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What Did Moses Do Wrong? Part I

The Hidden Reason Moses Was Not Allowed Into The Promised Land


Rabbi David Fohrman

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

This week's parsha begins Moses' speech to the people of Israel before they begin their entrance to the land of Israel. In his speech, Moses recalls much that the nation has gone through over the past 40 years in the desert, including when God told him he wouldn't be allowed to enter the promised land.

In this video, the first of two parts, Rabbi Fohrman explores the odd way Moses references this story, and connects the idea of hitting the rock to the small, seemingly-unimportant story of Jethro and the judges.

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Transcript

This is Rabbi David Fohrman, and you are watching Aleph Beta, welcome to Parshat Devarim.

Why can't Moses enter the land? Well, the Book of Numbers tells us why, doesn't it?

Why Was Moses Not Allowed into the Promised Land?

Moses hit the rock when he was supposed to speak to the rock and for that apparently trivial misdeed, for some reason Moses can't go into the land – but that at least is the story that Parshat Chukat, back in the Book of Numbers, seems to tell.

But there's a little, tiny problem with this, and it crops up in this week's parsha. Because in this week's parsha Moshe goes back to the question of why he can't enter the land and if you read closely he seems to give an answer that doesn't seem to have anything to do with the rock at all.

Gam bi hitanaf Hashem biglalchem – Moses says to the people, and G-d become angry at me because of you;

Leimor – saying;

Gam atah loh tavoh sham – you too shall not go into the land.

Now just stop there for a minute, what is this business 'and G-d became angry at me because of you,' on your account? If Moses hit the rock, doesn't it strike you as kind of sour grapes to blame the people for that?

The Fault of Moses' Sin?

The people didn't hit the rock, Moses hit the rock. Yes, the people were complaining and Moses was angry at them and called them rebels, but it's hard to make the case that that makes it their fault, he decided to hit the rock.

Now if it were the only time that Moshe talked like this, maybe it's an anomaly, but it's not actually the only time, he says it again in next week's parsha.

Vayitaber Hashem bi lema'anchem – and G-d became angry at me because of you;

V'loh shamah eilai – and didn't listen to me.

Why is it their fault? I mean again, he's the one who hit it.

Now I'd like to suggest a theory to you, I'm going to need two weeks to take you through this theory, so this is our going to be our parsha video through this week and next week, the two weeks where Moses seems to cast his inability to go into the land in the terms that I've described to you – it's the people's fault.

Understanding Why God Didn't Allow Moses into the Land

Let's jump right in. So here's the thing. Rashi and a couple of other classical commentators reads the text as I've just read it to you, that Moshe here in Deuteronomy is obliquely referring to the sin of striking the rock which was described back in Numbers as the reason why he can't enter the land. But there are other commentators who see it differently, who said, Numbers yeah, that was telling one story but for some reason in Deuteronomy there seems to be a different story emerging, a second reason of why Moshe can't go into the land.

Now, how those two reasons interact is a question we'll eventually have to address, but let's leave Numbers behind here and just read Deuteronomy on its own terms for a minute and see what seems to emerge. Because actually if you look at Moses' declaration here in this week's parsha, that I can't go into the land because of you, you see that right before he said that, for the last 15 verses, he was describing the sin of the spies.

He was describing how the people had asked for spies and Moshe had gone along with it, and then the people started complaining and didn't have faith in G-d. Then G-d became angry and said, none of you can go into the land, you're going to die out for 40 years, and then: Gam bi hitanaf Hashem biglalchem – G-d became angry at me also because of you.

Why Was God Really Angry with Moses?

The first word there is Gam, Gam bi – literally, also me G-d became angry at, because of you. Because you guys went after the spies, I didn't, it wasn't really my fault.

That's true, it wasn't really his fault, Moshe was one of the good guys. I mean, Kalev and Yehoshua, these were the good spies, and Moshe along with them, was desperately pleading for the people to have faith in G-d, he really was one of the good guys.

So in a way, these commentators are answering a question, the text seems to flow better according to them, because it would make sense now that Moses is actually referring to the story of the spies, and that really wasn't his fault. So when he's saying that it wasn't my fault, it's kind of true.

But then again, it just makes life harder in another way, which is: why should Moshe be held accountable for something that wasn't his fault? Isn't it kind of mean of G-d to say, you can't go into the land because of this?

Plus, however we understand that, which I've still got to figure out how it jives together with the Book of Numbers, I mean, there can't be two reasons for the same thing, which is it? So there's a lot of questions which we need to struggle with and I'll try to do that with you over the course of these two weeks.

It turns out, I think, that this week's parsha answers these questions for us, but it does so in remarkable and astounding ways. I need to warn you now that my conclusion here over these next two weeks is going to come across as counterintuitive – I really wish that other people had seen this before me, maybe they have.

I invite you to go back and look through the earlier commentators, if you have somebody who sketches out this theory I'll be a very, very happy camper. But in the meantime, I'm just going to lead you in the direction that I think the text is taking you and put the evidence out there and kind of allow you to reach your own conclusions. But here's the evidence as I see it.

