Fulfilling the PromiseMoses last speech is sort of a narrative that summarizes a difficult view of our behavior and relationship with God. It includes a lot of flowery language but it comes down to this: God was near and life was good. We took Him for granted and cared for other gods. God turned away so we felt lost.
Moses tells us that we should “do all the words of this law.” If we do, he says, we shall “prolong” our days and get to the promised land.
Well, where I come from, the word ‘law’ usually doesn’t refer to a story that describes bad behavior and consequences. Still, you have to give Moses his due, so I search for the lesson.
The other part of this portion is equally problematic. Moses is at the end of an incredible life of service. He has sacrificed everything to do God’s will and to bring his people into the promised land, except he doesn’t get to join them. The reason, God reminds him, is that he “sanctified Me not” in a an earlier story that took place at a spring at Meribeth-kadesh.
The conditions for getting to the promised land figure prominently in both sections and so I find my focus.
I think it’s safe to say that few of us think that we are going to relocate to some new homeland that is going to make a difference in our life that is worthy of being seen as a divine reward. I think it’s equally fair to say that most of us don’t expect God to physically intervene to prevent us from achieving our life’s goals.
So I figure that this is the final the story of an obedient man who heard the word of God and accepted God’s truth when he was told he “trespassed”. When God said “thou shalt not go thither,” Moses didn’t receive it as a command or even as a punishment, but as a statement of fact. It wasn’t that God wouldn’t let him go to the physical place. Moses understood that he was unable to enter the land of milk and honey because he was not able to live the life that was promised or to achieve its joy.
Moses explained the problem in his final speech to the people. When, “of the rock that begot thee thou wast unmindful,” the penalty, God says, is that “I will hide My face from them.” The consequence of this instruction is a coin with the promised land on one side and God’s absence on the other.
I’ll tell you now that the direction I am going is that the real meaning of the promised land is a place where one feels fully embraced by God and all the goodness that results from that relationship and that Moses couldn’t go because, in the practical reallity of leading his tribe, he came to believe that he was the critical instrument of God’s will. But first, let me talk a minute about Moses’ at Meribeth-kadesh.
At Meribeth-kadesh, the Israelites are dying of thirst and they are angry about it. They confront Aaron and Moses and complain that they have been led to disaster. The leaders said nothing and went to pray. God offered Moses a miracle. Go to the rock, He said, and speak to the rock. It will produce water.
Moses goes outside, gathers the people and says, “are we to bring you forth water out of this rock?” Then he smacked it with his walking stick and the water flowed. He didn’t even seem to notice that it was amazing.
God immediately chastized Moses complaining that Moses “believed not in Me, to sanctify Me” and as a consequence, he would never get to the promised land.
The usual explanation of Mose’s flaw is that he hit the rock with a stick instead of speaking to it and that this was disobedience. I think that’s wrong.
Not only does God actually say “believed not” and “sanctified” as the wrongdoing, but it is clear that Moses language allowed the people to believe that the miracle of the water was because he, Moses, was there to bring about God’s bounty. Moses used the term “we” when he announces the miracle.
In his speech, Moses said that the crucial flaw appears when one “waxed fat” and “forsook God”. The text makes clear that the meaning of “waxed fat” refers to the sense of entitlement that comes from being well fed, that at some point, people are inclined to accept God’s bounty as a given and give priority to other things that lead us away from God.
So Moses, at Meribeth-kadesh, had been running a big organization for a long time. He had repeatedly called on God for help and gotten it. He was used to being the central character in the story of the Israelites and their God. But then, he forgot about God and, thinking only of his role in asking for help, used “we” and didn’t give God credit for the miracles that sustain the people.
Sanctify means, among other things, give authority to. Moses did not give authority to God for saving the people from drought.
But yesterday at Yom Kippur services, we were told that God will forgive anything if we repent and make good. It can’t be that God would not forgive this incredibly loyal servant. So, what about this transgression makes Moses incapable of entering the promised land?
To figure that out, we need to consider the idea of ‘promised land’. A hundred times throughout the Torah it’s promised to the decendants of Abraham in one fashion or other. Most of the time it’s described vaguely as a homeland where things are going to be good. Often, though, there are more details and those tend to describe the things that God is going to do to insure that the people there are going to happily, peacefully be able to worship God, or, more practically, live a life that is consistent with God’s will.
