as Jews peered into the still burning embers of the Temple that we just mourned for this on the 9th of Av. This happened when Jews found themselves surrounded by the fervent upheaval of 19th century nationalism on the European continent and the possibility, dim as it was, to rekindle our connection to the Land of Israel presented itself. This happened when changes in the educational expectations of women in society knocked on the doors of Jewish communities, peered into our collective homes, and challenged our educational assumptions and gave birth to formal education for women. This happened when vast segments of Jews began violating traditional observance of Shabbat and holidays in public thoroughfares and in their shops and businesses for the first time in modern memory and the traditional notions of how one defined heresy and heretical behavior came under challenge.

This continues to happen today as our community confronts new challenges of postmodernism and of relativism, of new constructs of gender, of our understandings of the science behind free will and determinism. Just like during the birth of Zionism, of formal education for women, of secularism and denominationalism, we live in a time that presents us a fork in the road. We can choose the path of Eretz Yisrael, the path of embracing the expansiveness of possibility, of grappling with the new world. Alternatively, we can choose the path of the wilderness or of exile, where either through the absolute presence or the absolute absence of God, we seek to uphold the way things used to be, to rage against the newness that surrounds us and to lift up old behaviors and choices of previous generations as Divinely ordained.

Moshe, despite his unparalleled greatness, despite his attempt to adapt as evident in his diplomatic efforts with Sihon and Og, could not carry forward the people into the land. They needed Yehoshua. They needed a new model.

As we grapple with the profound challenges before us today, will we lead with Yehoshua or choose to stay with Moshe? This is the question by which all else is determined. The promised land or the wilderness. The model of human agency and human creativity or the model of retreat and complete certainty. May we choose wisely.

About the Author
Ben Greenberg is a rabbi, software developer and educator. He has worked as a campus rabbi at Harvard University and as a pulpit rabbi in Denver, CO. He currently works as a software developer in Tel Aviv. He lives with his family in Israel and is originally from San Diego, CA.
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