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Moses asks the Lord for two things at the end of his life, one which is biblically recounted and the other which is merely suggested. The one request he makes openly - his heartfelt plea to enter the Land of Israel - comes at the beginning of this week's Torah portion.
The other is deduced by the rabbis of the Midrash, based on the fact that Moses expresses the need to appoint a successor just after God agrees that the daughters of Zelophehad can inherit from their father (Numbers 21:14).
The Midrash teaches: "What caused Moses to request his replacement after the inheritance of the daughters? Since these daughters inherited from their father, Moses declared: 'This is the right moment for me to claim my need. After all, if these women can inherit, my sons should certainly inherit my glory.' The Holy One Blessed Be He said to him: 'The guardian of the fig tree shall eat of its fruit' (Proverbs 27:18). Your sons sat idly by, and were not occupied in the study of Torah. Joshua, on the other hand, served you well and extended much honor to you. He would arrive at your courthouse early in the morning and leave late at night.... Appoint Joshua son of Nun as your successor, to fulfill the verse, 'The guardian of the fig tree shall eat of its fruit.'"
Hence, Moses' two requests: The implicit plea that God appoint his sons to succeed him, and the explicit plea that he be allowed to enter the Land of Israel.
Tragically, both requests were denied. His sons are found wanting; they did not have the necessary Torah qualifications to be religious leaders in their father's footsteps. Very likely, Moses himself realized their unworthiness, and therefore does not make this request verbally; he merely thinks it in his heart and the Bible informs us of it by placing his request for a successor after the appeal by the daughters of Zelophehad. Perhaps Moses understands that he himself bears some guilt for the faults of his children. After all, he is so consumed by his relationship with the Divine that he doesn't seem to have the time or patience for family. Does the Bible not record that he was seemingly too busy to even circumcise his son Eliezer, whose life had to be saved by his wife Zipporah? (Exodus 4:24-26)
Moses apparently is more comfortable making the second request, that he be allowed to enter the Promised Land. It is this entreaty which opens our portion of Vaet'hanan. After all of Moses' sacrifices and all his difficulties with an unwilling and backsliding Israelite nation, does he not deserve to realize his life's goal and enter Israel?
But here again the request is denied. "And the Lord was angry at me because of you, and He did not acquiesce to me... saying that I may not speak of this anymore" (Deut. 3:26). If a parent's legacy is limited or expanded by the quality of his children, a leader must likewise suffer when his nation suffers. When God originally asked Moses to assume the leadership of the Israelites and take them out of Egypt, the great prophet demurred: "The [Israelites] did not listen to Moses because of impatience and difficult work" (Exodus 6:9). The Ralbag (Gershonides, 1288-1344) explains that Moses was impatient with his own people because of the difficulty in bringing them intellectually and spiritually close to the Divine. Moses was apparently unwilling or incapable of convincing his people to conquer the Land; he had no patience for a people who had experienced so many miracles yet still refused to carry out God's will unconditionally. If as a result they were doomed to die in the desert, their leader had to share their punishment.
A story about the famous rabbi Yisrael Ba'al Shem Tov will explain this idea. The disciples of Rav Yisrael were very devoted to him, but on the morning of the Sabbath during the additional amida prayer, the great rabbi and founder of the Hassidic movement would take so long that his disciples lost patience and yearned for a little kiddush wine and cake. Since their holy teacher took almost an hour for this particular prayer, they decided one Shabbat to quietly leave the synagogue, go home for kiddush and return before the rabbi knew they had left. Imagine their astonishment when, only 10 minutes after the additional amida had begun, the Ba'al Shem Tov took three steps back and concluded his prayer. The Ba'al Shem Tov explained: "Every Shabbat morning I literally climb to the heights of Heaven during this particular prayer - but the rungs of the ladder are the souls of my disciples. This morning the ladder crashed to the ground, so I had no other recourse but to conclude my prayer much earlier..."
Every leader remains dependent on his people.
In the final analysis, why were these two petitions denied the greatest leader in Jewish history? Perhaps because the very source of Moses' greatness - his closeness to God - was also the source of his tragedy: he lacked the patience for family or congregants who were far below his level. Perhaps he was refused by God in order to teach us that no mortal, not even Moses, leaves this world without most of his desires remaining unfulfilled. And perhaps he was refused merely to teach us that no matter how worthy a prayer, sometimes the Almighty answers no, and we must accept.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.