Time for a change: Why Moses was not allowed to go into the Promised Land

Rabbi Jeffrey Weill

By Rabbi Jeffrey Weill, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Vaetchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23–7:11)

G-d seems disproportionately angry at Moses in this week’s Torah portion, Vaetchanan, the second portion in Deuteronomy. As the portion begins, Moses describes how he had pleaded with G-d to allow him to enter the Promised Land. “Vaetchanan,” Moses recalled. “I pleaded!”

The root of that opening word is usually translated as grace. So, Moses was seeking just a little bit of divine grace. He wanted to elicit G-d’s attribute of compassion to allow him to enter the land of Canaan. He wanted, in Rashi’s phrasing, “matnat chinam,” a gratuitous gift. I know I don’t deserve it, G-d, but can I go in anyway?

Moses so badly wanted into the land that, according to a midrash, he prevailed upon various entities throughout the universe to plead to G-d on his behalf. These entities all rallied to Moses’s side and G-d still said no. G-d’s rejoinder was blunt.  “Enough with you! Do not again speak to me about this matter!” (Deuteronomy 3, 26).

Whoa! That’s quite a divine smack down against, of all people, Moses, G-d’s faithful servant! Rashi writes, “Nitmalei chaimah. G-d was filled with anger.”

One wonders, why? Why was G-d so “filled with anger” at Moses for this simple request? Could G-d not have answered more gently?

Our sages and commentaries are similarly taken aback and so they proceed to offer creative explanations for G-d’s stunningly stern rebuke.

One Talmudic explanation is that Moses, by asking for a favor he knew G-d would not grant, made G-d look fuller of judgment than compassionate in the eyes of the people (Sotah 13b).

Another possible explanation may be found in G-d’s retort “Rav lach! Enough with you!” Moses used similar language against the rebel Korach during the latter’s attempted putsch in the desert. G-d now wanted Moses to receive a taste of his own medicine. “Just as you spoke in anger to them, now you will hear [the same from G-d]” (Midrash Aggadah Deut. 3, 26, 2).

I appreciate this explanation for, even though Korach was an utterly self-serving scoundrel – and in fact used similar language against Moses and Aaron – G-d expected more from Moses. Leaders, this midrash is teaching, ought to be more dignified; they ought to speak in a more elevated fashion. Imagine that!

But there is an even more compelling explanation for G-d’s abrupt rejection of Moses’s plea. It also concerns leadership, namely the importance of the succession of leadership. As much as Moses wanted to enter the land, G-d knew allowing him to do so would be deleterious for the new leader, for Joshua, who was waiting in the wings to lead the people. How would Joshua be able to lead with Moses still hanging around? Imagine how difficult that would be for the new leader, the untested Joshua!

G-d knew it was time for a change, and G-d knew that Moses’s presence would impede that change. So by shutting down Moses so abruptly, G-d was not so much rebuking Moses as protecting Joshua. G-d was aiding the new leader in what would surely be a challenging circumstance – succeeding the great Moses.

In parshat Pinchas, when Moses laid his hands upon Joshua, we learn some of his splendor transferred to the younger leader. Some, not all, for, as our sages remark, Moses shined like the sun, and Joshua glowed like the moon. The sun, of course, is astronomically brighter than the moon. Joshua was no Moses, but who is? G-d therefore desired to give Joshua an opportunity to establish himself without his daunting predecessor hanging around.

A smooth succession of leadership is critically important for any institution – political, business, and, of course, religious. In our own community, prudent rabbis emeritus exercise what might be called rabbinic tzimtzum – withdrawal, contraction – to allow the new rabbi to succeed.  That withdrawal demands a measure of humility. Not all rabbis muster that requisite humility during a congregation’s critical time of transition. This results in ill will and demonstrates a lack of kavod for the new rav.

On the other hand, the new rabbi ought to muster her or his own measure of humility, for the predecessor – now perhaps near the end of a career – deserves honor and acknowledgement from the successor.  Our tradition, moreover, is extraordinarily sensitive to the needs of our elders. We are commanded to affirm them by rising before the aged (Leviticus 19, 32). And, to paraphrase the psalmist, it feels downright awful and demoralizing to be cast aside in one’s old age (Psalm 71, 9).

We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. I and many others in my congregation have learned both from our beloved rabbi emeritus, Neil Brief, as well as from the elders – full of wisdom! – among us. As we make our way through Moses’s valedictory sermons in the Book of Deuteronomy, may we approach the new year fully committed to make room for our new rabbis and our younger congregants – appreciating their vision and enthusiasm – while honoring and learning from our elders as well.

Rabbi Jeffrey Weill is rabbi of Ezra-Habonim, The Niles Township Jewish Congregation.

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