by Rabbi Avi Billet
Why did Moshe not enter the Promised Land?
If you ask Moshe, he blames the Jewish people. Several times.
First is in Parshat Devarim (which we read this past Shabbos) in 1:37 - “God also got angry at me because of you saying ‘You too will not go there.’” Here Moshe is clearly talking in the context of the spies story, suggesting that he too was included in the decree that “everyone over 20,” with the exception of Kalev and Yehoshua, would die in the wilderness.
Twice in our parsha he makes a similar claim: After recounting a request he made of God as to the possibility of crossing the Jordan, “God got angry at me on your account and He did not listen,” and he told me to drop it. (3:26)
In 4:21, in the context of telling the people of Revelation, and important rules surrounding not abandoning God, Moshe says, “God was angry at me on your words (possibly 'deeds'). And He swore I would not be crossing the Jordan and entering the land.”
Or HaChaim in Devarim 1 says it’s absolutely true that Moshe was prevented from going into the land on account of the spies. [He argues that Moshe also could not enter because had he entered the Land he’d have built the Holy Temple, and God would never have allowed Moshe’s Temple to be destroyed.]
The spies episode lowered the spiritual level of the Jewish people, and changed their DNA into a DNA of strife and negativity.
In Or HaChaim’s view, the sin at Mei Merivah (when Moshe hit the rock) was that he had the opportunity to sanctify God’s name, and bring the spiritual DNA of the Jewish people back to where it needed to be. The opportunity was lost, however, because Moshe felt the people needed a different message to be shared with them, in line with their complaints which indicated they were not ready to hear the proper message.
In our parsha (4:21), Moshe seems to be blaming his inability to enter the land on something that happened at the bottom of Sinai, at the time of Revelation, most specifically related to something the people said or did.
Sha"kh (R Mordechai HaKohen – 17th century) suggests that as Moshe is talking about Sinai, he is referring to their words at Sinai. And of course, their words at Sinai references either the Golden Calf incident or the hypocrisy of saying Naaseh V’Nishma (accepting the Torah unconditionally) and then whatever they said when they worshiped the Golden Calf.
Their role there would indicate that from that point Moshe, the individual, would not be going into the land on personal merits, but perhaps he still felt he could enter on his leader merits.
This makes no sense, however, when we consider that Moshe had nothing to do with the Golden Calf! He was on a mountain, while it was his brother Aharon – who at this point is already deceased – who dealt with the people and was somewhat behind the Golden Calf.
R Pinchas HaLevi Horowitz, in his Panim Yafot, explains it in the following way. Sinai and the giving of the Torah was a watershed moment in how the Jewish people were to relate to God. Up until that point, to help the people be weaned from idolatrous Egypt, where every miracle and special event was marked by a tribute to some physical act, statue, or divinity, for any event the Israelites experienced, they needed an action or a symbol to help them see and understand how God was playing a role in their lives.
Moshe used his staff to effect the plagues and to draw water from the rock in Refidim – as he was commanded to in Shmot 17, right before the war with Amalek. (Fascinatingly - he was told to remove his staff and use his hand to split the sea (see Kli Yakar on Bamidbar 20)
In the Amalek war, Moshe’s hands were held up as inspiration and as a symbol leading to victory.
And then Sinai happened.
All of a sudden, because God spoke, and they heard God and had no need to see Him, every similar miracle thereafter was to be accomplished through speech, without a symbol: the splitting of the Jordan – no action taken, at the “rock” incident at Mei Merivah, Moshe was told to speak to the rock, when Yehoshua fought a difficult battle in the Book of Yehoshua, he said “the sun should stay still in Givon,” a statement that was not accompanied by any symbolic action; when the people fought against Amalek in Parshat Chukat (Bamidbar 21:2-3), the Torah tells us “Israel made a vow” – allowing the outcome of the battle to be based on speech and prayer!
So how did their words/deeds cause God to get angry at Moshe, who was not involved in the Golden Calf incident? Because their words and subsequent deeds caused Moshe to get angry, and to lose faith in their worthiness to have a miracle happen based in speech. This happened at both episodes: at the bottom of Sinai, and at the rock incident. Moshe broke the tablets, Moshe struck the rock, even though he could have accomplished the same thing in both cases with words alone, had he only given the Israelites a chance to listen to the correct words.
The problem according to Panim Yafot, is that as Moshe tells them in our parsha how they are to avoid any image or symbol to help them connect with the Divine – referring to some king of idolatry – Moshe is showing how he did not do that! He reminds the people of a time when he broke the tablets on account of what they had been doing, and how he also denied their ability to connect with the Divine through speech alone: serving God is a spiritual endeavor of the highest level, in which an image has no place. His using the tablets instead of speech to rebuke the people angered God. (even as God felt his breaking the tablets had merit - BT Shabbat 87a)
Moshe had mistakenly believed Israel had fallen back to their previous status.
We should make no mistake about it. They had sinned. But just as we would never accuse someone who has converted to Judaism who is caught eating a cheeseburger of being a non-Jew (the person is a Jew despite the sin), Moshe had no right to assume that a sin reverted their status to what it had been before Revelation.
Sha"kh suggests this process even began when God admonished Moshe as he was still atop the mountain, before he even witnessed their sin, when He told Moshe “Go down for your nation has become corrupt.”
We are at a time when we must be ready to receive the word of God through hearing (ie Shema). Our world is increasingly training us to only believe things we see. If there’s no picture, it didn’t happen; if there’s no video, I don’t believe it.
What does it take to trust in God? For Moshe, if we are still doing what the Israelites were doing in his day, being unworthy of understanding a message unless there's a symbol or image attached to it, neither we or he are worthy of the Promised Land. Far be it from us to continue to carry that blame.
We need to fix the flaws and faux pas of past generation Jews.
Na'aseh V'Nishma is the answer. Do mitzvot because God said so. Everything else is a distraction.