In life we do not always accomplish our dreams. We anticipate, for example, retirement hoping on leaving behind us a legacy; yet, often times that road to glory can be tricky. Unexpected results can alter those cherished hopes. How does Moses’ inward thinking about God’s announcement that he be forbidden to enter the Promised Land reflect on how many of us anticipate our own unfulfilled life goals about how to cope? What can Moses teach us from the Torah about facing our own fears when we make major life transitions?
In Parashat Phinchas, the Torah tells a story about a life dream unfulfilled. It is a sad tale about God who forbids Moses from entering the Promised Land. God takes him to the mountain of Abiram and says to his devoted prophet, “See the Land that I have given to the
Children of Israel. You shall see it and you shall be brought into your people, you, too, as Aaron your brother was brought in; because you rebelled against My word in the Wilderness of Zin, in the strife of the Assembly, to sanctify me at the water before their eyes. They are the waters of the strife of Kadesh, in the Wilderness of Zin” (Numbers 27:12-14)
The focal point here is that God is preparing Moses for his death, declaring that because he lost his temper as he struck the rock and produced water for the people, he did not sanctify God’s name. The mistake in the ritual process of invoking this miracle, without mentioning God properly, meant Moses would give up the opportunity to join his people in the Promised Land.
Some of our sages, however, took a different view of Moses hoping, according to some sages, that God would reverse the decision and let him join that new generation of Israelites ready to move forward and conquer the land. Rashi, the commentator, probed deeper into the mindset of Moses. Was Rashi cued into the idea that that giving up one’s life mission before one is ready to do so creates an internal struggle?
In Rashi’s mind, since Moses had this experience with God while he was standing in the land apportioned to Gad and Reuben, (on the other side of the Jordan river), he is reported to have said, “It seems to me that the vow about me (meaning the vow that he be forbidden from entering the Promised Land), has been released.”
Rashi offers a parable about a king who enters the gate of his Palace and his son follows him wherever he goes. Every room the king enters in the Palace the son follows him until he enters the bedroom where the king addresses his son and says; “You are forbidden to enter.”
Moses learned that there was a disconnect between his aspirations and God’s plan. He could now see that his time of leadership had come to an end. The rabbis showed in this parable not only a human side but a vulnerable aspect of Moses personality. Is it possible that he did not want to let go of his role as prophet, or that he did not want to stay behind and possibly die by himself in the desert? Rashi reminds us that the great Moses was struggling with some of the same kinds of conflicting emotions between accepting the decree of God versus realizing our long held goals for planning our lives.
Clearly Moses did not believe that God’s decision to prevent him from entering the Promised Land was supposed to be his legacy. Did he imagine he could escape his fate unlike his brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam? Was Moses despondent over God’s decision for him? How did he come to grips with letting go of his life’s work? One can speculate or wonder if he died with the feeling of great accomplishment that would live on to this very day?
Today, leaving a job after a lifetime of work can be the greatest blessing — and it can be frightening as well. “What do I do now?” “How do I reinvent myself?” “How will they get along without me?” “Will my work last and will it leave behind the legacy I had hoped for at the end of my career?”
All these questions might have swirled through Moses’ mind and probably resonate with those of us who have retired from satisfying jobs. The Torah reminds us that we do not always get to control our lives or choose the designated outcomes of our life’s work in the way we imagine. Moses at least was given the opportunity to see the Promised Land, even if God forbade him from stepping foot into it. He obviously knew that Joshua would carry on the mantle of leadership and that a new generation of Israelites would fulfill the ancient promise by resettling the land. Did he come to rethink that his leadership role was not the point any longer? Maybe he realized that the focus now would be on a new generation defining its own goals, hopes and leadership? Was it about Moses adjusting himself to the limitations of his own dream for the sake of God’s plan and facing the limitations of his mortality as well?
About the Author:
Rabbi Brad L. Bloom, Congregation Beth Yam, Hilton Head, SC