Moses: No Entry into Israel
Deuteronomy 3:23 speaks about Moses imploring, begging and pleading with God to allow him to enter the Land of Israel. But God says “no.” Why can't Moses go with the people into the Land of Israel?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
The simple answer is what the Torah writes explicitly. Moses sinned by failing to obey God's instruction. When the people thirsted for water, God told Moses to speak to a certain rock and it would bring forth its waters. Instead, Moses angered at the rebellious nation and struck the rock. And as a result, God informed him that both he and Aaron would not be allowed entry into the Land but would perish in the desert. (See Numbers 20:1-13.)
Many of the commentators, however, are bothered by the entire episode. What was really so serious about Moses's sin to warrant the punishment he received? It's true he failed to obey God's commandment precisely, and anger is certainly a bad quality. Yet it would hardly seem to warrant so severe a punishment as Moses's being barred from the cherished land. And none of his heartfelt prayers made the slightest dent in the Divine decree.
Several of the commentators explain as follows. God knew that Moses could not be the one to lead the nation into the Holy Land. Moses's stature was so great that had he led the Israelites into the Land, the Temple would have been built and never destroyed. The entry brought about by Moses would have been so sublime, we could have never been exiled afterwards.
Now as wonderful as that sounds, God knew that it was not meant to be. The Children of Israel would not have been able to maintain that same lofty level Moses would have established for them. In fact, Moses himself already foresaw their future slide to sinfulness (see e.g. Deut. 31:27). Had Moses led them in on such a level, it would have had a permanence the people would not have been able to live up to. When the people would later sin, God would not be able to destroy Moses's perfect Temple or undo their perfect entry. He would have had to destroy the Jewish people themselves.
Thus, although God normally hears all our prayers – especially of a person so righteous as Moses – in this case God had to request that Moses not pray anymore: "It is much to you; do not continue speaking to Me about this matter further" (Deut. 3:26). Such beautiful prayers God would have almost had to accept – but He knew Moses's wishes could not be.
Rather, Moses's student Joshua would lead the people in. And as great as Joshua was, he was not the ultimate perfection who was Moses. When the people would eventually slip and fall, God would be able to vent His rage on the Temple and exile the people – but preserve them to live on. (Sources: Seforno Deut. 3:26, Ohr HaChaim Deut. 1:37.)
My teacher Rabbi Yochanan Zweig suggested a different approach. He asked as follows. What was really so bad about Moses's act? It's true, hitting a rock instead of speaking to it lessened the miracle slightly. Rather than a rock producing water upon Moses's command, it only did so after being struck. But still, miraculous it was! God informed Moses that he failed to sanctify Him before the Children of Israel (20:12). Did Moses really not sanctify God at all?! He still pulled off quite a miraculous stunt!
R. Zweig explains by raising another issue. Why was Moses's punishment his not being allowed entry into the Land of Israel? Why was that the appropriate response to his failure?
The answer is that Israel is a special land. It appears physical on the outside: We till the soil, we plant, we harvest, we barter, we run an economy. Likewise, unlike our wholly-miraculous Exodus from Egypt, we would only merit the Holy Land if we would take weapons and fight conventional wars against its existing inhabitants.
But all of this is a mirage. Israel is really a land like no other. It appears physical, but the physical merely fulfills the wishes of the spiritual. The rain will come and our harvests will be bountiful only if we serve God properly. Its very physicality depends on our spiritual and ethical behavior. Israel is a land with physical life and physical qualities, but they are no more than a reflection of the spriritual standing of the nation.
To ready the people for entry into such a lofty land, Moses had to teach Israel the lesson of speaking to the rock. Had he done so, the people would have witnessed firsthand that if we obey God's will, the physical world will simply follow. No effort is required. The rock – representing the physical world – simply heeds our request and provides our needs.
Now, however, that Moses hit the rock, the opposite lesson was conveyed. Moses had to smash the rock to get the water out of it. The physical did not listen; it had to be forced. The special message of the Holy Land – of a physical and spiritual world working together – was lost. Moses failed (on his level) to fully ready the nation for entry into the Land of Israel, and so he would not be able to lead them there.