Parshat Va’etchanan: Who Moshe Wanted to Enter the Land

“Please let me pass over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, the good mountain, and the Lebanon.” (Devarim 3:25)

Moshe recounts that he asked the Almighty to allow him to enter the land of Israel. Hashem did not rescind His decree. Moshe was permitted to see the land from a mountaintop. But he is not allowed to participate in its possession.

The Talmud in Tractate Sotah discuses this incident and Moshe’s attitude toward the land of Israel. The Talmud is troubled by Moshe’s desire to enter Eretz Yisrael. Why was this so important the greatest tzadik and prophet? The Talmud responds that Moshe recognized that many mitzvot could only be performed in the Land of Israel. He wished to participate in the fulfillment of these commands.[1]

This passage, from the Talmud, provides an important insight into the motivations of the tzadik. The normal person is motivated by self-interest. In many cases even the observance of mitzvot is encouraged by enlightened selfishness. The person recognizes that life will be fuller and more meaningful through adherence to the Torah. The promise of reward may also play a role.

The tzadik is not merely different from this normal person in a quantitative sense. The motivation of the true tzadik is qualitatively distinguished. The tzadik recognizes the respective significance of him/herself and the Creator. This person is inspired by a deep appreciation of the greatness of the Almighty. The tzadik is consumed with the desire to serve Hashem. Personal benefit is meaningless. Only the will of the Almighty is critical.

Now the discussion in the Talmud can be more deeply understood. The Talmud explains that Moshe could receive no personal gain from entering the land. He would not receive a greater reward or live a fuller life. He had already reached the highest level of human perfection. Moshe wished to enter Eretz Yisrael because of his drive to serve the Almighty. He recognized that the Torah was not complete outside of Eretz Yisrael. Therefore, he wished to lead the people into the land. In this way he would help establish the Torah in its fullness – as it was designed to be observed. Moshe’s regret, in being refused, was that he would not be able to help establish the Almighty’s Torah – in its complete form – in this world.

“Only take heed and be very careful lest you forget the things that your eyes saw and lest you remove them from your hearts all the days of your lives. And you should make it known to your children and grandchildren.” (Devarim 4:9)

Moshe admonishes Bnai Yisrael not to forget the events of Sinai. Furthermore, each generation must relate to the next the events of Sinai. At Sinai the nation witnessed Revelation. The authenticity of the Torah is based upon the authenticity of this event. We know that the Almighty gave us the Torah because our ancestors witnessed Revelation at Sinai. This provides a unique basis for our religion. Without Sinai, the Torah cannot be objectively represented as the truth.

Nachmonides maintains that Moshe’s admonition is a negative commandment. We are commanded to not forget the events of Revelation. He objects to the position of Maimonides. Maimonides apparently does not regard Moshe’s directive as a commandment. Nowhere does Maimonides count it as one of the Taryag – six hundred and thirteen mitzvot.

Nachmonides raises two objections to Maimonides’ position. In order to understand these objections, we must understand a basic premise. We must distinguish between two types of evidence – direct evidence circumstantial evidence.

Let us consider an example. Assume a crime is committed. A suspect is arrested. How can the guilt of the suspect be proven? Perhaps, we can prove that the suspect was the only person present at the time of the crime. We might add evidence that the suspect had a motive for committing the crime. In addition, maybe the suspect has previously expressed the intention to commit the crime. We might find tools or weapons used in commission of the crime in the possession of the suspect. All of this evidence is consistent with the assumption that the suspect is, in fact, the perpetrator. However, none of these indications directly prove that the suspect committed the crime. All of these indications are examples of circumstantial or indirect evidence.

Now, assume we have a videotape of the suspect committing the crime. This is direct evidence of the guilt of the suspect. The videotape is not merely consistent with the assumption that the suspect is culpable. It actually captures the suspect in the act of committing the crime. This is a higher degree of evidence than circumstantial indications. If the evidence provided by the video is corroborated by other cameras or witnesses that saw the commission of the crime by the suspect, there will remain no doubt as to his or her guilt.

Generally, prophets prove their authenticity through performing a wonder or miracle. Is this direct or circumstantial evidence of prophecy? The sign is only circumstantial evidence. Why? The event of prophecy is the communication between the prophet and Hashem. We do not witness this communication. We only see a wonder performed by the prophet. This miracle is consistent with the assumption that communication exists between the prophet and the Almighty. However, the wonder is not direct proof.

