Black and white drawing of Moses.
Moses speaks to Israel, as in Deuteronomy. (Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux)

We can’t always be in control of our destiny

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

The Book of Deuteronomy, which starts with the Torah portion Devarim, is unique in many ways. The speaker is Moses himself, unlike the anonymous narrator of the previous four books. In a highly personal and, at times, poignant farewell address, Moses, before he dies, reviews the past 40 years and prepares the Israelites for the future.

Interestingly, Moses began his journey as the leader of the people of Israel by pleading with God that he was not “a man of words” (Exodus 4:10). But after four decades of guiding and teaching his community, he has indeed become an eloquent spokesman for the divine will.

The parashah makes it clear that it was only an 11-day journey from Mount Horeb (Mount Sinai) to the Promised Land. All the years that the Israelites wandered and struggled in the desert could have been avoided if they had trusted in God. They didn’t. Instead, they consistently disobeyed God and challenged the leadership and authority of Moses.

The people of Israel stand at the very threshold of the land of Canaan, on the east side of the Jordan River. The object of all of their yearning, the goal of all of their travel and toil, is now within sight and finally within their reach.

Yet few of them will ever cross the river or dwell in the land.

Most of the Torah portion is a recounting of the journey of the Israelites through the desert wilderness. Moses highlights an episode from a previous parashah, when God instructs him to select a team of 12 scouts to reconnoiter the land of Israel, and how the fear and lack of faith of the majority of them lead to disastrous consequences.

One consequence is that virtually the entire generation of the Exodus from Egypt will be prohibited from entering the Promised Land: “Not one of these men, this evil generation, shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers” (Deut. 1:35).

As the leader of the Israelites, Moses will receive the same fate as his people: “Because of you the Lord was incensed with me too, and He said: You shall not enter it either” (Deut. 1:37).

Only Joshua and Caleb, who had urged their people to march into the Promised Land owing to their own faith and courage, are allowed to enter the land along with their families; They, along with all the Israelite children “who do not yet know good from bad” (Deut. 1:39).

Imagine the profound disappointment, after 40 years of wandering in the desert to reach their hard-fought goal, that the people of Israel must have experienced as they heard these words while standing on the east side of the Jordan. And imagine the depths of despair that Moses must have sunk to, after having devoted his life and well-being to fulfilling this singular mission.

Yet we learn next to nothing from the text itself about what Moses feels when he learns that he will not be permitted to enter the Promised Land. His words seem more a statement of fact than an expression of disappointment or remorse.

The rabbis clearly found that noteworthy. And so they developed a rich and colorful tradition of midrashim that depict Moses as anything but resigned to his fate. Through their creative minds, Moses is depicted instead as a man who fights tooth and nail against his lot, who pleads with God not to take his life before he has completed the mission to which he has dedicated his life.

God is able to persuade Moses that he has done enough for his people, and helps the prophet reconcile himself to his destiny. God does this gently, but with a sense of resoluteness. In the end, God kisses Moses, and he dies, his soul ascending to the “highest heaven of heavens.”

The Book of Deuteronomy — and the Torah itself — concludes, not on a note of disappointment, but on one of acceptance. The people of Israel will soon enter the Promised Land, the place of their hopes and dreams. But not yet. Not this generation. And not with Moses by their side.

What is our tradition’s message to us? Even lives well lived don’t always end in tidy ways, with clear and clean conclusions. We may not complete our work. We may not reach our goals. But if we can learn to accept ambiguity, if we can surrender to the mystery of death as we journey through the mystery of life, we will find solace and, like Moses, we will sleep with the angels.

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein
Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom Napa Valley. He is the founding rabbi of the New Shul in New York City and author or editor of 10 books, including “Gonzo Judaism” and “God at the Edge.”