Parshat Va’etchanan: Moshe’s Plea to Enter the Land of Israel

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

1. The Talmud’s puzzlement with Moshe’s desire to enter the Land

Moshe recounts pleading with Hashem to allow him to enter the Land of Israel. Hashem does not rescind His decree. Moshe is permitted to see the Land from a mountaintop. But he is not allowed to participate in its possession.

The Talmud in Tractate Sotah discusses this incident and its message regarding Moshe’s attitude toward the Land of Israel. The Talmud is troubled by Moshe’s desire to enter the Land of Israel. Why was this so important to our most righteous and greatest 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]

2. The fundamental difference between the tzadik and the common person

This passage, from the Talmud, provides an important insight into the nature of the tzadik – the righteous person. The tzadik is not merely different from this normal person in a quantitative sense. He is not distinguished merely by his more intense and consistent commitment to precise observance of the commandments. The true tzadik is qualitatively distinguished from the more common person. He is motivated by considerations that are not shared with the more common person. 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 is fuller and more meaningful through adherence to the Torah. The promise of reward may also play a role. In contrast with the more common person, the tzadik recognizes the respective significance of himself and the Creator. This person is inspired by a deep appreciation of the greatness of Hashem; the tzadik is consumed with the desire to serve Hashem. Unlike the more common person, he regards personal benefit as meaningless. Only the will of Hashem is critical.

And you shall love Hashem your G-d with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your possessions.
(Sefer Devarim 6:5)

3. The meaning of the commandment to love Hashem

This passage is the source for the commandment to love Hashem. The application of the term “love” to our relationship with Hashem deserves careful consideration. Generally, love is predicated between a high degree of identification between the parties. The father and mother see in their child an extension of their own existence. Also, romantic love requires a deep identification between the partners. In what sense does the term “love” apply to our relationship with Hashem? It does not seem proper that the Torah should require that a mortal, humble, creation – the human – identify with the infinite Creator.

Maimonides explains that the term “love of Hashem” is actually intended to communicate an analogy between romantic love and the ultimate relationship with Hashem. One who experiences romantic love is preoccupied with thoughts of his beloved. Contemplation of his beloved and the desire to please his beloved are his sole focus. No other considerations – even self-interest – can distract him from his devotion. The ultimate relationship with Hashem is described as “love” because it is characterized by the preoccupation and complete devotion associated with romantic love.[2]

4. Moshe’s plea to enter the Land was an expression of his love for Hashem

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’s desire to enter the Land was an expression of his love of Hashem. Moshe wished to enter the Land of Israel because of his drive to serve Hashem and perform His will. He recognized that the Torah is not complete outside of the Land of Israel. It is designed for observance in the Land. Therefore, he wished to lead the people into the Land. In this way, he would help establish the Torah in its full form – as it was designed to be observed. Moshe’s regret, in being refused, was that he would not be able to help establish in this world and observe Hashem’s Torah – in its complete form.

The Controversy over Including Recalling Revelation among the Commandments

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. (Sefer Devarim 4:9)

1. The importance of Revelation

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 authority of the Torah is based upon the authenticity of this event. We know that Hashem 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.[3]

Nachmanides 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. Maimonides does not list it as one of the Taryag – six hundred and thirteen mitzvot. Nachmanides raises two objections to Maimonides’ position. In order to understand these objections, it is necessary to understand a basic premise. This is the distinction between two types of evidence – direct evidence and circumstantial evidence.

2. Revelation provides unique evidence of the Torah’s authenticity

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 had 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 video tape of the suspect committing the crime. This is direct evidence of the guilt of the suspect. The video tape 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.

3. Moshe’s prophecy compared to that of other prophets

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 Hashem. However, the wonder is not direct proof.

Now, assume we could actually see the prophet communicate with Hashem. 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.

4. Nachmanides’ critique of Maimonides’ position

Now, it is possible to return to Nachmanides’ arguments. Nachmanides explains that Moshe is the only person whose prophecy is established through overwhelming direct evidence. All of Bnai Yisrael witnessed his communication with Hashem 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 Revelation 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. Nachmanides argues that this fundamental role of Revelation dictates that the conviction in the truth of Revelation must be a commandment.

Nachmanides further argues that Maimonides accepts this central role of this conviction. Maimonides elaborates on this issue in his Mishne Torah.[4] Therefore, Maimonides, too, should include this conviction in his enumeration of mitzvot.[5]

5. Maimonides’ treatment of our passage

How might Maimonides respond to these questions? Maimonides provides a hint in his Mishne Torah – his code of Jewish law. In 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’s grandchildren”. [6]

Superficially, it is odd that Maimonides quotes our passage to support his contention that the grandfather is obligated to teach the grandson; 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 this question in conjunction with Nachmanides’ objections, a clear pattern emerges.

6. Torah must be taught as a Revealed truth

As Nachmanides asserts, Maimonides must agree that we are obligated to transmit the events of the Sinai Revelation to each generation. It is impossible to exclude this fundamental conviction from the corpus of Torah. However, unlike Nachmanides, 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. Now, 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.

[1] Mesechet Sotah 14a.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah, 10:2-6.

[3] Many of the commentators discuss the role of Revelation in providing a historical basis for the contention that the Torah is Hashem’s creation. Rav Yehuda HaLeyve provides a short presentation of this argument in his Sefer HaKuzari. The introduction to Sefer HaChinuch is another source for this argument. This consideration certainly influenced Nachmanides’ objection to Maimonides’ position. The intent here is not to suggest that he does not regard this consideration as relevant. Instead, the intent is to focus on other elements of Nachamides’ critique of Maimonides’ position.

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

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

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