The verses at the very beginning of Parashat Va-et’cḥanan record a searingly poignant incident of hopes shattered and prayers denied.
Years before, Moses had heard the words that must have filled him with immeasurable sorrow. Because of a failing described by the Torah only as a vague sin of omission — that on one occasion he had failed to sanctify God in the presence of the Israelites — he was told that he would not be permitted to bring the Israelites into the Promised Land (Numbers 20:8–12).
At the very beginning of Va-et’cḥanan, we learn that Moses did not accept this decree without protest. We are told that Moses prayed and implored God to change His mind and grant permission for Moses to fulfill his dream by leading the people into the land of their destiny. But this prayer received a firm and negative response:
Lo ta-avor et haYarden hazeh, “You shall not go across yonder Jordan” (Deuteronomy 3:27).
Even Moses, then, was powerless to change his ultimate fate. Yet he still had decisions to make. He could have said, “Look God, I think You have given me a rotten deal. For forty years I have followed Your instructions and put up with this petulant people, and then because of one small slip You deny me the right to finish what I began. And when I appeal, You tell me, in effect, to shut up. I don’t think that’s fair. You get Yourself another leader if You can.”
Or he could have said to himself, “If I can’t lead the people into the Promised Land, I’ll make sure they will miss me. Why should my successor get all the glory? I won’t lift a finger to help him; he’ll probably fail, and the people will wish I was still around.”
Or he could have continued his protest against God right to the very end, refusing to obey God’s instruction to climb the mountain for a distant view, attempting to lead the people across the Jordan himself against God’s wish.
All of these options were possible, and all of them were rejected. Despite what must have seemed like an unfair decision, Moses continues to trust in God’s wisdom and love. He does everything possible to prepare his successor Joshua, to strengthen Joshua’s position in the sight of the people and to build up Joshua’s morale with private encouragement and counsel. He urges the people to remain faithful to his own ideals and God’s teachings after he is gone. And then — in the very last chapter of the Torah — he climbs alone to the mountaintop for his rendezvous with eternity, accepting his end with the confidence that others will continue his work, facing death with quiet dignity and inner peace.
Each one of us, like Moses, will someday have to recognize that there are dreams we will not see fulfilled, hopes we will not achieve. We begin life all potential; as small children there seems to be no limit to what we might accomplish. Gradually the reality of our limitations is imposed. At some point in my own childhood, it was the realization that I would never be a major league baseball player; a bit later that I would never be president of the United States. Later still, that the articles and books I write will not be best sellers and will not revolutionize human thought. Nor will I bring about a great awakening of Jewish religious consciousness, transforming the lives of the masses of our people. The truth is that I am not even the good, ethical, thoughtful, caring person I would like to be. Eventually we reach the stage where we must recognize that our lives will come to an end and even some of the more modest, realistic goals we set for ourselves will remain unfulfilled.
Sometimes we displace these dreams onto our children. What we failed to achieve, perhaps they will. But usually we go through the same process with them; they may accomplish things we did not, things in which we take pride, but rarely do they achieve everything a parent will dream. Eventually we reach the stage where we must recognize that our lives will come to an end and even some of the more modest, more realistic goals we set for ourselves will remain unfulfilled.
How do we respond to this recognition? Do we become angry at God because we were not as talented or as fortunate as others? Do we lash out in resentment at those who are now younger, more promising, more accomplished than we? Do we abandon worthwhile causes because we have not been able to leave our personal imprint upon them, because others have taken our places and we are no longer needed the way we once may have been? Or can we accept ourselves, take pride in what we have been able to accomplish, and temper the frustration at our shortcomings with the knowledge that others will carry forward the values toward which we aspire?
Maturity impels us to confront our own limitations, to accept what cannot be changed, in the faith that with all our failings and weaknesses, with all our unfulfilled dreams and our disappointed hopes, each one of us in our unique individuality is cherished by God, who wants us to be the very best we can be but who accepts our humble contrition over what we did not achieve.
“I pleaded with the Eternal at that time ... But ... the Eternal One said to me, ‘Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again.... Give Joshua his instructions, and imbue him with strength and courage’ ” (Deuteromony 3:23,26,28). From Moses we learn that no matter how talented or influential we may be, the future is not always malleable to our desires and our will; disappointment is woven into the fabric of the human condition; and whatever the answer we receive to our prayer, we can accept our lot, our limits, and our mortality, with dignity and peace. May we take heart from his example.
Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein, after having taught Jewish Studies at American universities for 29 years (Harvard, Washington University in St. Louis, George Washington University in D.C.), relocated in 2006 to England for a five-year term as Principal of Leo Baeck College. His recently completed book, Agony in the Pulpit: Jewish Preaching in Response to Nazi Persecution and Mass Murder, will be published by Hebrew Union College Press.
Rabbi Saperstein’s interpretation of Va-et’chanan speaks to me. The wisdom of Torah is captured in this bittersweet snapshot: After spending his entire adult life cajoling a stubborn people across the wilderness, Moses now gazes upon the Promised Land. It’s a heartbreaking symbol of the human condition — a man, at the end of his life, sitting at the edge of the land of his dreams. There’s so much we want, so much we strive for, and we never quite get to the place of our heart’s desires.
Still, that is not the whole story. As he accepts that his death is forthcoming, Moses gathers his entire community and speaks to them, reminding them of their shared history, sharing words of love and blessing and connection with the Eternal. These words, the remainder of the Book of Deuteronomy, ensure that Moses’ life was not in vain.
Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our teacher, instructs us how to live with the awareness that we will never fully attain our desires. Perhaps more importantly, Moses also teaches us how to die. By sharing his wisdom, Moses sees his finite life as an individual thread in the great tapestry of human existence. This is a quintessentially Jewish view of death, as Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “There is a vast continuum preceding individual existence, and it is a legitimate surmise to assume that there is a continuum following individual existence. Human living is always being under way, and death is not the final destination.”1 The Israelites took Moses’ words to heart. They fulfilled his potential by entering the Land of Israel, and preserving the wisdom he taught.
We cannot escape the human condition; we, too, will only gaze upon the Promised Land of our dreams. We, too, will die. Every time we confer love and blessing, every time we convey timeless values, we bring to fruition the promise of those who came before us, and set an example for those who will follow. Then, like Moses, we ensure that our individual life and our eventual death are filled with abundant purpose.
1. Abraham Joshua Heschel, "Death as Homecoming," Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity (The Noonday Press: 1996), p. 367
Rabbi Ruth A. Zlotnick is the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am in Seattle, WA.
Va-et’chanan, Deuteronomy 3:23–7:11
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,333–1,378; Revised Edition, pp. 1,184–1,221
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 1,063–1,088
First Haftarah of Consolation, Isaiah 40:1–26
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,595–1,598; Revised Edition, pp. 1,222–1,225