Torah For The Times    

Parshat VaEtchanan
Torah Reading:  VaEtchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11)
Haftorah: Isaiah 40:1 - 26

Shabbat Candle Lighting: 8:05 PM 
Shabbat ends: 9:11 PM   

Both "Heads" of the Rope

No Entry

When Moses sought to enter the Land of Israel, as recounted in this week’s parsha, G‑d turned him down. His persistent pleas for G‑d to rescind His decree and allow his entry into the land were answered by G‑d with a firm negative.

According to a Midrash, found in the collection of enigmatic Midrashic comments, G‑d’s refusal to let Moses enter the Land of Israel went like this:

“You are holding on to both ends [literally: heads] of the rope. If you want me to fulfill your request of “Please let me cross-over” then nullify “please forgive.” And if you want the fulfillment of “please forgive [this nation” mentioned in the aftermath of the sin of the spies],” then nullify [the request] “Please let me cross-over”

On the surface the only connection between these two requests by Moses is that in both cases he employed the word “na” which means “please.” The obvious question here is why did G‑d link Moses’ requests of forgiveness for the Jewish people with his request to enter the Promised Land?

Moses’ Sacrifice

The “simple” explanation is that when he asked for the forgiveness of the Jewish people for their contempt of the Promised Land, Moses was essentially throwing in his lot with the people G‑d wanted to destroy. There is precedent for this in the earlier sin of the golden calf. At that time, when G‑d suggested destroying the jewish peope an dtsarting a new nation with Moses, Moses told G‑d that if He destroys the Jewish people, he too wants to be “erased” from G‑d’s book. In other words, Moses was making it clear to G‑d that whatever fate awaits the Jewish people he wants for himself as well.

The story is told of the Ba’al Shem Tov, who traveled to a certain town to pray for the annulment of a heavenly decree of destruction, G‑d forbid, that he presciently saw hovering over the Jewish community of that town.

When he was asked why he had to travel there to pray, since he could have accomplished the same thing by praying in his own community, he responded: “If I succeed in annulling the decree that would be great. However, if my prayers were not successful, then I wanted to share the fate of the Jews of that community.”

It may be suggested that not only was the Ba’al Shem Tov showing his love and unity with those Jews, but, moreover, his willingness to share their fate was the catalyst that crowned his prayers with success and averted the catastrophe.

Thus, when Moses pleaded with G‑d to forgive the Jewish people, he was not just saying a prayer as an outsider to their fate, but, as he did in the past, and as the story of the Ba’al Shem Tov illustrates, Moses essentially offered to share in whatever fate G‑d had in store for the Jewish people. Only because Moses was willing to accept the fate of the people did G‑d commute their sentence of annihilation to the sentence of exile.

Thus, when G‑d issued the decree that the entire generation would remain in the desert and perish there and not enter the Promised Land, that fate too awaited Moses. Moses obviously could not argue that while he was willing to die with the Jewish people, he was not willing to remain in exile with them.

The Link

We can now decipher the enigmatic words of the Midrash that linked Moses’ request to enter the land with his request for G‑d to forgive the Jewish people. If Moses refused to remain with his people in the desert then he was not truly joining his fate with the fate of his people. G‑d would then have to withdraw His commutation of their death sentence to one of exile.

While it was too late for G‑d to punish them in this world, for they had already perished, their sin would not have been absolved, requiring them to go through a purification process in the next world.

More importantly, G‑d was, in effect, telling Moses that since he was not disavowing his previous “throwing in his fortune” with his people, he should not demand entry into the Promised Land. Rather, Moses should stay behind in the desert until, as the Midrash states elsewhere, he will return with his people, the generation of the desert, in the Messianic Age.

It now becomes clear that the real reason Moses could not enter the Promised Land was not punishment for any mistake he supposedly had made, as a simple reading of the Biblical text would suggest. Rather, because G‑d wanted him to be with his people, He orchestrated Moses’ “sins” as a way of imparting valuable moral lessons to us. We must, however, delve more deeply into the text and follow the interpretation of it by our Sages to detect the subtext of G‑d’s denial of Moses’ entry into the land.

Both Connections Now!

