July 31, 2020
One of the more fascinating narratives in the Torah is the one surrounding the fate of Moses and his passionate effort to gain entry into the Promised Land. In last week’s Torah portion, he seemed to imply that the episode of the spies doomed him to the same fate as the entire generation (Deut. 1:37). In this week’s portion, Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11), Moses has a more cryptic explanation when, in the context of a paragraph in which he explains why God took the people out of Egypt to make them God’s special nation, “God got angry at me [because of] your words, and God swore I would not cross the Jordan, and I would not come into the land that Adonai your God is giving to you as an inheritance.” (4:21) No further explanation is given here beyond blaming “your words.”
Why, then, was Moses barred from entering the land? Is Moses referring to the spies incident? The rock incident? Something else? Which “words” uttered by the people may have brought upon him the devastating fate that he tries over and over to have reversed? The Or HaChaim (18th C. Rabbinic Commentator) points out that Moses’ reference to “not crossing the Jordan” as well as “not coming to the land” covers his non-entry in life, or in death (to be buried there), respectively. The traditional approach has all of Jacob’s sons’ remains being brought to the land for burial. Moses is excluded even from this. Why could he not even be buried in the land? Because of their words. What were their words?
A classic rabbinic teaching suggests that the anger that God wrought on Moses was at the Golden Calf incident. When God told Moses to “Go down” (Ex. 32:7) God meant “Go down from your greatness.” Perhaps the underlying message is, “What kind of leader leaves his people in such a state that when he is missing for a 40 day period, they not only don’t have more patience, but they go to such an extreme that they create a golden image and seemingly serve it?” This is a failure of leadership. The rabbis go on to say that Moses’ response to the people in the rock incident (Num. 20) hardly fits with his words here – “their words” there, complaining for water, could certainly not be viewed as causing his non-entry to the Land.
Taking Moses’ message home, Ramban (Nachmanides) provides the most poignant message in his illuminating comment on this verse. He explains Moses’ words as meaning “God commanded me to teach you the commandments, that you will do in the Land when you cross over [the river] to get there. So, take the lesson, because I will be dying in Moab and I will not be able to teach you in the Land. [When you are] there, don’t forget what I have taught you. Nor what you saw in Sinai… God was angry with me on account of worry that you will forget the covenant with God.” This is why when Moses repeats the “Ten Commandments,” he mentions “as God commanded you” (5:12,16) as if to say, “What I am telling you here was not my own words – it was never my words. All of my teachings come from God.”
What then were “their words?” On a simple level, it is likely words of rebellion that were legitimately out of place – likely not the incident with the rock. Does it matter if it was the Golden Calf, the spies, or something else? I think the point is that it’s very hard to square Moses’ failure on a single incident. The punishment, as it were, does not fit any single crime. On a much deeper level, I think Ramban is suggesting that Moses is saying, “I was punished because of your words, because I failed you as a teacher. I didn’t understand your complaints. I didn’t appreciate where you were coming from. I couldn’t relate to you on your level. I may have advocated when you complained, but I didn’t anticipate your needs in the right way. This lack on my part brought about the moral failures that fill the Torah, and is the reason I will not enter the land in life, and why not even my body will enjoy the benefit of burial in the land.” This is an incredible admission and a poignant lesson.
Moses is teaching every parent and teacher and leader that God gets angry at us – the parents, teachers and leaders – on account of the words of those we are meant to teach, guide and inspire. We need to listen, to try hard to understand, and to respond in a way that is direct, pointed, and that helps the student or child overcome the obstacle, move past the challenging question or episode, with more clarity, with proper guidance. We need to provide answers that the children and students can appreciate and understand.
Our own Samantha Stolker (Ramapo 2021) got this lesson so beautifully as she shared on Facebook this week:
None of this has been easy, but finding out I would never get a senior season for the sport I love truly sucked. I felt angry, and robbed of the experiences those before me got. I’ve been thinking a lot about this for a long time, even before we got the official news. I didn’t see past the cloud of devastation before me. It seemed as though I would leave college without closure and unsatisfied. Once I was able to look past all of the sadness, I could feel nothing but gratitude. We become college athletes for the love of the game, but once that’s all over, the memories we cherish most are the ones with our teammates. I couldn’t tell you how many saves I had my sophomore year. But I can describe in detail the road trip my teammates and I took to Lancaster and the million laughs we had along the way. I can recount late nights, dinners, celebrations, and so much more. I can only feel gratitude right now because Field Hockey gave me my best friends. I would never have met these women if it weren’t for Ramapo College Field Hockey bringing us together. They bring out the best possible version of myself, and they inspire and motivate me to be better. I’m no longer upset about not getting to play, I’m more upset about the memories we won’t get to make together this year at Ramapo. What keeps me going strong is thinking about the memories we will make somewhere else. We will make the most of this and get through this in style (the only way we know how). I know in May I will look back and be EXTREMELY satisfied. Thank you everyone who has been along for this crazy journey as a college athlete. While I’m sorry it was cut short, there’s another path waiting to be explored.
We need to be intellectually honest, without evading issues. Students and children can spot hypocrisy in an instant, and they also know when they’re not being listened to or when their genuine concerns are misunderstood by those they look to for guidance. Let us succeed in hearing “their words” so God may always be pleased with us in our roles as parents – as teachers – as leaders – even when they don’t like our methods, let us pray that the students and children will be able to see that our teachings are good, even though we, human beings that we are, are not perfect.