Today’s Torah portion concludes with a very touching scene. At the beginning of his career as leader of the Jewish people, Moses sang a song in praise to Gd at the crossing of the Red Sea. And now, as his end draws near, he sings a farewell song of faith and trust. He calls heaven and earth to witness Gd’s faithfulness and dependability. The point is…if Gd is faithful to us, how can we not be faithful to Him?
Moses is then instructed by Gd to go up to Mt. Nebo where he can see a panorama of the Promised Land. Gd tells him that he will die on top of the mountain and not go on to enter the land, “Because you broke faith with Me among the children of Israel, at the waters of M’rivat-Kadeysh in the wilderness of Tzin, Al asher lo didashtem oti b’toch B’ney Yisrael, by failing to uphold My sanctity among the children of Israel” (Deut. 32:51).
Whenever I come to this passage in the Torah, I am still just as disappointed as I was when I read this story as a child. How cruel was the sense of frustration I shared with Moses. He had dedicated his very life to a single goal which drew him irresistibly on. To achieve it, he had led his people through 4 perilous decades, inspiring them with courage, battling their recurrent doubts, buttressing their sagging faith, keeping steadfastly before them the vision of the ultimate destination—the Promised Land. When, at last, he stands with them on the very threshold, the banks of the Jordan…the Jordan is probably smaller than the Chattahoochee River—a child can throw a rock from one side to the other…that’s the glimpse that Moses is permitted to see of the land before he dies, besides the broader view from Mt. Nebo.
To have struggled so long for an amazing goal only to be halted at the precise moment when it is virtually within reach—that appears to be too depressing a climax to such a noble adventure. It seems to betray the very faith by which Moses himself had lived.
The Midrash pictures Moses as pleading fervently with Gd to permit him to enter the land, if not as a person then at least as a bird or in the form of some other animal; if not alive, then dead—but all in vain. Gd’s decree here is irreversible.
With maturity, however, my sense of disappointment was mellowed by the realization that the great always die too soon. The essence of greatness is that it sets up for itself goals that are too large to be achieved in any lifetime, however long. Big people are unsatisfied with small objectives. Every Moses inevitably leaves his final Jordan uncrossed.
Rabbi Sidney Greenberg amplified this thought when he wrote: “To labor and not see the end of our labors, to sow and not to reap, to be removed from this earthly scene before our work has been appreciated…is a law so common in the highest characters of history, that none can be said to be altogether exempt from its operation.”
I am tempted to make the generalization that it is perhaps only small people who reach their Promised Land in their lifetime. If one is concerned only with acquiring things, or position or financial security for retirement, he can very well reach his Promised Land. But what of the person whose Promised Land is the fortification of Jewish life, the defeat of disease, the melting of prejudice, the triumph over poverty? Is he/she likely to reach his destination? And yet who will deny that it is in the very striving after these goals that life acquires its highest significance?
One never really reaches the Promised Land. The real meaning in life comes from the struggle, the effort to achieve our goals. And for the Jew, his goal is, as we read in the Aleynu prayer on the High Holy Days and in the conclusion of almost every Jewish service, L’takeyn olam b’malchut Shakai (To perfect the world for the Kingdom of the Almighty). If we always have as one of our goals in life perfecting this world, making it a more compassionate and human place, then life will always have meaning.
Remember the Biblical story of how King Solomon decided between 2 women both claiming the same baby as their own? King Solomon, in his great wisdom, ordered that the baby be cut in half. At that point one of the women gave up her claim to the baby and King Solomon knew that only the real mother would rather give it up than see it harmed, and so he gave her the baby.
A colleague was trying to teach this famous story to a class in his religious school. To add some creative spice to the teaching, he had the class act out the story. He selected 2 little moppets to act the parts of the real mother, and phony mother. An older boy was crowned King Solomon with a paper Burger King crown (He was a reform rabbi), and my colleague provided a baby doll as the main prop for this mini-docu-drama. The baby doll was brought forward. Then the Burger King Solomon flipped out his Buck knife and squeaked, “I’m gonna’ cut this baby in half.”
The little girl playing the real mother panicked when she saw the knife and started screaming. King Solomon started sawing away at the baby doll’s neck. Kids started screaming and running around everywhere as my colleague tried to calm them down and stop King Solomon from decapitating the doll. My colleague pushed the real mother forward and screamed at her. “Say something!”
Then she looked at him, looked at King Solomon, looked at the baby and in a panic blurted out, “I’ll take the head!”
My friends, sometimes things just don’t work out the way we plan them. At least that’s the lesson my colleague learned that day. On other days he had other classes where the real mother said, “Don’t cut up the baby; give it to her.” On other days he had other classes when the King Solomon with the Burger King crown realized that only a true mother would give up her own child rather than let it be harmed.
Sometimes things just don’t work out the way we plan them. But meaning in life does not come from seeing our plans fulfilled. Real meaning comes from the struggle, the reaching, the straining.
Our Sages seem to have been pointing in this direction when they said that every Jew is obliged to participate in “a Mitzvah which is designed for the generations.” They were apparently talking about goals which in their very nature defy easy attainment, dreams so large that the road to their realization can never be achieved in one lifetime.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur called upon us to set lofty goals for in the year ahead. We read of Moses’ failure to reach his life’s goal today, the 1st Shabbat after the High Holy Days, in order to encourage us to pursue those goals despite any difficulties we may encounter—even if it looks like we may never achieve them completely—for it is in the struggle to become better human beings, better spouses, better parents, better children, better Jews—it is in this struggle—where we ultimately will find meaning.
Rabbi Tarfon teaches in Pirkey Avot (2:21) Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo ata ven chorin l’hibateyl mimena (You are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it). Perhaps that’s what Oscar Wilde meant when he said: “There are 2 tragedies in life. One is not getting what you want. The other is getting what you want!” We should be suspicious of Promised Lands which are too easily reached. They may not be worth the journey. As we enter this New Year, let us set our sights extra high. There’s no telling what we may accomplish. Amen!