Sermon on Shabbat Matot-Masei 5780
This week’s combined Torah portions, the final ones in the Book of Numbers, always challenge me. Like so much of this book in the Bible, Bamidbar, they are filled with interesting incidents, and with the ways that Moses addresses the challenges associated with leading a contentious and quarrelsome people. As always, Moses finds solutions to problems that are both practical and spiritually appropriate. In close consultation with God, in our twin portions he arranges territorial questions for the tribes, addresses adjudication of serious crimes, and creates the institution of cities of refuge. And he finally leads the people to the very border of the Promised Land that they will inherit as Erets Yisrael. It is an impressive display of focused, rational, restrained, responsible leadership by Moses, and it could serve as a model of appropriate behavior for our leaders today. And he does it all with becoming humility.
We also know, by this time, that in spite of this Moses will not be permitted to enter the Promised Land. We have been informed that despite his selfless, nearly sacrificial shepherding of his fractious flock of Israelites, he won’t be able to achieve his dream, which is to come into the land that will truly be theirs as an eternal inheritance. The pathos that this establishes finds full expression in the Book of Deuteronomy we begin reading next week, in which we will hear Moses’ own thoughts about just how deeply this final failure to enter Canaan hurts him. Spoiler alert: He will die, on Mt. Nebo just across from Israel, still bemoaning the fact that God simply won’t let him come into the Promised Land.
We are told in the incident of Meribah why Moses was not permitted to enter Erets Yisrael: it was because he struck a rock to bring forth water. More specifically, for once God told him to speak to a rock, instead of striking it as usual, and Moses was so angry that he defied God’s order and did what he was used to doing, struck the rock with his staff. Water came out anyway—God couldn’t afford to humiliate His chosen leader—but that disobedience was enough to block Moses from entry to the Promised Land.
It doesn’t seem like an adequate explanation, does it? One moment of anger should not prevent our greatest leader and lawgiver from achieving his dearest dream, not when he got so close that he could literally see the whole land revealed to him by God.
Our commentators have many additional explanations: not only did Moses disobey God, but he also called out the Israelites in that disastrous event at Meribah, calling them “rebels” and acting in anger. That anger was an inappropriate display for a leader and disqualified him from future leadership. This explanation is rather weak borscht, really, because God has demonstrated much greater anger than Moses ever showed numerous times over the 40 years of wanderings, and it was typically Moses who restrained the divine wrath from destroying the entire people of Israel. Now Moses shows a tiny bit of what must have been titanic frustration and God zaps him for it by blocking his entry to the Promised Land?
Another explanation for Moses’ inability to go into Israel focuses on the aging quality of his leadership, the ways in which he is simply not able to continue to do what he has done so well for so long. By the time we come to Matot-Masei, Moses is quite elderly, and his control over the people seems to be slipping. His sister Miriam and brother Aaron, who shared his burden leading the Israelites, have both already died. A new generation needs new leadership, and Moses has designated his successor, Joshua, to take the people forward in what must inevitably be a challenging military campaign for the conquest of Canaan. It’s simply time for Moses to go.
That certainly makes sense, but why wouldn’t God allow Moses to at least set foot on land that will really be his people’s possession for the rest of eternity? How hard would it have been for the Almighty to grant our greatest leader his final wish?
I have a different explanation. I think that there was never any chance that Moses would be allowed to enter the Promised Land. The lesson the Torah teaches here is fundamental and foundational, and it cannot be taught at all if Moses makes it into Canaan. Because, you see, if Moses can’t enter the Promised Land then that must not really be the goal.
It is not getting into the Promised Land that matters. It is how we live our lives during the journey. It isn’t getting there that counts. It is how we get there, and how we conduct ourselves along the way.
So often we focus on the end result in life. We seek accomplishment, completion, achieving goals. We tabulate our results, measure ourselves against others, count dollars or awards or wins, sales or projects completed. If only we could add one more client, make one more sale, write one more article, fix this one problem we would be happier, better, more satisfied. We continually hope to make it into the Promised Land of ultimate, satisfying success.
And then, we never really do. Because it’s not the Promised Land that actually matters. It’s the journey itself.
It’s strange, but Moses, so thoughtful and perceptive in so many ways, never recognizes this, not really. He continually rails against his own inability to enter the Promised Land, Erets Yisrael. Which is quite strange, when you think about it. For we Jews still read about Moses’ exploits for 40 weeks each year, more than 3200 years after he died. We are still fascinated by his accomplishments, saddened by his failures, impressed by the way he, with God’s help, brought freedom to a slave people and turned a recalcitrant rabble into a real nation. We don’t fault him much for his hot temper, his early hasty acts or his personal idiosyncrasies—instead we marvel at his patience and faith, his wisdom, strength and greatness. It is his journey that we admire most—not his failure to enter the Promised Land.
Right now, many of us are challenged in new and strange ways. The Coronavirus pandemic has changed our lives in completely unexpected ways. Some of us are experiencing economic challenges. Others are frustrated by the limitations on human contact, on social interaction, on living. All of us must be wondering if this is a new normal, a form of life that we can scarcely recognize. Still others miss family—children, parents, siblings, cousins—they can’t see or touch or hold, miss traveling to new places with loved ones, miss milestone celebrations they can’t share. A wedding or a bar mitzvah or a funeral isn’t the same on Zoom as it is in person, now is it?
We can’t control any of this, not really. But we can control something. We can control the way we live each day, the way we make our own journey—unexpectedly limited as it is for now—special, good, even sacred. We cannot focus on the end result; who knows what that will be? But we can focus on how we treat one another, whether we demonstrate love and kindness and generosity, how we seek to touch people—metaphorically, of course—on a daily basis by calling, texting, emailing, sending gifts or messages.
In other words, we can choose to emulate how Moses lived. We can do this even if Moses didn’t really understand the simple fact that his own journey truly was the Promised Land. Even if we don’t yet understand that our own journeys are also the Promised Land, if we choose to make them so.