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Why Couldn't Moshe Enter the Land of Israel?

V'etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11 )


Parshat Vaetchanan starts with a prayer – Moshe's plea that he be permitted to cross the Jordan and enter the Promised Land:

And I pleaded with God at that time, saying, Almighty God, You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness, and Your mighty hand; for what god is there in heaven or earth, that can do Your works or has Your might? I beg You, let me go over, and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that goodly mountain region, and the Levanon. (Devarim 3:23-25)

But Moshe was rebuffed, his plea rejected:

But God was angry with me for your sakes, and would not hear me; and God said to me, Let it suffice you; speak no more to me of this matter. Go up to the top of Pisgah, and lift up your eyes westward, and northward, and southward, and eastward, and behold it with your eyes; for you shall not go over this Jordan. But charge Yehoshua, and encourage him, and strengthen him; for he shall go over before this people, and he shall cause them to inherit the land which you shall see. So we remained in the valley opposite Beit-Peor. (Devarim 3:26-29)

Moshe will not enter the land; his feet will not cross the Jordan, but his eyes will behold the land from afar. But that is not all that he is told: The rejection is verbose, not a simple "no". The other elements that are introduced leave us confused: Moshe tells the people that God was angry with him "for their sake" (verse 26). This seems to be a strange way to recount history. Moshe's punishment and death is described a number of times in the Torah, as an outcome of Moshe's own actions, his own indiscretion:

And Moshe and Aharon gathered the congregation together before the rock, and he said to them, Hear now, you rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock? And Moshe lifted up his hand, and with his rod he struck the rock twice; and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their beasts also. And God said to Moshe and Aharon, Because you did not believe me to sanctify me in the eyes of the People of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them. (Bamidbar 20:10-12)

And God said to Moshe, Go up this Mount Avarim, and see the land which I have given to the People of Israel. And when you have seen it, you also shall be gathered to your people, as Aharon your brother was gathered. For you rebelled against My commandment in the desert of Zin, in the strife of the congregation, to sanctify me at the water before their eyes; that is the water of Merivah in Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin. (Bamidbar 27:12-14)

On two occasions God tells Moshe he will not enter the land due to his sin in the episode known as the "Waters of Contention". It seems strange that Moshe says to the people that it is their fault, and not his own, which has brought his tragic fate upon him.

This is not the only place in the Book of Devarim where Moshe refers to his punishment and introduces the role of the masses. While giving a retrospective of the sin of the spies Moshe states:

And you came near me every one of you, and said, We will send men before us, and they shall search us out the land, and bring us word again by which way we must go up, and to what cities we shall come… And God heard the voice of your words, and was angry, and swore, saying, Surely there shall not one of these men of this evil generation see that good land, which I swore to give to your fathers, save Calev the son of Yefuneh; he shall see it, and to him will I give the land that he has trodden upon, and to his children, because he has wholly followed God. Also God was angry with me for your sakes, saying, You also shall not go in there. But Yehoshua the son of Nun, who stands before you, he shall go in there; encourage him; for he shall cause Israel to inherit it. (Devarim 1:22, 34-38)

While we accept the word of Moshe completely, it seems difficult to take his statements at face value in light of the seemingly contradictory statements made by God regarding the reason Moshe was punished. We are therefore left with a quandary: are we meant to reinterpret the word of God or the words of Moshe?

The rabbinic/midrashic sources are themselves at conflict regarding the reason for Moshe's death outside the borders of the Land of Israel. One midrash relates Moshe's punishment to an incident that had transpired years before:

Another explanation: R. Levi said: Moshe said to God: 'Master of the Universe, the bones of Yosef are entering the Land, and am I not to enter the Land?! The Holy One, blessed be He, answered him: 'He who acknowledged his native land is to be buried in that land but he who did not acknowledge his native land does not merit to be buried in his land. Whence do we know that Yosef acknowledged his native land? His mistress exclaimed of him, "See, he has brought in a Hebrew, etc." (Bereishit 39:14); and he did not deny it, but in addition said, "For indeed I was stolen away out of the land of the Hebrews (Bereishit 40:15); he is to be buried in his native land. Whence do we know this? For it is said, "And the bones of Yosef, which the Children of Israel brought up out of Egypt, they buried in Shechem (Yehoshua 24:32). 'But you who did not acknowledge your native land will not be buried in that land.' When was this? When the daughters of Yitro said, 'An Egyptian delivered us from the hand of the shepherds (Shmot 2:19), and Moshe heard and kept silent; therefore he is not to be buried in his land. (Midrash Rabbah Devarim 2:8)

Moshe's punishment is attributed to his failure to identify himself as an Israelite. This tradition is not necessarily irreconcilable with God's explanation of the punishment: we may say that Moshe's death in exile was due to the episode with the rock, but this would not necessarily have precluded his remains from being brought to Israel for burial.(1) This Midrash explains why Yosef merited having his remains buried in Israel, while Moshe did not. And yet, this midrashic tradition poses a much greater challenge: While we may understand Moshe's burial, we are no closer to understanding his death. According to this midrashic approach, long before Moshe assumed the mantle of leadership he was destined to fail, destined to lead the people up to the Holy Land – and no further. He was destined to remain in exile, even after death.

