Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Devarim 5760/2000

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Devarim 5760/ 5 August 2000

Why Did Moses Not Enter the Promised Land?

Rabbi Ben-Zion Krieger

Midrashah for Women

According to what we read in Numbers (20:1-12) Moses did not enter the promised land because of his sin at the Waters of Meribah, which took place during the last year of the Israelites' wandering in the wilderness. In this week's reading, however, it seems that Moses' not entering the land had to do with the sin of the spies, which took place during the Israelites' second year in the wilderness. In the context of his rebuke to the Israelites regarding the affair of the spies (Deut. 1:37-38) Moses complains that he, too, was punished on their account and denied entry into the land. "Because of you the Lord was incensed with me, too, and he said: You shall not enter it either. Joshua son of Nun, who attends you, he shall enter it. Imbue him with strength, for he shall allot it to Israel."

Indeed, what connection is there between the sin of the spies, which was entirely a matter of the Israelites and the spies, and Moses not entering the land? Nahmanides claims that the two things are actually not related and that Moses combined two separate sins of Israel because they had similar consequences: the sin of the spies resulted in the Israelites not entering the land and the sin at the Waters of Meribah resulted in Moses not entering the land. As Nahmanides puts it:

The sin which you [Israel] committed at that time with regard to the spies led to your being denied entry into the good land; yet you continued to sin again, until you prevented me [Moses], too, from entering the land. For he wanted to mention together the punishment of all those who were prevented from entering the land, since it was all by reason of their sins. [1]

This interpretation raises certain difficulties: 1) Why did Moses not wait until he had finished his rebuke concerning the spies before discussing the sin at the Waters of Meribah? 2) What great benefit was there in combining both affairs, so far apart from each other in time and place? Indeed, this question was raised by Or Ha-Hayyim (R. Hayyim ben-Atar):

His [Nahmanides'] remarks do not seem plausible to me, for I observe that he [Moses] was still talking about the affair of the spies, insofar as Scripture continues with the words, "Moreover, your little ones who you said would be carried off," etc.(Deut.1:39) to the end of the paragraph, all of which concerns the spies. So why should he have interrupted himself in the midst of one matter with another matter that was not to the point? As for the Rabbi's [i.e. Nahmanides] witticism that he wished to mention together all those who were prevented from entering the land, because they themselves were the cause of this, I fail to see what benefit there is in so doing.

Other commentators, however, did find a closer connection between the two matters:

Saadiah Gaon explained that the sin of the spies caused the Israelites to be delayed another thirty-eight years in the wilderness, and as a result the sin at the Waters of Meribah took place, leading in turn to the edict that Moses not enter the land. If the Jews had not sinned in the matter of the spies they would have entered the land under Moses' leadership back in the second year after the exodus from Egypt.

Kli Yakar added a sound argument in support of this interpretation. As a result of being detained in the wilderness, it came time for Miriam to pass away. When she died the special well, which had been her gift, disappeared and this led to the difficulties at the Waters of Meribah.

Sforno and Or ha-Hayyim both take an identical approach. There is indeed a connection between Moses' punishment and the sin of the spies; Moses was punished and denied entry to the land in order that Israel weep forever over the destruction of the Temple. For the subsequent destruction of the Temple and exile of the Jewish people after their coming to the land were part and parcel of the punishment for the sin of the spies. [2] This is alluded to in Numbers 14:1: "...and the people wept that night," taken midrashically to mean the night of the Ninth of Av, and further explained in Psalms (106:26-27): "So He raised His hand in oath to make them fall in the wilderness, to disperse their offspring among the nations and scatter them through the lands." Likewise, the prophet Ezekiel (20:23) attested, "However, I swore to them in the wilderness that I would scatter them among the nations and disperse them through the lands." But if Moses had entered the land and built the Temple, it would never have been destroyed.

One could also say that had it not been for the sin of the spies the Holy One, blessed be He, would not have dealt so harshly with Moses regarding his sin at the Waters of Meribah, which on the face of it did not appear so grave, [3] and might have given in to Moses' pleading and entreating. However, the need to punish the Israelites also prevented a pardon for Moses, for how could they all perish in the desert and the leader enter the land? Is the leader not to be held responsible? It seems this it what the Sages had in mind in their comments on the verse, "Because of you the Lord was incensed with me too":

He said to him: You are giving a bad name to the generation of the wilderness; [shall people say only] one among them was worthy and entered the land? [Is it right that] they not come, while you do enter the land? In days to come you shall enter the land and they shall come with you, as it is said: "he will come [with] the heads of the nation" (Deut. 33:21). Hence it says, "because of you." [4]

Following the lead of our parasha, Abarbanel found a weakness in Moses' handling of the incident of the spies for which he was punished and not allowed to enter the land:

Indeed, Moses sinned. For, when Israel asked to send spies they said none other than, "let us send men ... to bring back word on the route we shall follow and cities we shall come to" (Deut. 1:2); also the Lord instructed him none other than to "send men to scout the land of Canaan" (Num. 13:2). But Moses added extensively to the mission, for he commanded them to see whether the people dwelling in the land are "strong or weak, few or many? Is the country ... good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? ... Is it wooded or not?" (Num. 13:18-20). The questions he asked them were undoubtedly well-meant to cheer Israel with good tidings; but they led to what they led ... Insofar as he, bless his memory, sinned unwittingly and with only good intentions, whereas the Israelites sinned knowingly, the Lord wished to spare the honor of Moses, and thus his punishment was not decreed along with the punishment decreed against the people in Parashat Shelah... Therefore He saw fit at that time (the sin at the Waters of Meribah) to give them their punishment for their earlier sins; thus the Waters of Meribah was but a means to the end, and not the end itself. [5]

Moses' sin, according to Abarbanel, lay in his enlarging on the charge given the spies, which caused them to overstep the bounds of their mission.

Perhaps we can say that Moses' failing lay in the very fact of his having consented to send spies. This explanation is based on Rashi's approach to the issue of the spies. [6] In his opinion, the initiative for sending the spies came from the Israelites, as is written in this week's portion: "Then all of you came to me and said, 'Let us send men ahead to reconnoiter the land for us and bring back word on the route we shall follow and the cities we shall come to.'" Rashi found fault with this initiative:

Then all of you came to me -- all of you, in a crowd. But further on [in regard to the Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai] it says: "You came up to me, all your tribal heads and elders, and said,..." (Deut. 5:20-21) . That time the way they approached had been proper, the young showing respect for their elders and letting these precede them, and the elders showing respect for their leaders and letting them go ahead. But here [in the matter of sending spies], all of you came, in a crowd, the young pushing asidtheir elders and the elders pushing aside their leaders.

Moses' response to this uncivil request, as recorded in our parasha, was: "I approved of the plan [lit.: "the matter was good in my sight"], and so I selected twelve of your men, one from each tribe" (Deut. 1:23). How could such a crude request have won Moses' approval? And if so, why did he mention it in his rebuke? To this Rashi responds:

In my sight -- but not in the sight of the Omnipresent G-d. But if it was good in Moses' sight, why did he mention it in his rebuke? This can be explained by a parable comparing it to the case of a man who says to his fellow, "Sell me this ass of yours." The other replies, "Yes." "Will you give it to me on trial?" He replies, "Yes." ... When the buyer sees that the seller puts no obstacles in his way, he says to himself, "This man is quite confident that I shall not find any defect in it," and immediately says to him, "Take your money; now I need not put it to trial." I, too, consented to your words, thinking that perhaps you would reconsider when you saw that I put no obstacle in your way, but you did not reconsider.

Yet before Moses approved the plan, he consulted with the Lord, thinking he might receive from him some clear guidance how to behave in this tangle. As Rashi wrote in his commentary on Numbers:

Send thee men -- according to your own judgment. I do not command you, but if you wish to do so, send them. [G-d said this] because the Israelites came [to Moses] and said, "Let us send men ahead," as it is said (Deut. 1:22), "Then all of you came to me," and Moses took counsel with the Lord. Whereupon He said, I have told them that it [the land] is good, as it is said: "I will take you out of the misery of Egypt ..." (Ex. 3:17). By their lives, I will give them an opportunity to err through the statements of the spies, so that they should not come into possession of it.

Why did the Lord not give Moses an unequivocal answer? Why did He leave it up to Moses' discretion? The episode of the spies appears to have been a test of Moses' leadership. Had Moses passed this test successfully, he would have led the Israelites out of Egypt and brought them into the land. Having failed the test, it was decreed that he bring Israel out but not bring them into the land.

Moses decided to comply with the Israelites' request even though he knew that it contained a time-bomb whose ultimate damage was incalculable. Apparently he was afraid that refusing their request would lead to immediate rebellion, to the appointment of a new leader who would take them back to Egypt, and to an outbreak of violence that would be impossible to stem.

Moses' words here, ""Because of you the Lord was incensed with me, too," prove that his judgment had been poor, and therefore he had to bear responsibility for the results of this unfortunate decision. Even this fateful mistake would find a remedy in the end of days, when Moses would lead those who perished in the wilderness to the Land of Israel, as it is said, "he will come [with] the heads of the nation" (Deut.33:21).

[1] Hizkuni interprets this verse in a similar way.

[2] Accordingly, Nahmanides wrote on Numbers 14:1 that the Israelites' entered the land that time not in order to inherit it, rather in order to get to know it. This helps explain that it was initially sanctified for the moment and not for the future.

[3] In fact, various commentators have gone to great lengths to explain wherein Moses and Aaron sinned there.

[4] Yalkut Shimoni, Deut. § 820, citing Yelamdenu; also cf. Hizkuni on Deut. 3:26.

[5] Abarbanel presented thirteen proofs of his point.

[6] Nahmanides, in contrast to Rashi, views the Israelites' request to reconnoiter the land favorably, for it is a reasonable proposal for anyone who wishes to conquer a land.

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