There Is No Joy in Israel...
...mighty Moses has struck out. But God's refusal to let Moses enter Canaan may not actually be a punishment
It is the seventh game of the World Series, the bottom of the ninth. The score is close, but the home team isn't sweating. They have a mighty player, the all-time top contender, a guy who has hit home run after home run throughout the season. This extraordinary man is a better hitter than Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Roger Maris, and Babe Ruth combined. He is unique, unsurpassed, simply unbeatable.
The great man walks up to the plate with grim determination; the crowd waits, holding its collective breath. His teammates look up expectantly, quiet but completely confident. And the unthinkable happens. In the immortal words of Ernest Thayer:
"Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright:
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere folks are laughing and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville--mighty Casey has struck out."
If ever a "mighty" player deserved to lead the team to victory, it was Moses. But in this week's portion, Moses doesn't even strike out: At the bottom of the ninth inning, he is inexplicably banned from the ballpark. That's the shocker of Ha'azinu, this week's Torah portion.
Moses, the prophet who spoke "face to face" with God Almighty; Moses who dared to face down Pharaoh and free the enslaved Jewish people; Moses who persevered 40 years in the wilderness through drought, war, rebellion, and famine; this man is forbidden from guiding his people into the land that God has granted them. Moses' destiny is to remain forever outside the Promised Land, his grave unmarked and unknown. "Unfair" is too mild an adjective to describe the situation.
The Torah doesn't mince words. God says to Moses, "You shall die on the mountain that you are about to ascend, and shall be gathered to your kin...for you broke faith with Me in front of the Israelite people at the waters of Meribat-kadesh...by failing to sanctify Me among the Israelites. You may view the land from a distance, but you shall not enter" (Deuteronomy 32:50-52). Generations of Torah readers have puzzled over this unexpected turn of events.
What happened at Meribat-kadesh (Numbers 20) to justify such a terrible fate? There was a water shortage. God told Moses to verbally order a rock to yield water. Moses struck the rock, and out came water. God became upset and accused Moses of faithlessness. Most traditional commentators explain that God's anger is over the lack of trust demonstrated by striking the rock instead of commanding it. Seems like a pretty minor breach of faith to me. After a lifetime of risking everything to serve God, Moses will experience the ultimate exile because he hit a rock? Let's face it, the punishment doesn't fit the crime.