Another Midrash attributes Moshe's punishment to another episode that transpired before he became leader: Moshe demurred and did not immediately answer God's call to assume leadership. As for refusing to take up the reigns of leadership, Moshe will eventually lose his leadership position.(2)

According to another Midrash, Moshe pleaded with God that the nature of the sin for which he was punished be revealed to all:

Moshe said before God: 'Master of the Universe, let my actual sin be written down for future generations that Israel may not say, "Moshe falsified something in the Torah" or, "he spoke something which he had not been commanded"; and they shall know that it was merely because of the water [that I was punished].' Thus [it is written], " that time, saying…" (Midrash Rabbah Devarim 2:6)

Here, the reason for Moshe's death is clearly, unequivocally associated with the "Waters of Contention". Ironically, Moshe's request that his sin be clearly revealed to all was confounded by his own words. On two separate occasions Moshe seems to lay blame on the people: in last week's parsha, Devarim, when he states "Also God was angry with me for your sakes, saying, You also shall not go in there" (Devarim 1:37), and again in this week's parsha, Vaetchanan, "But God was angry with me for your sakes, and would not hear me; and God said to me, Let it suffice you; speak no more to me of this matter." (Devarim 3:26)

Some commentaries understand these two statements as communicating the same idea – Moshe is placing the blame on the people.(3) However, the two statements do not actually say the same thing.(4) The context of the earlier soliloquy is Moshe's recounting of the sin of the spies, which pre-dated the Waters of Contention episode by approximately thirty-nine years. As a result of this sin the entire generation will perish in the desert, and the day on which it was committed lives on in infamy(5) throughout Jewish history. Perhaps Moshe's re-telling of these events, and the association he makes between the sin of the spies and his own fate, are meant to provide a larger context: Had the spies not sinned, there would not have been a forty year period of wandering in the desert. The same people who left Egypt would have entered the land thirty-nine years earlier – with Moshe leading the way. They would never have experienced the shortage of water, and the rock never would have been struck.(6)

The Seforno(7) takes this idea even further: Not only was that generation told that they would spend their remaining days in the desert, watching the years pass by as the entire generation died out, they were also told that the decree would not end there. The day of the sin of the spies would be a day of mourning throughout the generations. This idea is mentioned in the Talmud:

Rabbah said in the name of R. Yochanan: That night was the night of the ninth of Av. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to them: You have wept without cause, therefore I will set [this day] aside for weeping throughout the generations to come. (Talmud Bavli Ta'anit 29a)

Similarly, when the tragedies in the desert are recounted in the book of Tehilim, an echo of this same decree is included:

And they despised the pleasant land, they did not believe his word; And they murmured in their tents, and did not listen to the voice of God. And He lifted up His hand against them, to make them fall in the wilderness; And to make their seed fall among the nations, and to scatter them throughout the lands. (Tehilim 106: 24-27)

Not only will they die in the desert, but their descendents will be scattered: One day, centuries later, the Temple will fall and the Children of Israel will be exiled – all because of the sin of the spies. The Seforno sees all three catastrophic events – the forty years of wandering and the replacement of the generation of the Exodus, Moshe's death, and the destruction of the Beit haMikdash – as consequences of the sin of the spies. Moshe could not enter the Land of Israel because of the sin of the spies and the consequences of that sin;(8) according to the Seforno, had Moshe entered the land, there would never – could never – have been an exile.(9) (10)

The Ohr HaChaim(11) takes this same approach to its inescapable conclusion: Had Moshe entered the Land, the Temple would have been built – and could never have been destroyed; such was the spiritual power of Moshe.(12) Had the Jews sinned despite this spiritual center, God would have destroyed the people, while the building would have remained standing, intact and unscathed. God did not allow Moshe to enter the Land so that He could take out his "anger" on the building, on the stone and mortar of the Beit haMikdash, rather than on the people who had transgressed. The people would be exiled, not annihilated. Thus, Moshe rightly explains, his own punishment was "for your sakes."(13)

The Malbim envisions what might have been: Had Moshe led the people into the Land of Israel, he would have ushered in the Final Redemption, the culmination of human history – the "End of Days." All of humankind would have been impacted by the enlightenment of the Messianic Age that would have ensued. Apparently, God knew then what we know only in hindsight: neither the Jews nor the pagans were ready. Our spiritual development was still in its infancy.(14)

When the generation that left Egypt sinned in the episode of the spies, it became abundantly clear that they were not on the moral and ethical level that would allow them to enter the Holy Land; they were unprepared for the Messianic Age, undeserving of the Messiah. At that moment, they proved that they were unworthy of Moshe's leadership. Moshe remains in exile – because of them, because of their spiritual immaturity.(15) There was one last hope, one last chance for Moshe's fate to be changed: If the new generation would have more faith than their parents, if this new generation that would enter the land had proven itself worthy of Moshe's leadership, the decree could have been rescinded. Tragically, this was not the case. When the generation of the children repeats the complaints of their parents, Moshe hits the rock, and they, too, are denied Moshe's presence as their leader(16) and savior.(17)

