Imagine if Harry Potter would finally have received an apology from his older cousin, Dudley, after being tormented by the Dersley family for nearly two decades. How about if Scar, haunted by the ghost of his murdered brother, had tried to make amends for his crime by appointing Mufasa’s widow, Nala, queen over the Pride Lands? Or what if Bruce Ismay, the managing director of White Star Lines, had been forced to explain to the survivors of the shipwreck that he abandoned why he took off in a lifeboat while everyone else was left to drown? In the unedited versions of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Lion King and Titanic, these conversations actually take place. But all three scenes were scrapped during production. As a result, fans never got the chance to see some key characters in their favorite movies grapple with the guilt of their former misdeeds.
When we turn to this week’s Torah portion, we stumble upon yet another “deleted scene.” Moshe is in the midst of retelling the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. He’s at the part shortly after his mishandling of the infamous “Waters of Strife” incident, for which he was severely punished: Hashem was so upset about what happened that He forbade Moshe from leading the people into the Promised Land. We know this tale well, because—like nearly everything else in Sefer Devarim—we’ve already encountered it in the first four books of the Torah. But then Moshe informs us of a dialogue that never made it into the original script:
I entreated the Lord at that time, saying, “O Lord God, You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand, for who is like God in heaven or on earth who can do as Your deeds and Your might? Please let me cross over and see the good land that is on the other side of the Jordan, this good mountain and the Lebanon.” But the Lord was angry with me because of you, and He did not listen to me, and the Lord said to me, “That’s enough from you; don’t you speak to Me anymore regarding this matter. Go up to the top of the hill and lift up your eyes westward and northward and southward and eastward and see with your eyes, for you shall not cross this Jordan. But command Joshua and strengthen him and encourage him, for he will cross over before this people, and he will make them inherit the land which you will see” (Deut. 3:23-8).
In this moving passage, Moshe confronts the consequences of the error he has committed, begging Hashem to pardon him for his mistake. Yet in the account of Israelite history recorded by the Torah’s narrative voice, the details of this private exchange are entirely absent. Why, then, does Moshe publicize them? Let’s develop a few approaches together.
1. “The Lord was angry with me because of you…”
When we studied the “Waters of Strife” episode about a month and a half ago, we saw that the unfair complaints and insensitive remarks of the Israelites played a large role in wearing Moshe down and driving him to the brink of collapse. At the time, Moshe didn’t blame the Israelites for creating the crisis that ended his career. Yet that doesn’t mean that he would never do so. Perhaps, like the patriarch Jacob, Moshe opted to reserve his rebuke of those who wronged him for the moments immediately preceding his death. He wanted the people to know that they were responsible for his downfall—that “the Lord grew angry with me because of you” (Deut. 3:26) and that “the Lord was upset with me because of your words” (Deut. 4:21)—but he wanted to save the criticism for when it would be most relevant, and most effective. This was a man who spent his life gaining God’s forgiveness on behalf of the nation whenever it messed up. But when he needed it for himself, Moshe couldn’t gain divine grace—and as he prepared to bid his people farewell, he made sure to let them know whose fault it was that he wouldn’t be around to see another day.
2. “Don’t you speak to me anymore regarding this matter…”
Contrary to the first approach, it’s possible that Moshe wasn’t condemning the Israelites as much as he was hinting that he needed their help. When Moshe recounts the discussion that took place between him and Hashem, he makes sure to emphasize that it’s his request that’s been turned down: “I don’t want to hear another word from you,” Hashem had insisted to Moshe. What if somebody else had pressed the issue? After the Golden Calf, and again after the Sin of the Spies, Hashem threatened to destroy the Israelites and offered to rebuild the nation from Moshe’s progeny. But Moshe was adamant that there would be no separating between him and his people: “If You won’t forgive them, then erase me from this book that You’ve written” (Ex. 32:32). The Israelites could have returned the favor. They could have announced, “We’re not entering the land without Moshe.” At the very least, they could have petitioned heaven for mercy on his behalf. They didn’t, though. They remained silent, tacitly approving of Hashem’s decree and rejecting Moshe’s leadership one final time.