We can now also understand the meaning of the Midrash’s expression: “You are holding on to both heads [ends] of the rope.” The rope is a metaphor for a connection. Moses wanted both connections: the connection he had to his people that engendered their atonement and survival, and the connection to the Land of Israel, the place of the optimal level of Mitzvah observance. Thus, the rope also represents our lifeline to G‑d. G‑d informed him, you can only have one end of the rope at the present moment.

One may add that the use of the word na-please in both the requests he made of G‑d is significant. In Hebrew the word na, which means please, can also mean the same thing as the similar sounding English word “now.” Moses was not just saying please, he wanted both connections now.

Why Did Moses So Forceful About His Desire To Enter the Land?

One can still ask the question, “why did Moses plead so forcefully with G‑d to enter the land?”  Didn’t Moses recognize that his mission was to stay with his people through thick and thin? Indeed, this was the way Moses behaved throughout his leadership. Why would he reverse his position now and “sever” the ties with his people?

Two answers to this question come to mind.

First, we may propose that Moses felt that if he were able to enter the Land of Israel, his presence would hasten, expand and deepen the process of the conquest, and the building of the Temple that would lead to the ultimate, complete and final Redemption. That, in turn, would, prompt a greatly accelerated Resurrection of the Dead, including the Jews who came out of Egypt who had perished in the desert. As a result, Moses’ entry into the land would hasten the reunion with his flock.

Second, while Moses’ place was in the desert with his flock, he nevertheless was not supposed to suppress his yearning to be in the Land of Israel with the Beis Hamikdash.

We Want Moshiach Now!

The lesson we can derive from all this for our own generation is clear:

Our existence in exile is certainly designed by G‑d. Although we were initially sent into exile because of our sins, as we recite in the Holiday liturgy: “because of our sins we were exiled from our land,” nevertheless, the length of our stay in exile is certainly not just to expiate our sins but rather our stay in exile is for a special mission.

In exile, there are challenges that we could not have in Israel with a Beis Hamikdash. The sacrifices we have made would not have happened had we not been exiled. The very fact that the soul has been sent into the physical world to inhabit a physical body is G‑d’s way of saying that while the soul is pure in its original state, it cannot grow and develop exponentially without the challenges of inhabiting a physical body and sharing it with an animal soul.  If that challenge is not enough, G‑d then takes the challenge for the soul to a new low/high.

G‑d sent us into exile where His presence is concealed, persecution and oppression is rampant, and where all the temptations to assimilate abound.  Yet we survive as Jews and even thrive. This challenge can never have been experienced in the Land of Israel prior to the period of exile.

Knowing the incredible accomplishment of exile, one might be lulled into thinking, “vive la exile,” G‑d forbid! Exile has brought us to such an incredible level of achievement, why pray for the Redemption when we will no longer “enjoy” the challenges that are unique to exile?

To dispel this thought, we learn of how Moses, notwithstanding his noble desire to remain with his people and not enter the Promised Land, taught us that we must never lose sight of where we really ought to be. Exile is not our home. Despite the challenges, virtues and achievements of exile, we must never make peace with it. Rather we must direct our hearts to the Beis Hamikdash and yearn, pray and even demand that we be taken out of exile and returned home with our entire nation; a sentiment encapsulated in the refrain of a popular children’s song: “We want Moshiach now!”

There is a guiding principle concerning righteous people. When they want something, they eventually get their way. Sometimes they have to wait, but eventually G‑d “gives in” to their request.

Similarly, with respect to Moses’ request to enter the Land of Israel, he will soon live to see the realization of his dream. And to paraphrase the old saying, he will not only get his proverbial cake but eat it too; he will see how G‑d has forgiven the Jewish people and he will also lead them to the Promised Land. In the nomenclature of the Midrash: “He will hold on to both heads [ends] of the rope.”

Moshiach Matters

It is told that once, as a young child, the Tzemach Tzedek (the third Rebbe of Chabad) sat amongst Chassidim and listened to their conversation. One Chassid remarked, "Who knows when Moshiach will come?" To this the Tzemach Tzedek replied - "Those are the words of the wicked Billam - 'I see him, but not now.' We Jews must have an entirely different outlook on the subject. We are commanded to wait all day every day for the imminent arrival of Moshiach.  

For more info about Moshiach,