Chukas: The Tragic Distance Between Moshe and Moshiach

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Chukas, the Torah abruptly shifts from year two of desert wanderings (machlokes Korach) to year forty of desert wandering (Ch.20 of Parshas Chukas).  With Miriam’s death, the miraculous well of water that sustained the people through all the years dried up.  After the nation complained to Moshe, Hashem instructed Moshe to take his staff in his hand and speak to the rock, and it would give forth water.  And Moshe took his staff and gathered the people before the face of the rock: וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם, שִׁמְעוּנָא הַמֹּרִיםהֲמִןהַסֶּלַע הַזֶּה, נוֹצִיא לָכֶם מָיִם, And he said to them: listen O you rebels, from this rock shall we bring forth for you water?  וַיָּרֶם מֹשֶׁה אֶתיָדוֹ, וַיַּךְ אֶתהַסֶּלַע בְּמַטֵּהוּפַּעֲמָיִם; וַיֵּצְאוּ מַיִם רַבִּים, וַתֵּשְׁתְּ הָעֵדָה וּבְעִירָם, and Moshe lifted his hand and he struck the rock with his staff two times, and much water came out and the assembly and their flocks drank (Bamidbar 20:1-11).  The punishment and consequences were immediate: וַיֹּאמֶר האֶלמֹשֶׁה וְאֶלאַהֲרֹן, יַעַן לֹאהֶאֱמַנְתֶּם בִּי, לְהַקְדִּישֵׁנִי לְעֵינֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵללָכֵן, לֹא תָבִיאוּ אֶתהַקָּהָל הַזֶּה, אֶלהָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁרנָתַתִּי לָהֶם, and G-d said to Moshe and to Aharon: because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me before the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore, you will not bring this assembly into the Land that which I have given them (ibid, v.12).  

Moshe, our master, our teacher, our leader, and our rebbe, was banned forever from the Holy Land.  Despite heartfelt pleas on his own behalf (Deut.3:23-25), Hashem did not permit Moshe to cross the Jordan – not in life, and not in death.  This painful reality remains an enigma, a gezeirah (decree) from the One Above.  Moshe, who faithfully dedicated his entire career to leading and caring for the flock of Hashem is denied his greatest desire.  The shockwaves of this decree extended well past the lifetime of Moshe and his generation… In fact, they are still felt by us today, as we trudge through our long and painful galus.  

While Moshe’s sin is an enigma, with the commentators offering interpretations into what his sin actually was at Mei Merivah (see Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Ramban and Rambam for various opinions), the fact remains that Moshe was barred from Eretz Yisrael.  

In a novel interpretation, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt’l teaches that the fault lies not only with Moshe and his sin, but with the people that he loved, and led.  The Rav teaches, “Moshe’s failure to cross the Jordan complicated matters and caused a tragic change in our historical destiny.  Had Moshe entered the Land, the whole history of our people would have taken another turn.  It would have been less tragic, less sad and less mysterious, but at the same time, less heroic – and consequently, less great.

“If Bnei Yisrael had proven themselves worthy of communing with Moshe, of being his disciples, if they had displayed the intellectual and emotional capacity to receive and absorb Torat Moshe, then Moshe would have entered and conquered the Promised Land, and he would have been anointed as the King Messiah.  Jewish history would have found its realization and fulfillment immediately upon entering the Land.

“There was no reason to deny the messianic role to Moshe; he was the greatest of all men.  His personality as adon ha’neviim, the master of prophets, is far superior to that of the King Messiah.  Maimonides writes that the Messiah’s prophetic capacity will be ‘close to that of Moshe’ (Hilchos Teshuva 9:2); however, Moshe will nevertheless retain his superiority.  If so, the question arises, why did the Almighty not ordain Moshe as the King Messiah?  No one else will ever be as qualified as Moshe.  Had Moshe entered and hallowed the land, the kedusha would have been eternal; the Babylonian legions could never have annulled it.

“The answer is obvious.  The messianic era would have commenced if the entire generation, the entire nation, had accepted Moshe’s message fully.  If his teachings had made a genuine impact upon his contemporaries, if these people had indeed become his disciples, if they had treated him with reverence and love the way the talmid is supposed to treat his rebbi, then Moshe would have been ordained as the Messiah.

“Unfortunately, they did not rise to the great and singular occasion.  Torat Moshe was the possession of a few; the crowd acted like liberated bondmen who could not forget the pots of flesh.  After the passage of forty years, the opportunity was missed.  The era of the Messiah was postponed for a long period of time; the distance between Moshe’s redemption and the Messiah’s redemption grew almost ad infinitum.  Moshe had to die in the sand-hills of Moav.  His teachings were entrusted to Yehoshua, to the people, to countless future generations.  

“Only when the entire congregation has committed itself to this teaching, when Moshe is accepted as the master, and when we all demonstrate our capability and readiness to become inquisitive disciples of our master and teacher, only then will the hour of redemption strike.  In the interim, we must travel a tortuous, long road toward a far destination.  Moshe did not cross the Jordan; he did not receive the crown of the Messiah.  The congregation of Israel was assigned the task of waiting for the Messiah, who could have led us across the Jordan into the Promised Land 3,500 years ago.

“…Moshe died because his contemporaries did not recognize his greatness and moral perfection.  Because of his untimely death, Jewish history became longer, more complex, unintelligible, and tragic.  Moshe and the King Messiah, who were supposed to join, separated and turned into two identities, and the Jew learned how to believe and to wait.  זֹאת הַתּוֹרָה אָדָם כִּייָמוּת בְּאֹהֶל, this is the Torah: when a man dies in a tent… (Bamidbar 19:14)” (Vision and Leadership, p.214-216).  

As we find ourselves in the month of Tammuz, with aveilus (mourning) for the churban upon us once again, we would do well to contemplate the powerful teachings of Rav Soloveitchik.  Moshe was not the Messiah because the people were not ready, and so, the distance between the two is very, very long indeed.  We must sincerely ask ourselves if we are ready for the arrival of Moshiach, if we anticipate his coming, if we are prepared to accept his kingship (and His Kingship) in our day and our time.  Perhaps when we can answer ‘yes, we are ready,’ the Messiah will finally arrive.

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,


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