3. “That’s enough…”
When it’s all said and done, Hashem doesn’t revoke Moshe’s sentence. What’s more, Moshe is practically interrupted in mid-appeal: Hashem tells him “that’s enough from you” [רב לך] and commands him to “go up to the top of the hill” because “you shall not cross over the Jordan.” The expression רב לך, i.e., “that’s enough,” is quite rare in Tanach. In fact, Hashem uses it all of four times in the entire Bible. Two of its uses appear in the book of Ezekiel. The other two instances in which Hashem uses this phrase—the only two times He uses it in the Pentateuch—occur in last week’s Torah portion:
The Lord our God spoke to us in Horeb, saying, “That’s enough [רב לכם] of you sitting around this mountain. Turn and journey, and come to the mountain of the Amorites and to all its neighboring places, in the plain, on the mountain, and in the lowland, and in the south and by the seashore, the land of the Canaanites, and the Lebanon, until the great river, the Euphrates River. See, I have set the land before you; come and possess the land which the Lord swore to your forefathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them and their descendants after them” (Deut. 1:6-8).
Then we turned and journeyed into the desert by way of the Red Sea, as the Lord had spoken to me, and we circled Mount Seir for many days. And the Lord spoke to me, saying, “That’s enough [רב לכם] of your circling this mountain. Turn northward and command the people saying, ‘You are about to pass through the boundary [on your way to the land of Canaan]…” (Deut. 2:1-3).
There are a few striking similarities between these two passages. In both of them: (1) the Israelites have been spending too much time around a mountain; (2) Hashem informs them of this using the curious expression רב לכם—“that’s enough;” (3) they are then commanded to resume at once their journey to the Promised Land.
Fascinatingly, the very same elements appear in the passage that we’ve been analyzing together—only, they’re inverted. In our Torah portion: (1) Moshe desperately desires to enter into the Promised Land; (2) Hashem dashes his hopes by proclaiming רב לך—“that’s enough;” (3) Moshe is then commanded to ascend a mountain, where he will ultimately be laid to rest.
The contrast between these three passages—the two in last week’s Torah portion versus the one in ours—is highly ironic. Perhaps Moshe, the eternal teacher of Israel, plays on that irony in order to deliver one last lesson before dying. For forty years, the Israelites wandered through the desert slowly and unenthusiastically. Like attracts like, and the members of this nation gravitated towards the mountains—that is, towards the least mobile of all natural phenomena. So Hashem had to snap them out of their lethargy. He had to call out from heaven, “That’s enough!”, and remind the people of the goal that they were supposed to be working towards.
But there is another meaning to the expression, “That’s enough!” If these words formed the call to action that sought to shake the Israelites from their slumber, they also served, at the end of Moshe’s life, as his final curtain call. Moshe would have loved nothing more than to have carried on with his adventures. But nobody can avoid the inevitable. The time had come for this man to climb the mountain—that is, to ascend to heaven. He had covered as much ground as he possibly could, and that was that—there would be no more. Perhaps Moshe dwells on this grim reality in our Torah portion because he wants his audience to appreciate its ramifications. “Don’t sit around. Don’t spend your life going around in circles. Don’t waste your time, because it’s not unlimited. Make sure you know where you want to go, and take advantage of every moment. That way, you, at least, will be able to enter into your Promised Land.”
But “What’s P’shat?” A Final Approach
There are many differences between the three approaches that we’ve look at so far. Yet they all lead us to the conclusion that Moshe is saying something without actually saying it. Why did Moshe share with the Israelites the details of his failed attempt to gain entry into the land of Canaan? Was this, in line with the first explanation, an oblique critique of the people? Was it, in line with the second, a coded plea for help? Was it, in line with the third, a veiled allusion to human mortality and a subtle reminder to “get moving” while you still can? All three are tenable interpretations. Yet, to varying degrees, they all require us to dig beneath the surface. They all ask us to search for implicit meaning in Moshe’s words.
