‘See Forever Eyes’ Parashat Va’etchanan 5782
Moshe stands on the east bank of the Jordan River, just a stone’s throw from the Land of Canaan. As far as he is concerned, though, he could be standing a million miles away. Because of one sin he committed, he was forever forbidden from entering the land and was destined to die in the wilderness. In a last ditch attempt to change the ruling, he petitions G-d [Devarim 3:25]: “Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon”. G-d is unswayed and He declines Moshe’s petition. Instead, He makes Moshe a counteroffer [Devarim 3:27]: “Go up to the summit of Pisgah and gaze to the west, the north, the south, and the east. See it with your eyes, for you shall not go across the Jordan.”
At first glance, G-d seems to be throwing salt on the wounds. He tells Moshe to climb a mountain, where he will be able to see a land that he will never enter. You can look but you can’t touch. Why even bother? Further, why does G-d tell Moshe to cast his eyes in all four directions, including the east? The Jewish People were encamped on the east bank of the Jordan River. Looking towards the east would place modern-day Jordan and Saudi Arabia in his line of sight and these places do not lie within the borders of the Land of Israel. What could Moshe gain by looking in that direction?
Before we address these questions, we direct our attention to scripture’s description of Moshe’s final moments in which he actually climbs the summit of Pisgah [Devarim 34:1-4]: “Moshe went up from the steppes of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the summit of Pisgah, opposite Jericho, and G-d showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan. all Naphtali; the land of Ephraim and Manasseh; the whole land of Judah as far as the Western Sea. The Negeb; and the Plain – the Valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees – as far as Zoar. G-d said to him, ‘This is the Land I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your offspring.’ I have shown it to you with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.’” Notice the evolution in the way in which Moshe will see the land. First, Moshe asks to [Devarim 3:25] “see (re’eh)” the land. G-d responds that Moshe will [Devarim 3:27] “see with his eyes (re’eh b’e’necha)”. When Moshe finally climbs Mount Nebo, he does not “see” the land, rather, he is [Devarim 34:1] “shown” the land. In G-d’s final words to Moshe, He tells him that He has [Devarim 34:4] “shown it to him with his eyes”. What is the difference between seeing the land and seeing it with one’s eyes? And what is the difference between seeing the land and being shown the land?
The only commentator I have seen who addresses any of these questions is Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, known as the Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh, who lived in Morocco in the first half of the eighteenth century. The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh explains that “seeing with one’s eyes” means seeing without the use of a magnification device such as binoculars or a telescope. Rashi, the most eminent of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, does away with the requirement for any kind of extrenal magnification by asserting that Moshe did not see the Land of Israel with his physical retina, rather, he saw before his eyes a prophecy: “[G-d] showed him all the land of Israel in its prosperity and the oppressors who in future time would oppress it”. Moshe saw the Holy Temple (Beit HaMikdash) twice built and twice destroyed. He saw Jerusalem under Roman rule, under Ottoman rule, and under Israeli rule. He saw King David, Titus, and Benjamin Netanyahu. But if Moshe was not surveying the landscape, why, then, did he have to climb the mountain?
Our answer to these questions begins with one final question: What did Moshe stand to gain by entering the Land of Israel? Did he want to walk on the beach in Tel Aviv or buy a shawarma in the Machaneh Yehuda market? The Talmud in Tractate Sotah [14a] puts it succinctly: “Did [Moshe] need to eat of its produce, or did he need to satisfy himself from its goodness?” The Talmud answers that Moshe wanted to enter the Land of Israel only in order to be able to perform commandments that can only be performed in Israel (mitzvot ha’teluyot ba’aretz), such as giving tithes and observing the shemittah year. Let us continue down this path. Why do we perform mitzvot (commandments)? Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, who lived in the eighteenth century in Eastern Europe, writes in his monumental Tanya that the Torah is the mathematical projection of the Word of G-d onto our corporeal universe. When we perform the mitzvot, we are connecting with G-d in the deepest sense of the word. The reason that Moshe wanted to perform mitzvot tied to the Land of Israel was because he wanted to experience aspects of G-dliness that he had not yet experienced, to see G-d from angles that he had not yet seen.
How does one experience G-dliness? Is the experience of the Divine a one way street in which He broadcasts and we receive? How can we participate in a dialogue with G-d if the channels of prophecy have been sealed shut for the past two and a half thousand years? Over the past week, I have been engaging in a fairly heated email exchange on this very topic with one of my closest friends. He asked, “How does G-d speak to us? Through Torah. The point of Torah is that it tells us what G-d wants from us and, for us, that is available even when He is hidden.” I countered by asking him, “One could posit that the Torah is impersonal and that man craves a real dialogue with the Divine.” My friend responded, “If Torah is true and eternal, then by definition G-d speaks to us through it. Hearing His voice, as opposed to reading impersonal words, may require more effort on our part. But is it not true that we must work at it to recognize that we have a relationship with G-d?” He was on to something – we just needed to tease it out. I replied: “Through the Torah, we can only listen to G-d. We can engage in a dialogue only when we feel a response to our words. For that to occur, we need to experience G-d’s actions, via nature, geopolitics, or the like.” And then he delivered his coup de grace: “We were all present at Sinai. The revelation of Sinai was made for every Jew who would ever live… If Torah is eternal, then each of us can find within it what we need to live and to make sense of the world. In other words, G-d speaks to us through Torah. Why is that not a dialogue?” He summarised his argument eloquently: “When Torah provides me with perspectives, rules and answers, I consider myself to be in dialogue with G-d… A dialogue is an exchange, whether in the form of questions and answers, or in an argumentative form. if Torah answers my questions, if Torah gives me comfort in hard times, if Torah teaches me, there is a dialogue.” Checkmate.
Moshe did not need to stand upon Israeli soil. He did not need to see the future. Moshe was the greatest prophet that ever lived. Before his death he needed to be certain that a Jew would always have the capability experiencing G-dliness without a medium such as himself. Moshe petitions G-d that He remain close enough to the Jewish People so that they be able to “see” Him. G-d replies by telling Moshe that man needs to be able to see G-d even when He is nowhere to be found, not to the north, south, east or west. Man must always be able to create his own “promised land” with his own eyes. But how?
Alone on the mountain top, Moshe remembered a different mountain top where, forty years earlier, G-d Himself had taught him the secrets of the Torah. The Torah would be the medium through which G-d maintains a dialogue with us. “Torah” means “to teach”. G-d is not a passive observer. In our times of our greatest joy and in our darkest hours, G-d constantly speaks with us. He consoles us. He guides us. Forever.
If only we listen to Him.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5782
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Geisha bat Sara, and Batya Sarah bat Hinda Leah.