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Parashat Va-etchanan/Nachamu 5781

23 July 2021

Dear Members and Friends,

At the very beginning of parashat Va-etchanan, Moses recalls his plea to God to enter the Promised Land: ‘I pleaded with the Eternal One at that time, saying, ‘Adonai Elohim…let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan…’ (Deuteronomy 3:23-25).

No less than fourteen times in the previous chapter, Moses reminds the Israelites of how God has commanded them to pass through the various territories of Transjordan, crossing the wadis that mark the boundaries between regions in preparation for traversing the River Jordan. And four times, God urges Moses to go in and take possession of the land.

Despite the earlier episode in Numbers where Moses strikes the rock and is told he will not enter the land, it is hardly surprising that he begins to feel that he might be part of a project on the other side of the Jordan.  What could he lose by expressing his great longing to see the land of Israel?

E’bra-na v’ereh et ha-aretz ha-tovah – ‘Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan,’ (3:25), he says to God. But God’s response to Moses seems cruelly ironic: Va-yit-abber Adonai bi – ‘But the Eternal One was cross with me on your account and would not listen to me…’(3:26). The text uses exactly the same root avar to mean both ‘to cross the river’ and ‘to be furious, to be cross.’ The pun works well in English as well as in Hebrew, as though God says, you want to cross over the Jordan, your request transgresses my patience, it has made me cross!

God’s anger with Moses is harsh, almost ruthless in the way it disregards the leader’s sense of dignity, the long years of patience and hardship he has suffered with the people.  If Moses is an example of a man of profound faith and righteousness, why then does God punish him and withhold his dearest wish? He has trusted in God; he has believed in God’s promises to the people and become Israel’s intercessor at moments of divine wrath.

God’s response to Moses is profoundly disturbing, not because it tells us about the nature of God.  Creating theology out of this response would, I think, be a dangerous exercise. It is disturbing because we do not know what the morrow will bring. How can we understand and make sense of the uncertainties and arbitrariness of the lives we live? 

What Moses experiences is the reality of a major disappointment in life, about which absolutely nothing can be done.  It says nothing about God who remains, in a sense, beyond and unchanged by what happens to human beings.

Our longed-for faith in a compassionate and beneficent God often comes into sharp conflict with the harsh reality of our world. There is a dissonance between the ideals we attribute to God, and the horror and darkness of the real world.

In our parashah, Moses does not attempt to pursue a change of mind in God – “to tax an archaic god with the requirements of modern ethics” as Jung puts it (Answer to Job, page 9). Instead, he turns to the Israelites and tells them to pay attention to the laws and rules which will create a just and lawful society. The easing of disappointment and the rectification of human moral failure come through solid and hard work: the groundwork which is laid by the creation of a just legal system, by love and loyalty to a Presence that is both beyond and deep within ourselves, to each other and by the requirement to teach future generations, so that our children and children’s children will know how to live modestly and peacefully on this earth.

Shabbat Shalom

Alexandra Wright

Sun, 25 July 2021 16 Av 5781