There is, however, a simpler way of understanding our passage. After all, the plot of Vaet’hanan is fairly straightforward: Moshe asked for permission to enter into the Promised Land, and Hashem declined. That’s really what this story boils down to when we strip away all of its external layers. Maybe that’s precisely why Moshe told it. Perhaps he just wanted the Israelites to recognize that it’s possible for a man as great as he to pray as sincerely as he ever has, and for Hashem to turn him down all the same.
That’s actually a rather profound theological concept. It’s an idea that’s hard to come to terms with, and one that would have been entirely foreign to the Israelites at this point. Throughout their journey in the wilderness, Hashem had given them everything they asked for. When they were hungry, He rained manna from heaven; when they were thirsty, He brought forth water from a rock; when they were weary, He protected them with Clouds of Glory; and whenever anything went wrong—whether they were being attacked by a foreign nation, or bitten by fiery serpents, or struck dead by plague—all Moshe had to do was cry out to heaven and everything would suddenly be OK. Every moment in the first four books of the Torah is filled with miracles. Never once does God fail to deliver. Disappointment is not in the script.
But of course, it is in the script—it’s just in the “deleted scene.” Moshe reveals the contents of that scene to the Israelites before he dies because he knows all too well that sometimes Hashem does disappoint us. God isn’t a vending machine; He doesn’t always give us whatever we ask for. How should we react when He lets us down?
Perhaps the most poignant answer to this most painful of questions was that of R. Yehuda Wachsman. In October of 1994, Yehuda’s son, Nachshon, was kidnapped by Hamas terrorists on his way home from a military training course. His captors released a video on the Tuesday following his abduction in which they presented their demands: either the Israeli government frees two hundred of our prisoners, or we’ll execute Nachshon at 8:00 PM this Friday. As soon as the public got word of this ultimatum, vigils were set up across the country. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis of all religious backgrounds gathered at the Kotel to daven for Nachshon’s safe return. At the request of Nachshon’s mother, and the Chief Rabbi of Israel, Jewish women across the world purchased extra candles to light in honor of her son that Shabbat.
Meanwhile, Zahal was busy planning a rescue operation. Intelligence reports confirmed that Nachshon was being held in Bir Nabala, a village only ten minutes from his home in Ramot. The IDF waited for a diplomatic solution, but none came. So at 8:00 PM that Friday, the members of the elite commando unit Sayeret Matkal received orders to save Nachshon themselves. Tragically, their mission proved unsuccessful: a struggle ensued as they tried to break into the compound, and Nachshon was murdered just moments before the gunmen who’d taken him hostage were killed.
In the aftermath of Nachshon’s murder, everybody was asking the same question: What happened to all of our tefillot? “My husband’s greatest concern when burying his son,” recounts Esther Wachsman, “was that there would be a crisis of faith.” And so, as he delivered his eulogy for Nachson, R. Mordechai Elon—the boy’s Rosh Yeshiva—turned to all those who were wondering why God hadn’t answered their prayers and, in the name of R. Yehuda Wachsman, replied: “Our Father in Heaven did hear our prayers. It’s just that—though we don’t know why—His answer was ‘No.’”
“A father has the right to say ‘no’”—that was R. Yehuda Wachsman’s remarkable message to the nation of Israel in his moment of grief, and that is Moshe’s message to the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion. It is one of the most difficult notions that the Torah asks us to accept. But it is a notion that we must accept if a relationship between God and man is to be possible. Hashem calls on us to build a world of peace, justice, compassion and love. Sometimes, merely announcing that we share these goals is enough for Hashem to help us meet them. Other times, the task remains ours. The challenge, in these moments, is to hear from within God’s silence the most empowering response that a prayer could possibly receive: “I agree with everything you’ve said. Now please, go make it happen.”