The story was not Moses’ to complete


By Rabbi Esther Lederman
This week’s Torah reading is Ha’azinu, Deuteronomy 32:1-52.

In Ha’azinu, we find Moses in his last days, moments from death. God tells Moses to ascend to the top of Mount Nebo. From there, he will see the land that the children of Israel will enter. He will take his last breath and die.

In a painful and powerful midrash, the rabbis try to understand the conversation between Moses and God at this fraught moment. Moses is upset that he will not be able to enter the land with the Israelites. He has, what we call today, FOMO — Fear Of Missing Out.

Moses is prepared with all sorts of arguments. “If it be Your will, let me enter the Land of Israel and I will live there only two or three years, and then I will die.” “No,” God replies. Moses says, “If I cannot enter alive, let me enter after my death. Let my bones be buried in the land of Israel.” God’s answer is final: “No.”

In dozens of other midrashim, the rabbis imagine Moses’ pleading with God to avert this final decree. Moses asks God to turn him into an animal and then a bird. He pleads with God to let him enter the land as a common citizen, instead of as a leader. He argues that he deserves the reward of entering the land, for all he has put up with by leading God’s people in the desert for 40 years. But each time, the answer is no.

Which of us cannot feel Moshe’s pain at this moment, what it must feel like to come to the end of the journey with dreams still to be fulfilled?

Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, a Polish commentator from the 19th century, adds his interpretation to the story. In his commentary, he places into God’s mouth the following words: “It is not that you don’t merit going into the land of Israel, but rather that I give the land to the children of Israel, and therefore you can’t go with them!”

In order for the children of Israel to inherit the land, Moses had to stay behind. For if Moses were to enter the land, the story would be complete. If the Torah was merely a book, this might have made for a great ending for its readers. What a satisfying end! The hero achieves his goal!

But Torah is not a novel. It is a roadmap for our lives today, and our job is to understand its symbols and clues. If Moses entering the land would complete the story, what clue does that give us? Although we often lovingly refer to Torah as the Five Books of Moses, this is not a story about Moses, but a story about us, and the covenantal relationship we have with God. God wants to leave the story open and incomplete.

We are the ones who come to complete the story, just like the Israelites did, who entered the land without Moses and wrote new chapters. And then, like Moses before us, we too will have visions not yet met before we die, and our descendants will do all they can to continue the story line. In this way, the narrative of the Jewish people will never be complete; it will endure for eternity.

Rabbi Esther L. Lederman is director of congregational innovation for the Union for Reform Judaism and is a member of Temple Micah in Washington.

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