When Moses Was Left Behind


‘So, what’s new about Moses’ death?”

Back when I was teaching in Prague, one enthusiastic student loved to tease me about my obsession with the passing of Israel’s greatest teacher. In this fixation I am not alone: The Midrashim testify to subsequent generations’ feeling for Moses’ tragic grandeur.

From the outset of Ki Tavo, Moses informs the Israelites of the blessings they will receive should they be true to God’s laws, and the curses that will undoubtedly result should they not. With his strength flagging, Moses grooms them for the principles of the Torah in the living context of the Land, a challenge they will have to face without him. While the reading focuses on the national future, on a subliminal level there resonates the enigma of Moses’ own feelings about being left behind.

The first words, “Ki tavo el Haaretz,” has become the central motif of the final chapters of Devarim: “When you enter into the Land” — you, not me. Is there not a singular poignancy here, especially as we know how Moses himself longs to “enter the good land”?

A fairly unkind Midrash suggests that Moses’ irritation was driven by the suspicion that his 40-year devotion to the nation had gone unreciprocated, that Israel did not want him to accompany them into this new phase of their existence: “When Moses was nearing his end and Israel did not pray for him that he should enter the land, he assembled them and began scolding them: One man saved 60 myriads at the time of the Golden Calf, yet 60 myriads cannot save one man.” In other words, if Moses had not put all his might into praying for Israel at the time of the Golden Calf, God would have destroyed them and established Moses and his children as the new Israel. Flash forward, forty years later, and not one of those he had saved prayed that Moses accompany them! According to this reading, Moses’ utterance “But the Lord has not given you a heart to know” implies ingratitude. If Israel had wanted, things may have turned out differently. Why did they not? The same urge that drives children away from their parents and toward peers and a mate was what impelled Israel to opt for Joshua, someone closer to their own generation, to lead them into the Land. The truth is, during Moses’ lifetime, the Jewish people felt closer to the peace-seeking Aaron and the very human Miriam than to the remote lawgiver who could remain on top of Sinai for 40 days and nights without food or drink, and whose closest relationship was with God.

The ban on Moses’ entry into the land may be read not as a punishment but as merely a tragic description of something that had to be. Moses’ temperament was incompatible with the material confines of the land and was more at home in the pure desert air, from which Revelation emanated. While Moses may have yearned for human closeness, he lived on a very abstract level that was incompatible with actual life in the land.

The same sequence of Midrashim submits that Moses was referring to himself when pronouncing, “But the Lord has not given you a heart to know.” Forty years earlier, when he was in his prime, he did not realize that he could not have everything.

In Moses’ lifetime, God made decrees affecting Israel as a whole and Moses individually. The one affecting Israel was when they committed the sin of worshipping the Golden Calf. “Let Me alone,” said God to Moses, “that I may destroy them!” The other concerned Moses: “Thou shalt not cross this Jordan.” On both occasions, Moses entreated God to annul His decree.

According to this Midrash, God replied, “Moses, you do not know how to act! You wish to hold the rope by both ends. If you insist on ‘Let me go over, I pray Thee,’ then you must withdraw ‘Pardon, I pray Thee.’ And if you insist on ‘Pardon, I pray Thee,’ then you must withdraw ‘Let me go over, I pray Thee.’” Only one prayer could be granted on “grace” alone—one on either his own behalf, or on Israel’s, but not both.

Forty years before, in the ardor of youth, Moses had given it all away to the people. Now he wanted something for himself. The Midrash seeks to illustrate that Moses must take responsibility for his earlier choices. When his options were spelled out, says R. Joshua b. Levi, he did not hesitate; even in old age, he confirmed the generous bargain made when he was young: “Master of the Universe, let rather Moses and a hundred like him perish than that the fingernail of even one of the Jewish people be injured!”

During the painful separation process, the people must have felt acute unease for Moses’ ultimate sacrifice. But this speculation is a testament to the increasing appreciation of future generations for their beloved teacher as well as an encapsulation of a true leader’s ultimate choice.

Freema Gottlieb is a writer and lecturer. Her “Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light” has recently been released in an Amazon Kindle edition.

Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat Candles: 7:11 p.m.

Torah: Deut. 26:1-29:8

Haftarah: Isaiah 60:1-22

Havdalah: 8:10 p.m.