Now, assume we could actually see the prophet communicate with the Almighty. We would have direct evidence of the authenticity of the prophet. Imagine a prophet whose prophecy was witnessed by hundreds of thousands of individuals. These witnesses would provide incontrovertible direct evidence of the authenticity of the prophet.

We are now prepared to return to Nachmonides’ arguments. Nachmonides explains that Moshe is the only person whose prophecy is established through overwhelming direct evidence. All of Bnai Yisrael witnessed his communication with the Almighty at Sinai. All other prophets establish their legitimacy through performing wonders. As a consequence of this distinction, it is impossible for any prophet to contradict or challenge the prophecy of Moshe. Based on simple rules of evidence, Moshe’s prophecy is more firmly established.

Therefore, conviction in the truth of Revelation is fundamental in establishing the legitimacy of the Torah. If any prophet contradicts the Torah, we reject the claimant as a false prophet. However, without the events of Sinai we have no basis for distinguishing between Moshe and other prophets. If a prophet would contradict Moshe, it would be difficult or impossible to resolve the conflict. Nachmonides argues that this fundamental role dictates that the conviction in the truth of Revelation must be a commandment.

Nachmonides further argues that Maimonides accepts the central role of this conviction. Maimonides elaborates on this issue in his Mishne Torah.[2] Therefore, Maimonides, too, should include this conviction in his enumeration of mitzvot.[3]

How might Maimonides respond to these questions? Maimonides provides a hint in his Mishne Torah. In Hilchot Talmud Torah – the laws regarding Torah study – he writes that a father is responsible to teach his son Torah. Furthermore, a grandfather must teach his grandson. Maimonides explains that the source of the grandfather’s obligation is our pasuk. Our passage states, “And you shall teach it to your children and grandchildren”.[4]

Superficially, it is odd that Maimonides quotes our passage to support his contention that the grandfather is obligated to teach the grandson. As we know, this is not the actual overt message of the pasuk. The passage is commanding us to transmit the events of Sinai to each generation. However, if we consider all of our questions in unison a clear pattern emerges.

We can answer all of our questions by acknowledging that Maimonides agrees that we are obligated to transmit the events of Sinai to each generation. It is impossible to exclude this fundamental conviction from the corpus of Torah. However, unlike Nachmonides, he does not view this obligation as an independent commandment. Instead, Maimonides maintains that this obligation is integral to the mitzvah of teaching Torah. We must teach Torah as a revealed truth derived from Sinai. Revelation is the context that gives meaning and legitimacy to the commandment of Torah study.

Why is the grandfather obligated to teach his grandson Torah? According to Maimonides this is a natural outcome of the structure of the mitzvah of teaching Torah. When the grandfather teaches his grandson, the young student comes to realize that the Torah is not a recent invention. He recognizes that he is the recipient of a rich, enduring tradition. This reminds the grandson of the roots of the Torah – Sinai.

We can readily appreciate Maimonides’ application of our passage. He is indicating the reason the Torah obligates the family patriarch in the education of future generations. This is because, as our passage exhorts, we must always remember that the Torah is derived from Sinai. The involvement of the elder generation in the education of the young reinforces this concept.

“For Hashem your G-d is a merciful Lord. He will not abandon you or destroy you. He will not forget the covenant with your forefathers that He swore to them to uphold.” (Devarim 4:31)

The parasha includes the prophecy of eventual exile. Moshe foretells that the nation will sin. Hashem will drive them from the land. In exile, Bnai Yisrael will suffer persecution. However, the nation will survive and be redeemed. The ultimate salvation of the Jewish people is assured. The covenant that the Almighty made with the forefathers guarantees redemption.

The Midrash comments that on the day of the destruction of the Temple the Meshiach was born. Nachmanides explains that this statement can be understood allegorically. The meaning of the allegory emerges from this parasha.

The Midrash is teaching that the destruction of the Bait HaMikdash and the exile must be understood as aberrations in the relationship between the Jewish people and Hashem. Even during periods of suffering, the covenant still exists. This covenant requires that exile and destruction end in redemption and salvation. This is the message of the Midrash. Even at the moment of catastrophe, the beginnings of inevitable redemption must emerge. This is the birth of the Meshiach refereed to in the Midrash.

[1] Mesechet Sotah 14a.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yesodai HaTorah, Chapter 8.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Critique on Maimonides’ Sefer HaMitzvot — Negative Commands that Maimonides Neglected to Include.

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:2.