Uncovering Moses' Real Sin

Sefer Devarim as a whole really begins with a speech that Moses gives when he's standing with the people on the cusp of entering the land of Israel in the 40th year of their sojourn in the desert. One of the questions you have to ask about the speech is what is its main theme? What is Moses trying to say in this speech? He's not just randomly talking about a bunch of stuff, there's an idea that it all revolves around, what is that idea?

You get a clue, a very important clue, I think, from the preamble to the speech. I'm going to read the preamble with you, and as we read it you'll find that there's a whole bunch of places mentioned to describe where the speech took place.

You don't need that many places to triangulate your position, but one of them stands out as different from the rest. You can play one of my favorite "Sesame Street" games over here; Which One of These Things is Not Like the Other? The thing that is not like the other here is quite instructive.

Eileh hadevarim asher diber Moshe el kol Yisrael – these are the words that Moses spoke to all of Israel. Here are the places;

  • B'eiver ha'Yarden – place number 1;
  • Bamidbar – in the desert, place number 2;
  • Ba'Arava – in Arava;
  • Mul Suf – opposite Suf;
  • Bein Paran u'bein Tofel – between Paran and Tofel;
  • V'Lavan va'Chatzeirot v'Di Zahav. Achad asar yom mei'Chorev – 11 days away from Chorev;
  • Derech Har Se'ir – passing by the way of Har Se'ir, going towards Kadesh Barnei'ah.

Vayehi b'arba'im shanah – and it happened in the fortieth year;

B'ashtei asar chodesh b'echad la'chodesh – on such and such a date;

Diber Moshe el Bnei Yisrael k'chol asher tzivah Hashem oto aleihem – Moses said the following.

Okay that was the preamble, which place seemed different than all the others? I think the place that seems different is Chorev. Chorev, another word for Mount Sinai; Achad asar yom mei'Chorev – we were 11 days away from Sinai.

It's the only place to which a time period is attached. All the other places are described geographically in terms of where they are, here it's described in terms of when they were, 11 days walk from Chorev, that's where the speech took place. Then, another time period; Vayehi b'arba'im shanah – and it happened in the 40th year of their sojourn in the desert that Moshe gave this speech. Those two time periods tell a story, don't they?

Just do the math. When are they right now when Moses gives the speech? They've been walking through the desert for 40 years. But where are they? They're just 11 days away from Chorev. It was 40 years since they've been in Chorev, that happened in the very first year of the sojourn in the desert, but they're only 11 days away from where they were 40 years ago, just an 11-day walk. That is the burning problem that this entire speech revolves around. It's all there to explain why did it take so long. Why did an 11-day walk take 40 years?

If that's the question that Moses is asking in the speech, the answer should be obvious. It was the sin of the spies, that's what sealed their fate, that's what made this whole thing take 40 years, when it could have taken 11 days. And indeed, as if to corroborate our theory, Moshe does get to the sin of the spies quite quickly in the speech.

He starts to give a very brief rundown of the history. He says, we were in Chorev and then we left, and then this happened, and then the story of the spies. I mean, he skips over a whole bunch of stuff, he skips the sin of the Golden Calf, not a word, he skips the sin of Korach, not a word, he skips the whole story of the Manna, the whole story of Miriam's well and the water crises, all of that. Not even a word, but he doesn't skip over everything. He dwells on one, little episode that seems so trivial: the easily forgotten story of Yitro's judges.

Va'omar aleichem ba'eit hahi – I told you at that time; Loh uchal levadi se'eit etchem – I can't alone carry you. Find yourselves wise men who can help me with this burden of judging the people. You're so many, you're so numerous, I wish you even more, but I need some help with this. So I suggested to you how about some of these intermediate judges that could bear the legislative and judicial burden along with me? That, of course, is the story of Yitro's judges, originally recounted in Parshat Yitro, back in the Book of Exodus.

But this whole thing is an unconscionable digression. He goes into such detail. He describes exactly how he instructed the judges, what it is that he told them, how the people gave him permission to do it when he asked them. I mean, all – every last, little detail with these judges. Why is it here in a story that's really about why it took us 40 years to traverse 11 days? A story that begins at Chorev – where it should – and ends with the Meraglim, the story of the spies – where it should; what is the story of Yisro's judges doing here to the exclusion of everything else in the 40-year history?

That is the great $64,000 question of our parsha, and in its answer lies a key to the one of the most profound puzzles that the Torah gives us: why Moshe couldn't enter the land.

I think the Torah's text is inexorably leading us to a startling – indeed a shocking – conclusion. If you want to understand the story of the spies you cannot understand it without reference to another seemingly entirely disconnected story, the story of Yitro's judges. The two stories are somehow connected.

Clues to Why Moses Was Forbidden to Enter the Land

If you want to understand why Moshe couldn't go into the land, the proximate answer to that question is the story of the spies, there was something about the spies that couldn't allow Moshe to go into the land. But if you ask why was it Moshe's fault – the sin of the spies wasn't Moshe's fault – then you really need to look a little further don't you? Because you can't really understand the story of the spies without another story.

Moshe with the benefit of 40 years' hindsight, looking back at why he can't go into the land points to the story of the spies, says, I was held accountable for that. But also points us even deeper to the story of Yitro's judges. Why are these two stories connected? What explains Moshe's perspective on all of this? We'll come back and explore that when we return next week.

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