Since the land is already there and God has already given it, what is needed from a person to for this dream to come true? The ability to keep God frontmost in your mind. Not to be distracted by other gods or, to extend the concept, not to allow other priorities to interfere with your ability to sanctify God. Without that, one can’t live in a manner consistent with God’s will because it’s not possible to separate His will from your own.
Moses demonstrated, at Meribeth-kadesh, that he was not able to do that.
Moses was not a bad guy, nor was he impious. He was the judaism’s great leader. At Meribeth-kadesh, he wasn’t thinking, “It’s all me and God doesn’t matter.” He was just being a person, doing the job of being a leader under stress. Trouble came, he turned to his divine resource, sought help and got it.
It is not a big flaw that he came to assume that God would help nor is it evil that he sort of came to feel like the reason that God was doing these miracles was because Moses was there to ask for them. Like many of us, he was doing his job well and when it was time to bring water out of a rock, well, he was the guy that went to God to make it happen. That he felt like it was his achievement, well, it’s not unreasonable.
But it’s a killer if you want to have the place you end up actually be the promised land. Even if he had crossed the Jordan, the promised land wouldn’t have fulfilled its promise because Moses, despite all his virtues, had come to the feeling that his job and his performance were a contribution to the happiness of his people that was comparable to that of God. Who made the water come? God wouldn’t have done it unless I asked, so it’s “we.”
And why is this so bad? Why can’t one achieve the ‘promise’ of the promised land if one is not able to put God above all else, all the time?
Personally, I am not figuring that God is going to be pouring water out of any rocks on my behalf anytime soon. I expect no manna to fall out of the sky. I don’t really expect God to be doing any physics experiments in my life. I do, however, believe that, to the extent that I live my life in a manner consistent with God’s will, I will have a better life for myself, my family and my community.
It’s not easy to do that in the modern age. We are led to believe that making money to support your family is the absolutely most important thing you can do. We think that making sure that our children are able to go to a good college is the sine qua non. It is suggested that our fulfillment as a person is closely related to our status at work and the excellence with which we perform our jobs. These are, of course, all good things and there are many others as well.
So the years go by and we do our jobs, just as Moses did. We achieve some level of success. We have some excellent children of which we are very proud. And we think, it’s a miracle that I am able to do these things. But, of course, we have to work very hard for long hours. We don’t really have time to get to Friday services. Not much time to do some volunteer work. Not much time to study Torah.
We know we have to prioritize and in our judgement, we just can’t do it all. We just don’t have the time to acknowlege the important things that we are told to do by God. Our focus on ourselves and the ‘other gods’ in our lives, cause us to feel lonely, to wonder if God is really there. In our family, accomplishments and friends, there are so many beautiful things, but we fail to recognize that they are miracles.
We live a life of prosperity and ease that the people in the Torah could never have conceived and yet the promise is not fulfilled. We are, somehow, not in the land of milk and honey. It’s not that God hasn’t made fulfillment available. It’s that we are not doing our part.
So, like so many others in the Bible, Moses is a slightly tragic figure. A hero that fell short so that we could learn a lesson. Moses, were he at Meribeth-kadesh today, would not merely have failed to thank God for the water, he would have failed to keep the Sabbath. He would not have realized that his success at work is because his parents taught him well. He would not have focused on his good fortune in having met a good wife and of having children that were healthy and kind.
He would have, to the extent that he reflected on these things, thought that they happened because he was hardworking and lucky, not because he was blessed by God with advantages. He wouldn’t recognize the miracle. Having gotten used to it, having taken it for granted, he would feel no joy. because he was used to miracles.
And that Moses of today would have been equally unable to find the promised land because he would have to make judgements about his successes and his failures, to adjudicate priorities, and always wonder if he was doing the right thing. Without sanctifying God, without ‘giving authority’ to God, he is left to his own devices and must evaluate his success and virtue on the teeny little scale that he invented himself.
But if he had been able to keep God foremost, if he had, if only I could avoid flirting with the gods of pleasure and sloth and status, then I could focus on my family, do tzedakah, comfort the bereaved, help the sick, keep faith with those that sleep in the dust. And I could do it safe in the knowledge that God had shown for 3500 years that these are the right things to do and that even if I don’t understand why or how it will work out, even if I have to go for a year or more without a job, even if I can’t always pay my bills, I can find joy in the miracles of a healthy family and wonderful friends and be confident that I am doing the right thing by doing God’s will because it is God’s will and, as Moses tells us in his final song, that is the path to the promised land.