Why was Moses barred from entering the promised land? It upsets our sense of fairness. There must be a reason for this disentitlement, for how else to explain why the great leader, the one who brought his people from Mitzraim to the ecstasy of Sinai and maintained their sense of purpose through the desert to the very border of the Land could only gaze at it and never enter. Is this the reward for one who had sacrificed power and privilege for the complaints and burdens of a stiff-necked people, who endured forty years with them?
Could it have been this or that fault, something so serious that Moses, so faithful should suffer, while the faithless, stiff-necked people who complained their way through the desert marched in. Could it have been his impatience, his disobedience, his lack of perfect faith. But if so, then why only he?
The more one searches, the more possibilities one can conjure. The more one searches, the more there emerges before one the life of an ordinary extraordinary man. The more one searches, the more we see a person we all can recognize, a person we are.
If Moses was a man of impatience, doubt, and occasional disobedience, so too are we. We have done all these things and without the great virtues of Moses—the ability to recognize the face of God, to talk to God, to dare to do the will of God, no matter how difficult, to get up day after day and keep trying to do the will of God as our only motive.
The more I think about Moses, the more I see a person who is an almost perfect example of humanity, not just an example for humanity. A leader who has felt doubt but persisted nonetheless is a person I can turn to for inspiration in my difficult times. A person who grows impatient and despairs is one I can understand. A person who has the courage to argue with God about what is just, what is prudent. If only I dared do more than just accept.
This Moses, seen in this way, is transformed, and his failure to enter the promised land is redolent with meaning for us. We spend our lives wandering in the desert, aiming towards ever receding goals. No doubt, most of us end our lives with regret for what we have not accomplished, for what we have not understood, for the ways in which we have not been understood.
Moses is a perfect representation of these regrets. Moses alone speaks to us as we envision him in his last moments, gazing at the never to be attained. The image is poignant and understandable. Moses didn’t fail to reach the promised land because of a punishment inflicted on him. He failed—if failure it can be called—because he was human. We are all Moses at our best, striving, going forward, hoping for but never attaining perfection.
I see Moses. I see a person who has been saddened by the events of life. The people he has lived among have failed to understand him. The most important events of his life have been ones they were unable or unwilling to take part in, which they deprecated. Life asked the impossible of him—walk out from everything you are and know and go into a place of uncertainty and discomfort and spend your life there guided by the intangible.
But there is another side to this Moses who died outside the Land. Moses died possessed of and by the promised land. He did not reach it, but it was still there in his last moments, there to be seen with his last gaze.
What do we know of the history of the Hebrews after they entered their promised land? They remained fractious, quarrelsome, difficult, faithless. Their entry into the land became only an entry to a place to continue to be as they were.
Moses, only Moses, died with a promised land.