Moshe, for his part, would have been willing to enter the Promised Land in a non-leadership position. As we saw at the outset, leadership was never high on Moshe's "to do" list. He was never interested in the power or the prestige that came with the job, had never sought out the spotlight. Perhaps, he thought, he might pass the leadership position on to Yehoshua – which was the first item on his agenda when God informed him of his imminent demise – and enter the Land of Israel as a private citizen,(18) a retiree, "leader emeritus." He was very clearly told that this was impossible.(19)

There is one further(20) consideration(21) regarding Moshe's "punishment" that we should consider:(22) Moshe was the leader of the generation that left Egypt and never quite made it to Israel. The entire generation arrived at the cusp, stood poised on the border, but did not cross over. Ultimately, Moshe was part and parcel of that generation; if his flock remained behind, Moshe, too, must remain with them. Truly, "for their sakes" he remained behind, remained with his people in every way, sharing their fate.(23)

It is a basic tenet of our faith that Moshe, together with all those who did not merit entering the Land of Israel – both in Moshe's generation and throughout the ages – will arise from their resting places and inherit their place among the People of Israel in the Holy Land. When the Temple is finally rebuilt, it will be everlasting, as it was always intended to be, and the Messianic Age will bring true enlightenment to us all. May we be worthy of it, speedily, in our days!

  1. The Midrash Tanaim 31:14 labels God's position as a "decree": it was decreed was made that Moshe could not enter – alive or dead.
  2. Mechilta d'Rashbi 3:8.
  3. For example, see Rabbenu Bachya, Bamidbar 20:8, who mentions both these verses in one breath, and reconciles them with the Waters of Contention.
  4. See the Drashot Haran, the ninth Drasha, who insists that the two verses have two separate meanings, also see the Haemek Davar cited below.
  5. See Rashi Psalms 106:27.
  6. When the rock was struck Moshe was accused of not having faith in God, a suggestions which at face value seems preposterous, it is noteworthy that in Devarim, right before Moshe blames the people for causing his demise, Moshe observes that the people did not have faith. "Yet in this thing you did not believe the Lord your God" 1: 32. Perhaps knowing that they did not have faith is what required Moshe to act in a way which would instill faith; by speaking to the rock, when Moshe failed he was therefore accused on "not having faith". See the comments of the Taz Devarim 3:26.
  7. Seforno Dvraim 1:37.
  8. See Rambam Beit Habichira 4:1; Rav Yehuda Cooperman, Kedushat Pshuto Shel Mikra (Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook, 2009) volume 2, pp 398ff.
  9. See the commentary of the Seforno, Devarim 3:25-26.
  10. See the commentary of the Seforno to Bamidbar 1:2, and 10:35, had Moshe led the people to Israel directly from Sinai, the conquest would have been miraculous, with no war, no bloodshed.
  11. Ohr Hachaim Devarim 1:37.
  12. Based on Talmud Bavli Sotah 9a. See the Alshech on Bamidbar chapter 14. This alludes to Moshe and David over whose works [in erecting a Sanctuary] their enemies had no power. Of [the Temple planned by] David, it is written: Her gates are sunk in the ground. With regard to Moshe the Master said: After the First Temple was erected, the Tent of Meeting was stored away, its boards, hooks, bars, pillars and sockets.
  13. See Rav Yonatan Eybshitz, Ahavat Yahonatan, Devarim 3:26.
  14. See Malbim, Torah Ohr Bamidbar 14.
  15. Malbim, Bamidbar 20, states that the sin of hitting the rock is insufficient to explain the enormous punishment that Moshe suffered; rather, he posits that Moshe's death had already been decreed with the sin of the spies.
  16. Malbim, ibid.
  17. Malbim, Devarim 3:26.
  18. For a tragic midrashic reconstruction of the dialogue between Moshe and God regarding Moshe's desperate desire to somehow enter the land as leader or layman, alive or dead, for even a brief period of time, see Otzar Midrashim Eizenstein page 356.
  19. See Malbim, ibid.
  20. There may be another consideration: God decreed that the entire generation would perish, and God also decreed that Moshe would die. Had Moshe succeeded in changing his own death sentence, it would have seemed less than fair that he did not do the same for the others. Did he not pray hard enough on their behalf? Was God "guilty" of favoritism? The Siftei Kohen Devarim 3:26 teaches that Moshe was offered the option of saving only himself – and rejected it out of hand.
  21. There are other sources that speak of God having made a vow which could not be broken. See Midrash Rabbah Devarim 2:8, and Siftei Kohen, above.
  22. The Netziv, Devarim 3:26, opines that Moshe explained that his punishment was not "because of" the Jewishh Peoople, but "for the benefit" of the Jewish People: Moshe stayed with them in exile in order to protect the Jews from the destructive power of Peor – and the verses that give the geographical context for Moshe's speech are far more than mere landmarks; they explain why Moshe must remain "in the valley opposite Beit-Peor."
  23. See Midrash Rabbah D'varim 2:9, Chizkuni D'varim 3:26.


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